Ferndale Firm Seeks to Provide Energy Everywhere and Anywhere

Beyond the edges of civilization there are lots of places in the world that are inhospitable to human occupation, let alone technology. That's where ZeroBase sees the most fertile ground to grow.

The Ferndale-based firm creates power-distribution products that run on alternative energy or a hybrid of renewables and fossil fuels. Need a power source for a surveillance system keeping an eye on one of the far reaches of the earth? ZeroBase makes that possible with everything from solar panels to wind turbines to diesel fuel generators.

The problem is these deserts or rain forests or tundras don't like to cooperate with traditionally powered devices. Not only is it difficult to keep internal-combustion engines running, but the logistics of transporting fuel supplies are difficult and fraught with danger. And then there are the financial costs. The team at ZeroBase believes the answer primarily lies in harnessing renewable power sources to propel off-grid systems at the site.

"In most of the world there is no grid," says Jaron Rothkop, president & CTO of ZeroBase.

ZeroBase's Square One

ZeroBase, then ZeroBase Energy, got its start in Washington, D.C., with operations in Maine. One of its first products, the ReGenerator, was an all-in-one energy appliance that generates, stores, and manages clean energy. It generates power with solar panels and can manage power assets, such as diesel generators or fuel cells. The bottom line is to employ the most economically feasible power-generation model.

ZeroBase moved to a R&D facility in the NextEnergy campus in Detroit's New Center neighborhood in 2011. There it took advantage of NextEnergy's alternative-energy expertise and began leveraging the region's manufacturing base. ZeroBase quickly outgrew its space there, moving to the adjacent business accelerator TechTown and then its own headquarters in Ferndale this spring. Today ZeroBase employs a team of 14 people. It had three interns this summer, one of which it hired.

"When they first came to Michigan they had one product design that was really unique but hard to sell and deploy," says Jim Saber, vice president of business & technology development for NextEnergy. "They have since been able to improve on that as their base technology, grown sales and gained traction. ... I think they have significant potential."

The Ferndale facility at 160 Vester St offers 3,000 square feet of a combination of office space and technology lab. It's also across the street from the Valentine Distilling Co's cocktail bar and a block away from the axis of downtown Ferndale, 9 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue. It's a completely different environment from the office parks at 20-something Mile Road that are only within walking distance of their own parking lots.

"Who the hell wants to work there?," Rothkop says. "Here is the convenience of a downtown area where you can walk out the backdoor, grab lunch and come back to work and you don't loose everyone for an hour. Why wouldn't you want to be in a downtown if you can?"

"There is also something about being part of a community," he adds. "Ferndale is cutting edge, at least for our region, in terms of what they’re doing to support the green economy. There are other businesses in the area, such as a solar installer. In terms of what we’re doing, this is where there is a sustainable community. We want our company to be part of that community."

Market acceptance in inhospitable territories

Like so many new companies that focus on sustainability, one of ZeroBase's biggest challenges is establishing market acceptance. Today, the company's customers are either in the U.S. Dept of Defense or located overseas. For example, the U.S. Army has used ZeroBase’s technology (which was created, tested and validated within six weeks for this project) to help power a mobile surveillance system in the desert utilizing solar energy.

"Most people aren't aware that our defense department is one of the biggest advocates of sustainable energy." Rothkop says. "It's not necessarily coming from wanting to be green. It's coming from a need for energy independence at a base level or a forward position."

The U.S. Dept of Defense sent out a press release in February entitled "Clean Energy Tied to National Security" that detailed the importance of sustainability to the U.S. Armed Forces. The release states, "maintaining a military that's ready for missions everywhere means it's vital to use energy better and use better energy, (Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs) said, noting that the Defense Department is looking at a variety of energy efficiencies and renewable energy sources for military systems."

Rothkop understands that being completely dependent on renewables doesn't always make the most financial sense. Or even the most practical. Cloud cover can compromise solar. Wind turbines don't move on calm days. Battery storage might be too cumbersome for a 100-percent-renewable solution. In those cases, adding a diesel fuel-powered generator to provide say 10 percent of the power could shave large percentages off the project's costs and provide it much-needed flexibility.

ZeroBase finds the right combination to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. The idea is these renewable solutions become increasingly easier to access and work anywhere, just like an SUV can travel in desert heat or Arctic cold. It is also developing a streamlined base technology that can power large or small equipment that is stationary, or on wheels, or even carried in a briefcase. In essence, ZeroBase is creating modular sustainable-energy sources that serve as a turn-key option.

"The fundamental problem ZeroBase is trying to solve is you shouldn’t have to know anything about renewable energy to use it," Rothkop says. "You don't have to know anything about a car to drive one. You don't have to know how the engine works."

The company is finding success with pilot projects in the U.S. military and other customers (it donated some systems to Haiti in the aftermath of its recent earthquake) using the technology overseas. Those clients can afford to fund the development curve in new disruptive technology.

ZeroBase, which now operates in the black, is working to scale up its production within the next few years, beyond the few sales that come with pilot projects. Right now that means the U.S. Dept of Defense and perhaps other areas of the federal and local government, like border security. If the market accepts ZeroBase's technologies, it could lead to a big blue sea of market opportunities.

"There are so few companies doing what we're doing,” Rothkop says. "Four years later, I would have expected there to be more."

Jon Zemke is a freelance journalist based in Detroit. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.
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