Recently, I spoke with Nathalie Assens at Project Manager at ZVI Construction. ZVI Construction is a medium size, three-decade old, design-build construction company that does a lot of work with universities around Boston as well as  internationally.   Nathalie enrolled in both HeatSpring’s geothermal and solar training programs because their clients were interested in saving money on energy. Since then, ZVI has completed more geothermal projects, including the first geothermal project at Boston University.

According to Assens, ZVI Construction finds the university market interesting and attractive for energy efficiency upgrades because they own their buildings forever, giving them a long-term view (and appreciation) on how to reduce energy costs.  Over time, those long-term relationships begin to feel more like a partnership.  Rather than merely selling systems, ZVI also performs other construction and maintenance work.

Though Nathalie has already realized a huge potential for geothermal applications, she also sees the opportunity for solar.  She attended HeatSpring’s solar PV boot camp to understand how to integrate solar into their systems and better advise clients. Although it’s not obvious because the technologies are different, she found that there is a huge overlap between clients that “get” geothermal and those who are interested in solar.  The challenge is finding the right person and organization that “gets” that combining solar and geothermal is a no-brainer.

The challenge with universities is timing the energy upgrades with existing scheduling regarding capital expenditures and building upgrades. It’s much easier to install new systems when work is already in the queue.

Nathalie says that the main reason training is important when advising clients is to help them understand the technical risks.  Engineers are, by nature, risk adverse which results in over-specifying or over-sizing equipment.  The key for them is to understand the technologies well so they are comfortable with specifying and designing properly.

Takeaways from ZVI Construction

  • Existing construction firms with a long-track record, and those with whom ZVI has had strong, existing relationships, tend to have an easier time entering the energy efficiency market because their clients already trust them;
  • As geothermal and solar projects are getting larger, they’re also getting more complex from a design, installation and financing perspective.  Not surprisingly, strong customer relationships are becoming ever more important; and
  • University and public properties that have an extremely long view can be the low hanging fruit of upgrades with large capital outlays. However, they tend to only want to deal with one or a small number of firms for all of their maintenance, operations and building upgrade needs.

This article was originally written and published in the IREC Insider for August 2011