GEM Energy and its parent company, Rudolph Libbe Group, like to think of business as a way to strengthen relationships. Rudolph Libbe, a commercial and industrial construction company based in Toledo, Ohio, has been taking on large construction projects primarily in the Midwest since 1955. A half-century of dedication to good customer relations led the group into solar in 2007 when a few long-term customers requested help with solar projects.
“We didn’t really know at the time what we were getting ourselves into,” said GEM Energy’s director of solar Jason Slattery. “We really organically grew that business from our roots. That was a time when the economy was bad. Solar really offered a bright spot to the economy. When businesses weren’t doing a lot of new additions or new construction, solar offered another solution that we could take to an existing customer that was appealing to them and made good economic sense.”
GEM Energy has installed close to 50 MW of solar projects in the last 10 years, primarily in Ohio and the Midwest. The group is also exploring areas in the Northeast where solar incentives are more favorable.
“Ohio is our home state so we would love to do more business in Ohio,” Slattery said. “We’re looking for an exact look and feel for a customer. Solar doesn’t make sense for every application and every instance. We recognize that. We’re looking for higher energy rate pockets, which kind of leads us to that Northeast market.”
GEM Energy has a specific customer in mind, and often the company already has that lengthy relationship established.
“Because we’re so relationship-based here in our company DNA, we travel around a lot with core customers. We call them customers for life,” Slattery said. “We may do construction with a customer in one state and that same customer may take us to another state to build a solar array. Most of our business is negotiated because we have these repeat customers. 75% of our business is with our existing customer base. We’re not chasing RFPs; we’re trying to stay with people that know us and we know them.”
One repeat solar customer is Ohio Northern University. After completing a 2-MW project for ONU in early 2017, GEM Energy has started a second 1-MW project that is expected to be online in April 2018. The two projects for the university use some unique technology not often seen in Ohio.
“We’re building a second phase of Ohio Northern’s solar array in Ada, Ohio, using single-axis trackers,” Slattery said. “Two or three years ago, that wouldn’t have been cost effective to do. The price point has come down comparable to fixed racking right now. That’s a definite bright spot in the solar industry.”
Slattery explained that the Midwest market—and Ohio in particular—is tough for solar, both because of a low solar resource and low energy rates. But GEM Energy also sees opportunity.
“If you think about the DNA of the Midwest and Ohio, there is a lot of manufacturing here. It’s heavily industrialized,” he said. “We focus a little of our attention on taking heavy industrial areas that have been blighted through contamination or not being developed for years and sitting vacant.”
The Toledo Zoo recently worked with GEM Energy on a 2.1-MW project on a nearby brownfield that had once been an elevator manufacturing facility. And—surprise!—this was the second GEM-installed solar project for the zoo. The brownfield installation provides 30% of the Toledo Zoo’s energy needs.
“It was a good fit. You couldn’t build a traditional building on it,” Slattery said. “You’re using the property that was otherwise stranded for an ideal purpose. It’s now harvesting electricity for the Toledo Zoo.”
GEM Energy is looking into additional opportunities to strengthen the relationship with its customers. Coupling solar and storage in the Midwest is starting to pencil. And although Slattery wishes for stable energy policy in Ohio so GEM and its customers can better plan for the future, he said the company is ready to adapt and improve.
“For a business to stay strong and healthy and keep growing, we have to find better and different ways to do things,” he said. “Since our business is so diversified, we’re able to not force-feed a customer a certain solution. We’re delivering a solution that is best for the customer. As long as we can continue to provide value for the customer—it may not always be solar, it may be storage or a combination—that builds that relationship and keeps us healthy and the customers’ businesses healthy.”