ZeroBase brings renewable energy to areas in need all over the world

ZeroBase Energy started in 2009 in Detroit's NextEnergy incubator as a renewable energy company that focused on solar energy and batteries. Their first client contract was an intelligence surveillance reconnaissance project for the United States Department of Defense.
From there ZeroBase went on to hybridize their products to integrate with diesel generators for the Department of Defense. "They use so many diesel generators abroad," says ZeroBase Solutions Manager Drew Spencer. "One of the most dangerous things you can do in Afghanistan is deliver fuel – it's basically driving a huge bomb through the middle of the desert."
The company has since moved its headquarters to Ferndale and its manufacturing to Lake Orion, growing steadily to open offices in Oahu, Hawaii and Huntsville, Alabama, with strategic partners and outside sales teams all over the United States and in 16 countries. The home office team has grown to about 30 people.
Through the innovations in renewable and hybridized energy they designed for the Department of Defense, ZeroBase has been able to expand those innovations into commercial markets. They've taken the technology that has been tested and ruggedized to design larger, more permanent systems in order to take whole buildings completely offline.
Hawaii is an important market for them, as all energy sources have to be imported at a cost of four to five times what the contiguous states pay. "It makes a lot of sense for renewables and large energy storage systems to take businesses totally off the grid there," says Spencer.
ZeroBase is currently working on a 2.9-megawatt battery bank for the Maui Brewing production facility on Maui. "This will be our largest effort to date," Spencer explains. "We've been working with them throughout the year. The customer just decided to store and produce all the energy they need themselves, going around the energy company. They're just kind of fearless over there."
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but this kind of going-off-the-grid and severing all dependencies on energy companies could have a monumental impact on the future of not only the renewable energy industry, but also the retail energy commodity market as a whole.
But ZeroBase isn't only trying to make an impact in military and commercial energy markets. They are also now making efforts in rural environments, bringing electricity to remote rural areas where there currently is none.
"There is a saying that the last mile is the hardest mile to deliver power," Spencer says. "It costs a million dollars per mile to extend the power grid. It just doesn’t make sense to move the grid all the way out there in these rural areas, so there is a huge opportunity for these smaller renewable systems to be deployed in these towns. That's where we are trying to develop that market."
ZeroBase has a new product called the K-SERIES based off of their military systems but a bit more stripped down and a lot more affordable. In November this power system was installed at the Kisokwe Primary School in the Mpwapwa District of Dodoma, Tanzania. The easy-to-operate, low-maintenance K-SERIES installation at Kisokwe is the first of its kind. ZeroBase is working with other schools in Tanzania and Uganda to roll out this technology and "see if there is a viable model to provide power to schools and eventually the community."
This research and development work in East Africa is funded by Pegasus Capitol Advisors, the private equity fund manager that owns and manages ZeroBase, and they are working with rural electric authorities towards their goal of bringing modern electric services to these communities. They hope for this to become a government-funded program in the future.
"We're still trying to play around and find what is the best model," says Spencer. "These people do have the ability to pay for electricity and are paying huge amounts for kerosene, so it's just a matter of finding the money upfront."
At the beginning of 2015, ZeroBase also finished their first large-scale microgrid system in Haiti with assistance from an EarthSpark International US Aid grant they received.
"We had been on the ground in Haiti for a number of years, introducing them to renewable technologies," Spencer explains. "We were working on a pay-as-you-go system, bringing electricity to rural communities."
He says that the system mimics pre-paid cell phone minutes in its structure, so people can buy electricity credits and pay for only what they use.
"We are now powering 400 to 500 homes in an area that previously had no electricity. That's a market that we all really care about and really want to be in. Our work with the Department of Defense is important to our growth, but now we really want to figure out how to bring energy to these places that don't have any."
ZeroBase now produces "everything from very small briefcase-size systems just run by solar power to trailer systems integrated with diesel systems," Spencer says. "We're also taking entire operating bases and making them renewable with microgrid systems instead of relying of fossil fuels. Everything kind of builds on everything else we do."
It is for their innovations in renewable energy systems and long-term vision for bringing renewable energy sources to areas that have no energy source whatsoever that ZeroBase was recognized at the third annual Michigan Energy Innovators Gala in November, where businesses and individuals are commended for their contributions to the state's rapidly growing renewable power industry.

A version of this story originally ran on Prosper, a site publishing stories about economic development in Oakland County.
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