Mark Bauer is energized by the growing alternatives
Mark Bauer isn’t a typical American. For one thing, he likes Mondays. And he doesn't think anyone is entitled to all the cheap electricity they want.
Bauer founded Bauer Power in Wayland five years ago, now a thriving West Michigan business that sells and installs solar and wind energy equipment for homes, businesses and organizations.
"I don't look forward to Fridays. I look forward to Mondays," said Bauer. Sometimes, he said, he sits around on the weekends pining for the start of the work week so he can indulge in his passion.
"My passion is to help people — everyday Americans — understand our use of energy and how high it is and how stupid we are with it, and that we can make our own energy," said Bauer.
His business was headquartered in Wayland, but a few weeks ago Bauer Power moved into a new location a few miles south, just off the Martin exit on U.S. 131. He said he needed the room to expand, and at the new site he can install working displays of solar and wind energy, which wasn't practical at the prior location in downtown Wayland.
From the original one-man shop with one sale, Bauer Power has grown to 15 employees, including an electrical engineer, two electricians and technicians with a combined total of 42 years in the installation of renewable energy equipment.
Bauer Power has two locations now, the other being in Peoria, Ill. Bauer won't reveal his sales in 2008 but apparently it was a healthy number despite the onset of the recession, because he will soon open a third location in St. Louis, Mo.
Currently, about 60 percent of Bauer Power sales are to homeowners; the rest are to businesses or organizations. The commercial side of his business is growing more rapidly, though.
"Homeowners did it in the beginning because of a desire to make clean energy," he said, and because some people just don't want to have to rely on the utility companies.
"Now businesses look at it as a way to hedge future energy costs, and the government has huge incentives for them to do it," said Bauer.
Businesses can get back 30 percent of the cost for a wind or solar energy system, he said, or in some cases receive a grant that pays for it.
The economy has slowed his business down, said Bauer, but he adds that there is so much interest in renewable energy "that we're able to keep things going. There's just a lot of demand for the products out there."
About 90 percent of sales at Bauer Power are solar panels, either for generating electricity (photovoltaic) or heating water for homes or swimming pools. Bauer also sells and installs the quiet and vibration-free Swift roof-mountable wind turbines assembled by Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids.
Is solar energy really viable in Michigan?
"If, in fact, solar doesn't work (in Michigan), then I've sold people a lot of systems that supposedly haven't been working for years and years. I think if you came to take one of those systems down and told them that solar doesn't work in Michigan, you would have an argument on your hands. Because we have people in this state right now that are spinning their meters backward every day. It works."
Solar is more suited to an urban environment than wind turbines, according to Bauer. Wind flowing around and over buildings is turbulent and wine turbines don't work well in turbulence, so they have to be mounted above it. There also are other issues in an urban setting that are closely regulated by local zoning ordinances, such as safe fall zones for towers, aesthetics, etc.
"We encourage people to look at both technologies, but listen to our recommendations from years of experience and knowing what will work and what won't work for the customer," said Bauer.
Bauer said his education is as much from the School of Hard Knocks as from the two universities he has attended. He has yet to earn a degree.
A native of Minneapolis, Bauer enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1978 when he was 18. In boot camp, a psychological profile and test scores led to his being selected for the elite Marine Corps unit that guards Camp David, the U.S. president's retreat in Maryland. There he met President Jimmy Carter several times, he said.
After the Marines, he attended the University of Maryland, studying geographic information systems, or GIS, which integrates hardware, software and data to produce computer-generated maps. While a student, he landed a job at an art gallery, where he learned how to frame art. That soon led to his first business: working as an independent rep selling fine art to designers, decorators and art galleries in a five-state region around Colorado. About five years later, Bauer returned to Maryland, where his father lives, and became a partner in a business supplying medical and physical therapy supplies.
Eventually, he was lured to Michigan by his girlfriend, who was a native. Bauer said that Chris — who is now his wife — said it was the best state in the country — “even better than Minnesota, and I believed her. I came and I've loved it ever since."
In West Michigan, Bauer started a small company doing light construction for homeowners and small businesses. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bauer said he did a lot of self-evaluation "about where I was as a person and what I had accomplished in life." He was looking for a change, which came when he took a class on implementing solar energy, offered by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association.
"It really intrigued me how we can make our own energy. And I thought, maybe some of the construction projects I was on, they could do that too. I quickly learned, though, that most of the builders and the construction companies had no interest in solar energy," he said.
Bauer became so passionate about renewable energy that he abandoned the construction business and started working for his GLREA instructor as an apprentice. On the side, he launched Bauer Power. By 2006, the business had grown to the point where he had to incorporate.
Today, Bauer is very active with GLREA, a nonprofit organization, and is now its volunteer solar energy instructor.
A Bauer Power employee, master electrician John Koncsol, was interviewed a few weeks ago in a "Planet Green" segment on the Discovery Channel. The report was part of a continuing series on the "green" rebuilding of Greensburg, Kan., which was hit by a devastating tornado two years ago that destroyed the town. Bauer Power donated and installed a $25,000, two kilowatt photovoltaic system that will provide power for the first home to be completed by Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit community organization working to incorporate sustainable principles in the rebuilding of the city.
The Bush administration extended and expanded tax credits for businesses and individuals that invest in renewable energy devices, which is a stimulus for businesses like Bauer Power. A second major impetus was the enactment in Michigan last October of a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, requiring that by 2015 at least 10 percent of the state's electrical supply must come from renewable sources such as wind or solar. Both major utilities are now studying potential incentives that would lead to privately installed solar panels tied to the grid, which would help make up that RPS requirement.
"People still think wind and solar don't work in this state, and that is mostly perpetuated by people who don't want to change what we do in this state — which is burn fossil fuels," said Bauer.
"Right now, we're still not paying a lot for electricity," said Bauer. "We have no reason to be efficient in this country. We are being fed energy at the five dollar electron buffet — as much as we want — and those days are over. Our country was built on cheap fossil fuel energy, which has continued to the detriment of our planet."
"We need to design energy systems that aren’t just centered around how we can mine coal, burn it, disregard the emissions that come from it, and make money on it today," said Bauer. "That’s not a sustainable practice."
There are two energy solutions that Americans need to embrace, according to Bauer: Make efficiency improvements at home and at work that require less energy, and find ways to generate our own electricity rather than relying completely on the utility companies.
One of Bauer's favorite questions is: "What can you make in your backyard or on your roof?"
Then he provides the answer: "electrons."