Jigar Shah figured out a while ago that being green can save some serious green. Now the rest of America is catching on. He wrote the business plan for SunEdison, the country’s first and now largest solar energy services provider, in 1999 during an M.B.A. entrepreneurship class at the University of Maryland. Shah got an A, but his low-risk, stable-return idea of selling solar power like any traditional utility wasn’t sexy enough for investors in the high-risk, dot.com heyday. So Shah, 32, who has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, shelved the plan and took a job in mergers and acquisitions at Maryland’s BP Solar.
The dot.com bubble burst, and in 2003, armed with his original idea and a few folding tables in a Mount Vernon office, Shah and three colleagues founded SunEdison with Shah as CEO. The idea is simple: SunEdison installs and maintains solar power systems with no upfront costs for companies like Whole Foods and Staples, which then purchase the solar energy from SunEdison for a fixed rate over a period of 10-plus years. No rate increases, just the same price as sure as the sun rises and sets.
“Most people don’t want to get into the power generation business,” says Shah. “It costs $38,000 to $55,000 to put in a residential solar system and anywhere from $400,000 to $10 million for a commercial system. But once you install the system, the sun is free.”
SunEdison recently moved its headquarters from Baltimore to larger digs in Beltsville to bring its 150 employees under one (soon-to-be-solar-paneled) roof. But so far, the company has no Maryland clients. “When we started, there weren’t any incentives for Maryland businesses to deploy solar technology,” Shah says.
“Now Gov. O’Malley has clean energy and solar energy on his agenda.” With rate increases for traditional energy sources set to scorch in 2008, SunEdison is looking brighter than ever. “Energy price problems are business solutions,” Shah explains. “Most businesses [who use solar power] started because they wanted to be green. Now it’s because they want to save money.” —Sarah Achenbach
The grass on John Campagna’s side has always been a brighter shade of green than most. As the current president of Baltimore Green Week and a financial adviser specializing in green investment opportunities, Campagna is downright dutiful about living green.
While volunteering as an exhibitor during the first annual Baltimore Green Week in 2004, Campagna, 46, got hooked. Board members couldn’t help but notice his enthusiasm and Campagna was soon voted BGW president.
The volunteer-driven, weeklong celebration of “all things green” includes informative events about the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle, including green building, climate change and public health seminars. Its family-friendly EcoFestival, held in Druid Hill Park, offers food, music, environmental speakers, an eco-friendly farmers’ market, guided nature walks and an environmental arts competition.
“What we’re trying to do is let the general public know of what is going on in their city,” says Campagna. “Each year we pick a different overall theme. This year is how living green helps with public health, so we’ll deal with asthma issues, lead paint and other toxins in the environment.”
Campagna has always been an outdoory type. An avid hiker and equestrian, he once ran an organic farm in California. As for the here and now, Campagna makes his home in Mount Washington— within walking distance of the Light Rail station— and encourages other members of the community to take part in the greener things in life.
“I don’t really consider myself an activist,” Campagna says. “I’m really just about trying to live green.”
And helping others live a little greener, too. —Brittany Bauhaus
Baltimore Green Week runs from May 5 to May 11. EcoFestival will be held Saturday, May 5.
(Rain date, May 6). http://www.baltimoregreenweek.org.
The sign for Bluehouse, Baltimore’s green retailer/ café combo, is relatively small and easy to miss.
But take one step inside the ivy-clad warehouse entrance and the store seems to stretch for acres. With 5,500 square feet of pure green retail space, Bluehouse offers ample room for eco-friendly shopping and sipping all-natural coffees, teas and juices while partaking in a deliciously organic brownie … or two.
David Buscher, 35, opened Bluehouse in late 2005 and has since been embraced by the surrounding community for his innovative take on the “green scene.” Bluehouse stocks everything for the style-savvy environmentalist, from bamboo towels and cutting boards to soy candles and recycled barn wood furniture.
A former corporate graphic designer in New York City, Buscher left the Big Apple with an idea for a new kind of business. “I think people’s surroundings affect their moods and minds and health. I started doing research into interiors and environments and found out how unhealthy our society’s practices are,” he says.
“For example, paint.
It’s basically a hazardous chemical. The garbage truck won’t even pick it up because it’s classified as hazardous waste, yet we spread it all over the inside of our houses.”
So he bought himself a Toyota Prius and set up shop in Harbor East.
From the non-toxic paint (made from milk proteins) spread across the warehouse walls to the recycled glass tiles fixed atop the café’s countertops, Bluehouse couldn’t be more conscious of the environment if the Environmental Protection Agency inspected it on a daily basis. “My goal is to be a good example for others,” says Buscher, a Howard County native. “I aim to be environmentally conscious every step of the way.”
Despite his initial success at Bluehouse, Buscher realizes that some folks feel that such an alternative lifestyle may seem a bit “obscure.” People view the idea of green living as “depriving themselves of something,” Buscher says. “But I think [Bluehouse] gives people an alternative. It shows people they can make healthy choices and don’t have to miss out on anything they really want.” —Brittany Bauhaus
Bluehouse, 1407 Fleet St., 410-276-1180, http://www.bluehouselife.com
One Straw Farm
If Joan and Drew Norman had their way every neighborhood would have its own farmers and consumers would only purchase locally grown food in season. “Your food should not travel thousands of miles to your dinner table,” says Joan, a recognizable face at the 32nd Street Farmers Market for the past 17 years. “The closer you are to the food, the closer your money is to your pocket.”
It’s a philosophy the Normans have embraced since Drew started One Straw Farm in 1985. Today, the couple’s 175-acre spread is the largest organic farm in Maryland and their produce is available at area grocery stores, farmers’ markets, Remington’s Mill Valley Garden Center and is served at restaurants across the region.
When One Straw Farm began, the state didn’t have an official organic certification program and the organics movement was just in its infancy in Maryland, but Drew was “just doing what he felt was right,” says Joan. Nothing grown at One Straw Farm involves the use of chemicals or pesticides. Toxins are not left behind in the soil, making for a healthier farm, farmer and consumer, says Joan. Even One Straw Farm’s tractors, which operate on biodiesel fuels made from waste vegetable oil, promote green living.
Aside from harvesting organic crops for local retailers and restaurants, the Normans operate the largest Community Supported Agriculture program in the state. Once a week, between the beginning of June and mid-November, One Straw Farm delivers fresh produce— everything from beets to watermelons to Swiss chard— to more than 10 drop-sites in the Baltimore region. Last season, the Normans fed more than 400 families, a number Joan says they hope to grow to more than 2,000 in the not-too-distant future.
“A chain is a lot stronger than a rope,” says Joan of the importance of building bonds between a community and its farmers. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the commitment to each other.” —Brittany Bauhaus
One Straw Farm, 410-343-1828, http://www.onestrawfarm.com
Founder and president,Biohabitats
Corporate visionaries typically have no problem seeing the forest for the trees. When Keith Bowers, 47, founder and president of Biohabitats Inc., walks in the forest, he sees much more than that. The ripples on the surface of a stream. How that streambed meanders and bends through the woods. All are clues, he says, to where that natural environment has been, its relationship with development, and what it can be.
Studying the past and present of the environment and charting a course for a healthier future is the business of Biohabitats, the company he founded in 1984.
His first company— a landscape architecture business created two years earlier when the Towson native received his landscape architecture degree from West Virginia University— shifted its focus to conservation when federal and state governments began to pass environmental regulations. “The regulations broke new business,” Bowers says of his company that has remained headquartered in Baltimore. “Now we could really begin to specialize in conservation planning and ecological restoration.”
Today, he and the 40-member Biohabitats team, including ecologists, biologists, geomorphologists (scientists who study how landscapes change over time), civil engineers, landscape architects and environmental planners, work with public and private clients to restore, preserve and conserve natural habitats around Maryland and the country. State projects range from a watershed management plan for the Little Gunpowder Falls to dune restoration and beach grass re-vegetation in Ocean City and Assateague by Biohabitats’ sister company, Ecological Restoration and Management Inc.
Biohabitats has offices in what Bowers dubs “bioregions”— the Chesapeake/Delaware Bay, Ohio River, Great Lakes, Southern Rocky Mountains and Southeast— to better serve communities and critical ecological areas. It’s a business model that just might go a long way toward saving the planet.
“Being actively involved in restoring the natural environment gives me hope that we can live on the planet in such a way that we’re not degrading these resources but regenerating them,” he says. —Sarah Achenbach
Executive director,Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance
Keith Losoya knows he’s a little unconventional. This past fall, he ran (and lost) for state Senate as a Green Republican against incumbent George Della. “I’m an enigma,” he says. “People think that you can’t be a Republican and be green, but that’s like saying all liberals can’t be good business people. Of course they can.”
Then there are his unusual holiday shopping habits. This past December, he checked off his list— jewelry for his wife, toys for his toddler son and other gifts— without once stepping inside a big-box store. Honest. As the part-time executive director of the 3-year-old Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance, Losoya, 39, was only practicing what the CSBA preaches: whenever possible, buy from small local merchants.
“Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods with a business district running through it,” he says of the CSBA’s Buy Local Baltimore campaign launched last November.
“In the past 20 years, big-box companies have sprung up and these districts have deteriorated.” CSBA— one of 50 recognized Business Alliance for Local Living Economies in the United States and Canada— advocates the importance of supporting small businesses to strengthen Baltimore’s neighborhoods, economy and environment. “If you spend $100 at a big-box store, $14 comes back to the community,” explains Losoya, a Dallas native who moved to Baltimore a decade ago. “If you shop at a small, local business, $45 goes back to the community. Plus, fossil fuel is consumed when you hop in your car to go to the big store, which deals with global logistics— planes, trains and freight— so more fossil fuels. That’s not the case with small businesses.”
CSBA and the Buy Local member businesses (identified with a decal and on http://www.buylocalbaltimore.com) don’t expect a shopping revolt against the national chains. “We just want people to think before they shop,” says Losoya, who owns small businesses himself: a software development company and a wireless solutions company. “Every day, more and more people understand sustainability and what it can mean to their lifestyle and city.”
This spring, CSBA kicks off its Buy Fresh-Buy Local campaign to connect people to local growers and Baltimore’s neighborhood markets. CSBA also supports the non-profit Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative and is working to bring the Recycle Bank, a recycling bin bar code that translates how much households recycle by weight into coupons to spend at area retailers, to Baltimore— all programs that Losoya hopes won’t seem unusual at all in the years to come. —Sarah Achenbach