Forward Observations: Louder Than Words
Rick Carter | July 10, 2015
I’ve been to the sustainability mountain, so to speak. I found it in upstate New York recently during a meeting with Bob Bechtold, the 67-year-old president and owner of custom injection-molder Harbec Inc. Shortly into our conversation (which forms this month’s feature, “Carbon-Neutral Lifestyle Drives Molding Company,” p. 24) I realized I was in the presence of someone whose belief in sustainability is so strong it has been a key part of his business strategy for nearly 20 years. As the owner of a privately held company, Bechtold has successfully leveraged his freedom to act on that belief, even when finding the funds to do so was not always easy. Today, it’s evident that his actions have paid off so well—Harbec provides 80% of its own power needs, is carbon-neutral, and is approaching water-neutrality—that they make others look almost crazy for not following his lead. They also make many other sustainability claims pale by comparison.
Bechtold’s sustainability instincts are deeply rooted. “I’ve always been infatuated with renewable energy,” he said. “Even from when I was a kid. It’s like magic. The fact that I could fly a kite and there was nothing there and I had a hard time holding the string!”
Experiences such as this led him to first buck conventional wisdom in a big way by putting a wind turbine on his house—in 1980. He repeated the move some 22 years later when he installed one on the grounds of Harbec Inc., in Ontario, NY. Today, two wind turbines tower over the Harbec facility and, along with the site’s combined-heat-and-power microturbines, cover most of the site’s power needs. In the near future, Bechtold will extend the energy savings and value of this on-site power-generation microgrid by allowing other nearby businesses to tap into it. This is only one of the recent sustainable opportunities that he says have come along regularly in his professional life.
“Combined heat and power was an amazing find for me—to learn that this thing existed where I could make power and have thermal,” he said. “When I learned about the many things I could do with the thermal, that really flipped the switch.” Though he had always championed green initiatives strictly for the sake of the environment, bottom-line motivation to invest in on-site power eventually came from the unreliable, equipment-damaging power supplied by his local grid. In his search for more reliable power, Bechtold learned that investments in green power could nearly always be justified exclusively from a business perspective, which is the only way he explains them to others today.
“No matter what happens to the rest of the world,” he said, “you’ll always economically win with sustainability. By win, I mean that these projects will pay for themselves in the shortest amount of time. Instead of giving money to the utility to accomplish the same things, you give it to the bank to buy the asset.”
Bechtold dismissed operations with inflexible corporate payback periods that prevent them from acting similarly. “To those people I say you are missing the boat. You’re shooting yourself in the foot because energy is a whole different pocket where traditional payback rules do not apply. What do you care,” he asked, “if payback is six years or eight or 10? As long as the device will last longer than that, you’ve won because it’s all upside after you’ve paid for it. The beauty of renewable energy,” he added, “is that it will always come in under your projection. Why? Because during whatever payback period you estimate, energy prices keep going up and your ROI just gets shorter and shorter.”