Video Report - Kingsport company offers eco-friendly energy solutions

Rick Wagner • Jun 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

From left to right: Executive Vice President and Founder Marvin D. Sylvia, Director of Sales Dwayne B. Powell, President and Founder Spencer L. Cross, and CEO and Founder Michael R. Reynolds stand with a solar panel in front of an office complex that uses elements of Eco-Populace. Erica Yoon photo.


KINGSPORT — Imagine your home or business with high-efficiency lighting, appliances, hot water, and heating and cooling provided with alternative energy sources off the electric grid.

And each work day you’d travel in an electric car recharged by alternative energy — as long as you keep your round-trip commute about 50 miles or can recharge in mid-day.

Kingsport-based Eco-Populace wants to make such use of solar, wind and water-generated electricity, solar-heated water and other alternative energy projects commonplace.

And in six to 12 months, the company plans to make available a kit to convert petroleum-powered vehicles to electric power and offer the services of mechanics to install them. With increasing fuel and electric prices a normal part of the daily news and national consciousness, the four Kingsport men directly involved with the new business focused on energy efficiencies and alternative energy hope now is the time for their venture — and its underlying green message — to succeed.

Aside from residential customers, the business can serve commercial and governmental clients with new or existing construction.

An ‘eco’ vision

Michael Reynolds, Marvin Sylvia and Spencer Cross founded Eco-Populace in March 2008 and hired Dwayne Powell as director of sales.

Reynolds tried a similar concept a few years ago but it never really got off the ground.

“The timing wasn’t right, and I really didn’t move it forward,” Reynolds said.

However, with gasoline and electricity prices going up, Reynolds thought his old idea had new merit and he approached Sylvia, who he’d known for about one and a half years. Sylvia introduced Reynolds to Cross and they brought in Powell.

The reasons included practical concerns about the availability and price of energy, as well as people wanting to lessen dependence on overseas petroleum.

“We just kind of decided collectively, based on everything that’s going on out there, that now was a good time to do this,” Cross said. “We went from nobody knows about green energy to everybody saying, ‘What do we do now?’ ”

Since articles about the business appeared last month in print and in the online editions of the Kingsport Times-News and Johnson City Press, the phone and e-mail at Eco-Populace headquarters, 222 E. Center St., Suite 200, have seen frequent use.

Powell said when he goes out on an appointment for a residential job, three or four families with other homes will be there out of curiosity or to schedule their own home assessments.

While there, the home or business owners may meet people with varied backgrounds, including:

• Cross, 30, a president and co-founder. He is a former banker who worked for Bank of Tennessee and Wells Fargo for a decade. He is a Philadelphia native.

• Reynolds, 31, chief executive officer and co-founder. He has a background in public relations and advertising. The Missouri native moved to the Tri-Cities area two years ago.

• Sylvia, 40, executive vice president and co-founder. He has worked and continues to work for Brown Exterminating for seven years and is a Maryville native.

• And Powell, 42, the director of sales. He has been a real estate agent for 16 years and operated a real estate certification school. The North Carolina native works for Blue Ridge Properties.

Eco branding energy

The business markets Eco-Cell, its own brand of solar panel it has commissioned from a solar panel manufacturer. Eco-Populace officials said solar cells have come a long way in the past few years.

One option, especially for new homes or extensive renovations of existing ones, is to have DC power generation that can power DC appliances. DC doesn’t require as much solar panel space as AC, but it can’t be transmitted efficiently in long distances like AC, which uses pulses of power to create a frequency that allows transmission across long distances.

However, Cross said that lights pretty much are all AC, and the business pushes the use of compact fluorescent bulbs like the ones with its brand to be given away at the Eco-Populace “green” seminar, scheduled for 10 a.m. July 17 at the Renaissance Center, during the Senior Fest event of Fun Fest.

Art Krebs, owner of the Afton, Tenn.-based Construction Art, is the company’s general contractor. Licensed in 24 states, the other Eco-Populace officials said Krebs and his expertise and connections in the building industry will allow the company to expand nationwide.

Start walking green path

The first thing Eco-Populace does for a potential client is a free audit to measure energy usage and efficiency.

Then, if the client agrees, it puts together a consumption reduction plan, which can include things like new windows, insulation, updated heat and air systems.

Finally, the company will propose a power-system update, which can include solar- wind-turbine and hydro-election generators. That energy audit plan costs no more than $350 for residential projects, with commercial and governmental ones depending on size and complexity.

“A lot of these are in the audit state, the energy efficiency audit,” Powell said of clients.

The company also can specialize applications, including the use of passive solar energy to heat swimming pools.

Not all projects will go completely green. Some use solar, wind and/or water electricity generation to supplement electricity from the grid. Excess power, if generated as AC rather than DC, can be sold to the local electric provider.

Some customers go as far as they can afford and then add more generating capacity later, as they can pay for it.

Powell and Reynolds said that commercial alternative energy projects can receive state and federal grants offsetting 70 percent of the cost of green energy programs. And for the remaining 30 percent, Powell said 0 percent loans are available.

They said such programs are not generally available for residential programs but that they can calculate the cost savings over time and estimate when a system will pay for itself.

Eco customers coming

Eco-Populace already has the Rub ‘A’ Dub car wash in Bloomingdale as a customer and is also working with Jody Stewart to make the outside lighting at his 1700 Pinebrook Place office building all solar. Other customers or potential ones include:

• T.C. Lewis & Co., a Johnson City-based developer, is one of Eco-Populace’s recent customers. President Cory Lewis saw an article about Eco-Populace in the Johnson City Press and contacted the company since he is a National Association of Home Builders certified “green builder.”

He has just had earth moving done on Carolina Cove, a planned 22-house development on 10 acres on Buttermilk Road off state Route 36 in Washington County.

He plans to break ground in August, and each house and lot is to sell from $200,000 to $300,000.

Lewis, who hopes to have about half the homes built in 18 months, plans to use a combination of solar and turbine power for the development, which is situated on and near a hill.

Depending on the prices of power options, Lewis said he may offer a base package that can be expanded, at additional cost, for each home buyer. Fannie Mae offers loan discounts for buyers of certified green homes.

• Dr. Sharon Lail, a Kingsport physician, plans to use Eco-Populace to help put wind turbines and micro-hydro-electric technology on creeks to power her house in the Cloudland community near Roan Mountain in Carter County. The house is on a north-facing slope ideal for wind power but not solar. Lail said she had been looking for a person or company to help her for about three or four years until she read about Eco-Populace in the Kingsport Times-News.

“I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do this more than a hobby,” Lail said.

“I’d like to be eventually independent of the grid,” Lail said. “I’d like to do it and get it done in the next few years.”

• At least one resident of the High Knob area of Wise County, a “no-man’s land” off the grid that has Appalachian Power on one side and Old Dominion but no service in between, has expressed interest, Eco-Populace officials said.

Current electricity for some High Knob residents comes strictly from propane, diesel or gasoline generators, Cross said, but the plan is to use solar and wind instead.

Solar street lights shine

Sylvia and Powell said Eco-Populace is trying to convince the city of Kingsport to replace conventional electric-powered street lights with solar ones, which carry a three-year battery warranty, 20-year warranty on the solar cells and use LED or light-emitting diodes that can last 10 to 15 years.

The quality and technology is much superior to the small sidewalk and walking path solar lights sold at discount and home improvement stores.

They said existing light poles can be retrofitted for the solar lights, which can work over five day/night cycles with little or limited sun, but that complete replacement is probably cheaper since the whole light and pole is $1,800 installed.

As a bonus, Sylvia said the solar-powered batteries also can be used by a wireless Internet wi-fi system like the one installed downtown.

Michael Thompson, Kingsport traffic engineer, said he’s heard of LED street lights and that the city is converting its traffic lights to LED, with about 35 percent LED now and the rest still incandescent.

Thompson said the idea of solar street lights is intriguing. However, he said that converting existing street lights to solar power would take years since the city is locked into contracts with American Electric Power, which provides the electricity and maintenance on street lights in exchange for tariffs payments the city makes to AEP each month.

As for price, he said that $1,800 installed sounds like a good price. He said the most expensive street lights in town, the more historical-looking ones on Broad Street, would cost about $3,000.

Reynolds said the town of Gate City already has contacted the company about using the solar street lights.

An employee in the town’s public works office said she made the initial contact trying to find cost savings through LED and/or solar for some smaller street lights the city maintains directly, not the electric company-maintained ones.

Eco-Populace is to get back to town officials with details, she said.

Electric car’s future now

Cross said Eco-Populace is working with an engineer who lives in Church Hill and has made his own electric vehicle using a gas-powered one.

The plan, Cross said, is to have a retrofit kit and mechanics available to install it in six to 12 months.

He said that the 1995-99 Chevrolet S10 and its cousin, the GMC Sonoma, are well suited for the conversions since they are smaller and the truck beds give space needed for batteries.

“It makes sense to convert existing vehicles,” Cross said.

Waiting for domestic or foreign car makers to mass produce electric or fossil fuel-electric hybrids will take too long, Cross said.

He said the company has figured that the conversion can operate a vehicle at 2.7 cents per mile compared to 8 cents a mile for gasoline — assuming gas is $3.30 a gallon and the vehicle getting 40 miles per gallon.

The down side is that the vehicles are good for only 50 or 60 miles a charge, making them suitable for around town and short trips but not cross-country vacations.

“They (automakers) create a lack of supply,” Cross said.

For instance, he said General Motors leased electric vehicles in California but later took them all back after the lease, refusing to let people buy them outright or continue leasing them.

Cross said an advantage of the pending retrofitted vehicles for Eco Populace is that they can be recharged with alternative energy.

For more information, contact the company at (423) 782-0177 or go to its Web site at www.ecopopulace.com.

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