By Kelly Nottermann, Flexible Capital Fund, L3C
Nils Behn vividly remembers sitting in class at Harwood Union High School and deciding that he would use his time on this planet to have a positive impact on the environment. “There was this aha moment in a tenth-grade anthropology class,” said Behn, now CEO and president of Aegis Renewable Energy. “I remember thinking that whatever I did in my life, my existence would ultimately have a net positive impact on the planet.”
Fast forward a few decades and Behn is right back where he started in Waitsfield, VT. Only this time, he and his wife, Sonia, own a company that is installing solar panels on his former elementary school and helping regional businesses to move away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. “It’s fun to think that Harwood Union takes power from some of the solar projects we’ve built,” he said. “It all comes full circle.”
Behn’s path to becoming a leader in community-scale solar was hardly direct. Inspired by that high school class, he went on to study sociology and anthropology at Northern Vermont University, later moving to Idaho where he lived completely off the grid for eight years. He and Sonia built a straw bale house and figured out how to install a solar system. “I was completely self-taught,” said Behn. “I put a few solar panels up in a tree, fed the wire into the house, and set up a battery system. It was overall an amazing experience.”
While living off the grid in Idaho aligned with Behn’s personal mission to leave a light footprint on the planet, the birth of his son prompted some reevaluation. Realizing that “there is no better place to raise a family than Vermont,” Behn moved back in 1999 and took a job with Northern Power Systems. “I was so fortunate to land that job,” said Behn. “I learned so much.”
From living off the grid to working on the grid.
As director of the wind division, Behn led Alteris Renewables to become the leading installer of community-scale wind turbines in the Eastern U.S., so when the company was acquired in 2011 and decided to divest the wind part of the business, he was perfectly positioned to spin off and create a new business—Aegis Wind.
“We were a startup, but more of a mature startup,” said Behn. “We had a pipeline of projects from Alteris and two employees who came over with me, so there was some strength and continuity, but we needed funding.” The experience of the team, clear environmental mission, and existing pipeline of customers was part of what attracted an investment from Janice St. Onge, president of the Flexible Capital Fund, L3C (“Flex Fund”).
“It was a big risk to start a company based on the business Alteris no longer wanted,” said St. Onge, “but Nils is an entrepreneur who did everything right.” The Flex Fund invested $200,000 in royalty financing to Aegis Wind, now Aegis Renewable Energy, allowing the young company to pay back the loan as revenue came in.
“It was the perfect structure,” said Behn, who was able to pay off the full amount earlier than expected. “Without the Flex Fund’s backing, we would have had to take a totally different approach to the business. It’s an amazing tool for entrepreneurs. Without it there would be fewer companies growing and doing good in Vermont.”
From wind to solar.
As for being an entrepreneur that “did everything right,” Behn points to a few key lessons he’s learned as a business owner. First and foremost, he says, he makes decisions quickly.
Case and point, the company made a complete switch from wind to solar in 2012. “We realized that the political winds were not blowing in favor of turbines,” said Behn, “so we pivoted to community-scale solar projects. If we hadn’t done that quickly, we would have wasted a lot of time trying to push a very big rock up a steep hill.”
With a steady 20 to 25 percent growth of revenue over the past 10 years, today Aegis Renewable Energy focuses primarily on design-build solar projects for corporate customers. Kingsbury Companies, a large general contractor serving New England and New York, is one of their repeat customers. “They have a mission to offset the fuel use of their entire fleet,” said Behn, “which includes thousands of gallons of diesel fuel to run excavators, loaders, and trucks.” Aegis has built five solar projects for Kingsbury to date, allowing the company to be effectively carbon neutral. “And, by the way,” add Behn, “those projects are also making them money by selling power.”
Other projects include rooftop and ground mounted solar installations at local schools, farms, a large storage facility, Misty Knoll, Vermont Creamery, and Lawson’s Finest Brewery, as well as municipal solar projects for towns including Colchester, Warren, and Waitsfield.
Keeping dollars local.
When Behn talks about community-scale solar, he’s not only referring to the size of the installs. With projects typically in the $1 million range and higher, Aegis is committed to hiring local contractors and keeping money in Vermont. “If we pull someone in from out of state to do the electrical or earth work, it’s hard to feel like we’re part of the community,” said Behn. “We don’t always go with the lowest bid. We go with the people we can trust and focus on building relationships, which helps the quality of the final project.”
That said, Behn watches every penny so that he can make good financial decisions quickly. “My uncle gave me one piece of advice when I was starting the business,” said Behn. “Watch every penny with the eye of an eagle. I really took that to heart. We’ve always had a good feel for where we are financially so when we see things that could be challenging, we can make adjustments.”
Aegis’ twelve full-time employees are all paid “at least what you’d find in the market for a similar role, or better” and offered a benefit package that includes full health, eye, and dental coverage, ten paid holidays, two weeks of vacation to start, and an IRA match of 3 percent.
Looking ahead to a renewable future.
Despite dire changes in climate unfolding in real time, Behn is optimistic that the world is at an inflection point when it comes to climate awareness, and thinks many others will have “aha” moments similar to the one he had in tenth grade. “I’m a glass half full kind of guy,” he said. “I’m hopeful and I’m thankful that I’m in the right industry. We have everything aligned for a strong future for renewable energy. It has always been foremost in our mission to make the world better than when we started.”
About the Flexible Capital Fund
The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.
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