Tiger Fuel makes unexpected bet on solar power
In most countries, climate activists tracking down companies willing to use solar power would likely not put a company called Tiger Fuel high on their list.
But that’s a different story in Charlottesville.
Gordon Sutton, president of the family-owned petroleum trader, isn’t just turning to solar power by adding roofing panels to Tiger Fuel’s chain of convenience stores and gas stations. He’s also growing solar by buying Altenergy, the Charlottesville-based developer who designed and installed these arrays.
“The fossil fuel landscape is changing,” Sutton said in an interview. “In the further course, I see this as an opportunity to strengthen our company and create new jobs.
“When people trust that we are supplying the energy of the past, I hope they will do the same as we are supplying the energy of the future now.”
The anything but typical acquisition was announced on Wednesday along with the launch of the ambitious Green Business Alliance by the Community Climate Collaborative.
Charlottesville-based C3 recruited Tiger Fuel and 15 other high-profile companies who are committed to reducing their emissions of heat scavenger gases by 45% over the next five years. Each participant starts with a different baseline.
Democratic governor Ralph Northam was to attend the alliance founding ceremony on the Charlottesville campus of Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, the largest in size and carbon footprint of the 16-strong collective. All of them have roots in central Virginia.
The brave undertaking is not a good or bad feel-good campaign for a grassroots group. C3 first reached out to executives 18 months ago and only selected those with serious intent. The prerequisite for membership in an alliance was that C3 analysts had been able to sift through invoices for utility and transportation fleets over a period of three years to determine where and how energy savings could be maximized. The non-profit organization became the de facto chief advisor on sustainability.
“We calculate because what is measured is done,” said Susan Kruse, Executive Director of C3, in an interview prior to the official rollout. “We all have obstacles. Our question is how can we overcome it. ”
The alliance also includes for-profit companies such as Carter Myers Automotive, Indoor Biotechnologies, Rotlichtmanagement, WillowTree, Harvest Moon Catering, quantitative investment management and the accounting firm Hantzmon Wiebel; Clean Energy Developers Apex Clean Energy, Sigora Solar, and Sun Tribe Solar; and nonprofits The Center, Legal Aid Justice Center, and the CFA Institute.
C3 was determined to develop a program for smaller businesses as those with up to 500 employees form the backbone of the Virginia workforce. They play a critical role if Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County are to reduce planet warming emissions by 45% by 2030 (compared to 2011).
“This is not just marketing,” said Kruse. “These people are leaders and have good reputations in the community. They didn’t mean to say that they would be able to do something about the climate and then not do it. You are accountable and take these commitments seriously. “
What moved the governor to come out in person is the likelihood that Charlottesville leaders who advocate climate commitments could induce their peers to duplicate the model nationwide.
“It’s definitely a collaboration,” said Kruse. “We didn’t give them any marching orders.”
She is aware that many communities are affected by climate protection measures because well-intentioned and well-researched commitments never turn into feasible plans.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC, documented this shortcoming in an October “Commitments and Progress” report. Their analysis of 2017 data found that of the 100 most populous U.S. cities, only 45 had greenhouse gas reduction goals and baseline inventories in place. Charlottesville is too small to be included in this study.
In order to keep the participants up to date on the goals, C3 publishes individual reports for each company and updates them annually.
“We want to build relationships and trust,” said Kruse, adding that companies don’t share their energy bills with a climate organization every day. “We are honored that you allow us to help.”
“It’s time – let’s do it”
Gordon Sutton admits rummaging through bank boxes in a warehouse to uncover stacks of utility bills requested by C3 was a chore.
“But I didn’t want to let you down because I believe in what you do,” he said of Kruse and her colleagues. “I hope that Allianz will show other managing directors that they can do it too, if we can.”
The 42-year-old is sometimes amazed at how Tiger Fuel has evolved since his father lawyer, David, convinced a customer to buy a “rinky dink” oil dispenser four decades ago. As teenagers, Gordon and his younger brother Taylor pumped gas, checked oil, and cleaned windshields as the company expanded beyond gas stations and the delivery of fuel.
Both brothers suspected those days were in their rear-view mirrors after graduating from the University of Virginia and heading west to find more academics, a range of jobs, and immersion in the wilderness of Wyoming and Colorado.
Gordon was back in Charlottesville by 2009, working in the same fuel business that his father was turning into a family business in Sutton. Taylor followed two years later. You immersed yourself in its intricacies. When David retired in 2017, Gordon became President and Taylor Chief Operations Officer.
Today Tiger Fuel sells heating oil and propane gas and the brothers oversee a network of gas stations, car washes and convenience stores.
Perhaps it’s not too shocking that Gordon, a major in history who also holds a Masters of Business Administration, and Taylor, a major in environmental science, started talking to solar specialists about five years ago. They thought arrays would be a good fit if the price of panels and federal tax credits were adjusted to suit their finances.
The investment made sense until 2018.
“It’s time – let’s do it,” said Gordon Sutton of the 17.5 kilowatts of Altenergy that were installed on top of a shop and two canopies protecting the gas pumps at the end of the year. “Solar is well received by our customers and is a smart way to differentiate ourselves.”
That initial transaction, however, was just the tip of the proverbial panel. The Sutton brothers, who wanted to diversify, studied solar intensively. Gordon admits he was a little surprised in 2018 when Altenergy was receptive to his questions about starting a partnership.
Fast forward to March 2020. Just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to dominate everyone, Altenergy and Tiger Fuel signed a takeover agreement.
“COVID could have killed the deal very easily,” Sutton said. “It was scary and kind of a miracle that everyone kept cool heads.”
Tiger Fuel acquires Altenergy’s Charlottesville presence and five Staunton, Virginia offices; Idaho; Michigan; and Maryland / Washington, DC, means the Suttons will add 50 solar employees to their 300 employees. Altenergy was founded in 2004 and has completed more than 1,700 solar projects with a total output of at least 42 megawatts.
Another 500 kilowatts will soon be decorating a mix of car washes, canopies, shops, and a mass installation. Tiger Fuel would provide 100% coverage, but not all canopies can hold the cargo, and the company doesn’t own the properties in all 11 stores.
Hospital with renewable options
The Biden government is setting high climate targets, and Virginia has surprised many longtime observers with their efforts to curb emissions in the transportation and energy sectors with Clean Cars Virginia and the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
A separate General Assembly bill that Northam incorporated into law changes the name of the Commonwealth Energy Policy to the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy. That may seem insignificant, but Senator Barbara Favola’s move only strengthens the successful legislation she worked through last year that modernized a policy with too many competing arms and legs.
The 2020 version of the Arlington Democrat set clear targets for Virginia to achieve net-zero macroeconomic emissions in electricity, transportation, industry, agriculture, buildings and infrastructure by 2045.
The state ministry for environmental quality is also responsible for compiling a comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, which is updated every four years. The State Air Pollution Control Board is responsible for oversight.
Catherine Hughes, Executive Director of Support Services at Charlottesville Hospital, is pleased that her nonprofit employer has joined C3. However, she’s not sure how Sentara can beat energy savings a decade ago when it replaced its 1903 building with a LEED-certified structure covering 600,000 square feet, which is a model of efficiency.
“We doubled our space but kept our energy consumption the same,” said Hughes. “We feel good about what we’ve done and we’re ready to take another big step.”
LED lighting in the parking lot is a likely next step, but that alone won’t significantly detract from the Green Business Alliance’s goal. The hospital’s emissions base is in 2011 when it moved to its new building.
“We are the 800-pound elephant,” said Hughes of the hospital, a “mini-town” with 176 beds and around 1,800 employees. Switching to solar or wind power is likely “the next big bite”.
She is grateful that C3 is investigating virtual power purchase agreements and other solutions that Alliance members may be able to work with.
“We are in the health sector and have a long history of caring,” said Hughes. “But one of my questions is, ‘When is the right time to jump into the sunlight?'”
Sutton made that decision three years ago. Although he expects Tiger Fuel to run traditional gas stations for the foreseeable future, he and his brother are also doing their homework to equip their stores with chargers for electric vehicles.
“When people see we’re taking these big steps with solar it will get a lot of attention,” he said, adding that customers can use in-store monitors to see performance go up or down. “People can see this data while waiting in line for coffee or a cookie.”
While promoting the guaranteed return on investment and the constant price of electricity, Sutton has no hesitation in welcoming solar as a symbol of the passion he and Taylor have for the outdoors.
“We are sincerely committed to doing good for the environment and we have 350 people who are very important to us,” said Sutton. “You can do this because you want to hug trees – and also because it gives you a solid financial position.”