It’s not news that the damage caused to the atmosphere and environment by traditional sources of energy overshadows the benefits. Thomas Neyhart says he’s on a mission to reverse that trend, by championing the benefits of renewable energy for everyone, irrespective of their background. Spreading this awareness starts with explaining the concept of renewable energy, or energy collected from renewable resources which are naturally replenished on a human timescale.
Thomas Neyhart’s company, PosiGen, focuses on solar energy and energy efficiency. PosiGen is an energy enterprise established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Just looking around, it seemed like all the affluent areas were back: homes rebuilt, elevated, with solar installed and energy efficiency,” says Neyhart. “When you went to low-income areas and communities of color people weren’t back. And the ones who were back were struggling.”
A part of the company’s mission is to debunk the idea of renewable energy as being only for the rich. PosiGen CEO Neyhart works to provide solar energy for all. In places like New Orleans East, a low-income census area in southeast Louisiana, PosiGen has installed 2,800 solar systems and done all the energy efficiency work that goes with it, says Neyhart. He adds, “Our average customer there saves $600 a year. So do the math. The community saves a little over $1.7 million, and that money doesn’t go to some stock portfolio or leave the community.”
Thomas Neyhart’s Alternatives to the Power Grid
When natural disasters damage power lines leaving thousands of people in the dark, what is plan B? In 2020, a $280 million gas-fired plant was completed in New Orleans East with the promise of providing power in case the grid failed. However, when Hurricane Ida wiped out power the following year, the new plant didn’t come online for days, says Thomas Neyhart. “If we spent one-quarter of that on micro-grids, on storage, on renewables that get powered by the sun, you would’ve seen those areas come back so much quicker,” he explains.
Neyhart believes efforts should be aimed at making renewable energy sources primary; because the reality is the power grid is not as reliable as one would’ve hoped. Power outages compel people to rely on other energy sources.
Overhead power lines are a significant part of power distribution in the United States and they don’t make the situation any better. In 2021, The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. energy infrastructure a C-, noting unreliability as one of the reasons for the low score. The solution to this problem, according to Thomas Neyhart, is a renewable source of energy that doesn’t compromise budget and the environment to keep the lights on.
When it comes to renewable energy, some options include:
Option No. 1 — Wind Energy
Wind energy is an alternative energy source that will, er, blow your socks off. The wind is a form of solar energy caused by the heating of the atmosphere, rotation of the Earth, and the Earth’s surface distortion. Wind turbines harness energy from the wind and convert it to consumable power. As long as the sun shines and the wind blows, we can harness wind energy to provide power for consumers, says the PosiGen CEO.
The wind supply in the United States is abundant. Over the past decade, U.S. wind power capacity has increased by 15% per year. making wind the largest renewable energy source in the U.S.
Some other benefits of using wind energy as a power source are:
— It’s a clean and renewable resource.
— Wind turbines can be built on existing farms and ranches.
— Wind power is cost-effective — land-based utility-scale wind is one of the lowest-priced energy sources available.
— Wind energy doesn’t generate waste or emit toxins.
Option No. 2 — Geothermal Energy
Geothermal energy is heat from the Earth. This form of energy is renewable because heat is produced inside the Earth. Thomas Neyhart explains that geothermal energy is sustainable because it’s generated from the slow decay of radioactive particles in the Earth’s core. The heat or steam inside the Earth is harnessed and used to generate electricity.
Wells, usually a mile deep or more, are dug into underground reservoirs to capture steam and hot water. The vapor drives turbines connected to electrical generators to provide geothermal-generated electricity.
Geothermal power plants come in three different designs: dry steam, flash, and binary. Of the three, Neyhart points out the future of geothermal power plants seems to be heading toward binary plants.
The United States has the world’s largest geothermal power plant that’s the world’s largest producer of geothermal energy. The Geysers geothermal complex in California has a capacity of around 900 megawatts and comprises 22 operational units spread over several kilometers. Neyhart reveals that despite the name, there are no geysers there, and the energy harnessed at the power plant is steam rather than hot water.
Option No. 3 — Hydroelectricity
Generating power from moving water is one of the oldest and most relied-upon sources of energy. In the United States, up until 2019 hydroelectricity was the largest annual source of renewable energy generation, says Thomas Neyhart.
The power of flowing water generates mechanical energy, which can be used to create a source of clean, renewable energy. The three types of hydroelectric plants are:
This type of plant houses a dam that stores river water in a reservoir. The water from the reservoir makes a turbine spin, turning mechanical energy into electric energy.
This type of facility operates similarly to a battery. Water is pumped from a reservoir at a lower level to a higher level and vice versa, depending on the energy demand.
Diversion plants are referred to as “run-of-river” facilities. This kind of hydropower uses the river’s natural path to produce energy.
Option No. 4 — Solar Energy
Solar energy furnishes consumers with a reliable energy source that reduces their carbon footprint. Thomas Neyhart points out that solar is indirectly related to some of the other energy sources mentioned above.
In terms of reliability, solar provides power outage protection through solar panel batteries. You can track your energy use and conservation efforts with this type of energy storage. Home solar systems can help during power outages and in the long run help homeowners gain more independence from the grid.
Thomas Neyhart on PosiGen’s Social and Economic Impact
PosiGen has empowered low-income communities socially and economically. According to an economist at Louisiana State University, a dollar saved in a low-income community gets spent there 3.9 times. This means in communities like New Orleans East, where PosiGen installed 2,800 solar systems, saving an average customer $600 annually, “a little over $1.7 million is being saved in that community,” says Neyhart. Based on the analysis of the economist, instead of a $1.7 million economic impact, PosiGen is having a $6 million annual economic impact in New Orleans East by keeping that cash in the community.
PosiGen creates jobs in the same locales where they offer their services. This has created a diverse team. “The more diverse you are, the more inclusive you are, ” says Neyhart. “The better your company is, the stronger your company is. The better the message that you’re delivering, the more people feel part of what you’re doing.” According to Neyhart, that’s what strengthens PosiGen more than anything else.
Over 65% of PosiGen’s team members are persons of color, female, or both. “You don’t see that in the solar industry,” says Neyhart. PosiGen is an excellent example of a company that impacts the environment and society.
It’s exciting to know that once people see the benefits of renewable energy, they want to be a part of the change, says Neyhart. The eagerness among those who know the benefits of renewable energy shows that once a person has a positive perception about renewable energy, they see a need to involve themselves in the change. “Once people accept our service, it’s interesting how involved they get,” says the PosiGen CEO. “I know some of our early customers are now members of climate change groups. They are actively out there, lobbying and trying to get the message across. And people ask us all the time how they can reduce their carbon footprint.”