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Backing Our Green Future: A Capital Idea

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Greenbacker Chief Operating Officer Matt Murphy, in the conference room at the New York-based company’s satellite office on Main Street in Montpelier. The gleaming conference table is made from repurposed solar panels, as are all the desks in the suite of offices that opened in 2019. Photo by Will Lindner.

Talk about your slow starts. The only thing “new” about renewable energy is its sudden emergence as a port in the storm, to rescue civilization from the destruction caused by climate change. These means have been available for a while, if we’d only looked there instead of to fossil fuels. New Yorker Charles Fritz created a solar cell that converted sunlight to energy in 1883, and mounted solar panels on his rooftop the following year. In Scotland, James Blythe built a wind turbine to light his cottage in 1887.

Now, some 135 years later — and, we hope, just in time — renewable energy is a dynamic growth industry. Fortuitously, one of the characteristics of growth industries such as renewable resources is that they require employees. Since Matt Murphy arrived in Montpelier from Massachusetts in 2016 to establish a Vermont branch for Greenbacker Capital, its staff has increased to 13. Post-pandemic, he envisions perhaps expanding the total to 20 people.

Vermont is a good fit for Greenbacker Capital, in Murphy’s opinion. Despite the wealth-management ring to its corporate title, the company provides lots of jobs for operations workers with technical and digital skills. Murphy, who had lived in Vermont and helped Peck Electric of South Burlington found its solar division before moving to Massachusetts in 2011, considers this state fertile ground for professionals in renewable energy technologies. They are drawn to nature, he says, and quotes a saying that “if you want to find operations people [for those industries], you’ll find them at the bottom of a mountain.”

But they, like he did when he was here earlier and lived in Waterbury Center, want to be reasonably well-paid for their skills and experience — all the more so considering the increasingly critical nature of the work they perform. At the time, though, that wasn’t happening. “It’s the age-old Vermont story of ‘You can’t make good money here,’” says Murphy, 39. 

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Otherwise, though, he and his wife, whom he met in Vermont, were hooked on the lifestyle they found here. “The day we left we were already thinking about, ‘How can we settle down in Vermont for the rest of our lives?’”

His ticket back was Greenbacker Capital, a company founded by veteran investment professionals in New York City in 2011, with satellite offices in Portland, Maine, and Denver, Colorado. In Massachusetts, Murphy worked for Borrego Solar in its operations and maintenance department. That job increased his exposure in the renewables industry, and in 2016 Greenbacker hired him to be a vice president for engineering and technical-asset management. The company has assets — installations — in 29 states, so working remotely was part of the plan.

“The deal with Greenbacker was I get to live where I want,” says Murphy.

Plus, he was certain he could tap into the skillsets he had found to be abundant among people who were still here and others who had left.

“I knew I was going to be able to bring some of those people back,” he says, “with good wages and good jobs. That has been a goal of mine.”

Murphy and his wife, who have two sons and an Australian cattle dog named Waffles, bought a house in Montpelier, where he established a home office. In 2019, however, when an acquaintance purchased a building on Main Street and renovated the first floor to house Rabble-Rouser Chocolate and Craft Co., he created a spacious second-floor suite for Greenbacker Capital. Thoroughly modern, in the 21st-century-workspace style, with lots of natural light and a kitchen with an upscale pingpong table, it also contains a half-dozen private offices and a conference room with equipment for linking in distant conferees by video.

The most striking feature, though, is a large operations room with a dozen or so raisable desks, the surfaces of which are made of repurposed solar panels. (The desks elsewhere are also of this design.) Right now, because of the pandemic, the office very often is empty, and no more than two employees are permitted to be there at a time. But when the place is jumping, Murphy says, the operations room serves as a monitoring station, with some 10,000 sets of data entering each hour from the company’s assets spread throughout the region.

As for his stated goal of luring young professionals to, or back to, Vermont, that’s happening. One of his early hires was a former Vermonter returning from Sweden; another came back from Texas; a first-time Vermonter moved here from Colorado. And Murphy was promoted to COO.

Greenbacker, as its name indicates, aggregates investments, whether from individuals, brokers, or investment firms, to finance renewable energy projects. Its website stresses its cautious risk-management philosophy: 

  • investing, for the most part, in projects that are already in operation or far along in development, in order to avoid costly surprises;
  • citing the comparative certainty of its energy sources — the sun and wind — compared with the gambles inherent in extracting, shipping, and refining fossil fuels; 
  • mentioning growth, pointing out that the costs of renewable-energy technologies have dropped significantly and are increasingly competitive with non-renewable power; 
  • noting that electricity sales for its installations are fully guaranteed through long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) with such customers as municipal electric departments.

Yet Greenbacker Capital is a multi-faceted organization. Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company, LLC, is the division chiefly involved in development, ownership, and management of individual projects. It’s an entity, Murphy says, with some of the most extensive holdings in Vermont.

“We own 10 megawatts (MW) of wind, and 50-plus MW of solar somewhere between construction and operation,” he says.

Greenbacker Renewable Energy purchased Georgia Mountain Community Wind from developer David Blittersdorf, of AllEarth Renewables, for $25.1 million in 2017. (The modest four-turbine facility, built by a dairy farmer in 2011, originally sported the provocative title, “Dairy Air Wind.”) 

Greenbacker’s solar facilities are scattered throughout the state. In 2015, according to Business Wire (businesswire.com), it purchased rights to expand existing solar projects in Proctor and Hartford. And in December 2019, Business Wire reported that Greenbacker had purchased a 14-project, 27.7-MWdc (direct current) Vermont solar portfolio from frequent partner Encore Renewable.

A notable feature of that transaction was that the companies agreed to plant pollinator-friendly ground cover within the developments. It serves multiple purposes: easier vegetation management, a cooling effect that protects the panels from excess heat reflected from the ground, and habitat for population-threatened bees and other pollinators.

In another instance of pairing environmental benefits, last July in southern Vermont, Greenbacker purchased a 5.73-MW solar array from Sky Solar. Location (“location, location, location,” as the saying goes) is the key to making vast solar arrays palatable to a public that sometimes laments their usage of large tracts of open land. This one straddles 25 acres of capped and closed landfill formerly used by the Windham Solid Waste Management District — a so-called “brownfield” that would otherwise serve no valuable purpose. It is reportedly the state’s largest net-metering project, enabling power customers to lease shares of the array and thereby receive discounts on their electric bills. According to the Brattleboro Reformer, “In addition to cost savings, in 2019, the site saved 4,799 metric tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to 1,037 passenger vehicles driven for one year.”

Murphy acknowledges that having a satellite office in the state capital could present opportunities to lobby for political reforms helpful to the industry. And although he believes Vermont could improve its stance toward renewable energy, “Our company is pretty heads-down right now. We’re expanding year after year.” Besides wind and solar, new opportunities could emerge as technologies such as battery storage expand in Vermont. (Greenbacker is particularly active in this field in California.) 

Meanwhile, there’s this yawning space above Rabble-Rouser Chocolates on Main Street — a hive that, like those pollinator-friendly solar fields, is waiting to be repopulated by engineers, technicians, project managers, IT specialists, accountants, and a certain COO, all busy as bees in the growth industry of saving the planet.


Why Renewables? Greenbacker Explains

In 2020, according to a graph titled “US Energy Consumption by Source,” published on “greenbackercapital.com,” renewable resources provided about 13 percent of the electricity we consumed in the United States.

Not much, but an improvement. The graph goes back to 1970, and it wasn’t until about 2005 that renewables even showed up. There’s a pale green line across the top of the graph representing an amorphous category of “other,” accounting for about 2 percent of the total; below it swarm big, fat spaces — in black (oil), blue (hydro), and shades of gray (gas, oil, and nuclear) — that show where our real, consequential power was coming from. Renewables, in green (for wind), begin to show up just before 2010, and soon after solar (in yellow) makes an entry. 

But it’s what comes next — the projections — that really matters. From now through 2030, then 2040, and finally 2050 (when the graph ends), the gray line for oil shrivels and practically disappears; big, black coal, stretched along the bottom, plummets to about 10 percent; and wind and solar (fairly evenly split) approach 50 percent. Add in hydro — which Greenbacker does — and that still-small sliver of “other,” and the category of “renewables” becomes dominant at 64 percent.

The point? Renewable energy is a growth industry. 

Which is a good thing, because it has to be. As Greenbacker Capital explains on its homepage, “The risk of extreme weather and the need to reduce our carbon footprint are not the stuff of some distant future — they are realities today… (I)individual investors have the power to make a difference by directing their capital into socially responsible investments with a focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals.”