Executive Q&A: George Sakellaris, Ameresco

With more than 30 years of experience in the energy and energy efficiency sectors, Mr. George Sakellaris - Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Directors of NAESCO member company Ameresco, Inc – is widely regarded as one of the "founding fathers" of the modern energy service company industry (ESCO).

Recently, Mr. Sakellaris took part in NAESCO's new Member Spotlight series, where he shared his reflections on the maturation of the ESCO market, his insights on leadership and his thoughts on what the future has in store for the energy efficiency industry.

1. What have been the biggest industry shifts you have seen since founding Ameresco in 2000?

There are the obvious shifts in technological advancements within the industry that have really changed the game for how and what our solutions entail. Technologies that were not economically viable 20 years ago are now the bedrock of many of our guaranteed savings solutions, such as LED lighting, solar and now microgrid and battery storage technologies. More subtle shifts have taken place in the minds of those purchasing energy solutions. Climate change and sustainability awareness are a larger part of the conversation for public and private sector customers.

2. How have you continued to lead Ameresco in such a visionary manner? You've been ahead of the curve when it comes to so many different energy trends -- how do you forecast these trends?

I still use "The Art of Management" by Peter Drucker as a reference. It says that what is most important is not what you are doing today, but what you will be doing tomorrow. That's how I spend most of my time - thinking about what we'll be doing tomorrow. I challenge everyone in my organization to read it in order to see what's happening in the marketplace and adapt to how it is evolving.

3. What are the biggest leadership lessons you've learned over the years that you can impart to your peers?

One of the most difficult things about managing a company is that the highs are very high, but when things are down, you have to make difficult decisions - choices that could significantly affect your employees. That is why it's important to be smart in managing your cash flow. Your company must be able to make payroll and collect money. In times of economic uncertainty, hunker down and manage for survival. As a business leader, you might have to make some tough decisions, but on the other hand, if you do the right thing you will get to the other side.

4. What is one myth or misconception others have about our industry?

I wish more public and private sector leaders understood that efficiency and resiliency are not a one-time fix. The advancements in technology over the last few years are astonishing and are a true testament to how many opportunities there are to help facilities and operations run more efficiently. And in light of recent global weather and pandemic events, energy resiliency should be considered and re-considered as a constant opportunity for improvement.

5. What is your typical day like? Has it changed over the years?

Looking back over the past 20 years, in Ameresco's early days I worked face-to-face with more people - I had to do the selling and visit construction sites, among other things.

Now that Ameresco is a much larger global company, I'm more of a coach. I ask people what they're working on and give them ideas about how to solve problems. It's very important for me to understand where Ameresco is going, and I feel fortunate that we have tremendous talent at every level.

6. What are your top near-term predictions for change in our industry?

I believe resiliency will become a high priority for organizations as we move forward. We have learned important lessons from the growing number of wildfires, the increasing devastation of hurricanes and now the global health crisis brought on by COVID-19. This has given us a heightened awareness around the importance of healthy, safe, and resilient working environments. I believe that organizations will focus first on energy conservation measures that promote safe and healthy environments – touchless controls, updated HVAC systems, automated entry/exit systems. Next, they will look for distributed energy generation solutions to provide localized infrastructure and continuous operations in spite of grid interruptions and failures.  

In addition, I believe that the changing economics of advanced technology solutions will enable more and more markets to proactively participate in renewable energy. Battery storage options are increasingly cost competitive, and we are seeing these pencil-out in projects that didn't have a "pay back" in the past.  These technologies will become more common as distributed energy generation projects are implemented.   

And finally, while difficult to find a positive outcome in light of a global pandemic, I'm encouraged by the heightened awareness of climate change. We have all seen the profound impact of the stay-at-home ordinances on the environment, and we hope to see it fuel a renewed interest in driving energy efficiency and making renewable energy a leading carbon emissions-reducing tool.

7. What are some unique ways you have improved your organization's relationship with its customers?

When you build a company on the bedrock of guarantees, you have to ensure you stand by your word, or else you won't last long in the market. It has always been my top priority to ensure we stand behind our guaranteed savings for our contracts and ensure our projects perform as promised. Our customers know our reputation and trust us as a result.

The unique side of Ameresco's customer relationships is the ingenuity and innovation we bring, which are often risky business, to a solid partnership. For example, our project at the Savannah River Site that we built for the Department of Energy in 2012, we melded an incredibly complicated solution into an energy service performance contract (ESPC), which shows you just how powerful they are. We took an old coal-fired cogeneration plant, shut it down and built a new one in its place. This new plant was paid for itself and came with guaranteed savings. When the EPA went out with an RFP for the Savannah River Site project, they said they had 3,000 acres of land. [We] proposed using wood they had to clear from the site in a wood-burning power plant. Our team went in with a very creative proposal – that's our hallmark – with broad and deep technical expertise.

I am also proud of Ameresco's work at Parris Island, which involved energy efficiency measures, battery storage, combined heat and power (CHP) and other solutions to optimize resiliency. Our Federal Solutions team's work at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is indicative of where the market is going (i.e., in terms of prioritizing resiliency).

8. What's next? What do you see as your biggest market areas for growth?

We'll soon start to see serious advances in energy-related nanotechnologies. Microgrids will become much more economical, and battery storage will prove to be the missing piece of the electricity storage "puzzle." Various equipment for solar, wind, biomass and biogas-powered generation will come down more and more.

Date Posted: 5/31/2020