Clean Energy Rust Busting Road Trip Part 3: Cincinnati and Columbus

This is a special guest post from 2011 MAP fellow Lauren Kubiak. She, Rocky Kistner and I recently returned from a road trip in Ohio visiting and profiling businesses with a stake in the clean economy. You can find posts from our first trip here.

“If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati.  Everything there comes ten years later.”  Frequently attributed to 176-year-old Mark Twain, this quote encapsulates how the city was viewed in the 19th century. 

But now, in the 21st century, Cincinnati has caught up to the rest of the world, even forging ahead as it creates a sustainable future for itself.  A leader in its zoo—the greenest in the nation—, its solar developers, and commitment toward making its buildings more energy efficient, Cincinnati has made leaps and strides in its effort to become a more sustainable city.  What’s more, the city is developing a light rail system, and recently became “in attainment” of the EPA’s fine particulate standard for the first time ever.

But there hasn’t been a fairy-greenmother waving her magic want to transform the town.  No, instead it’s relied on the hard work of its own clean companies and corporate commitments to boost its economic strength and remove the rust around its edges.  And while the city’s move toward sustainability has only recently become a cohesive movement, many groups in Cincinnati have deeper roots within its borders.  Indeed, many businesses, working to minimize pollution and maximize energy efficiency and other clean energy technology deployment, have been keeping energy money in the pockets’ of local residents and businesses for well over a decade.  

Eco-Engineering is one such company.  As Dylan recently pointed out, the well-established energy efficiency retrofit firm is a profitable carbon abatement pioneer, focusing primarily on lighting since 1998.  And for most of Eco’s customers, money making mitigation significantly impacts their bottom lines: one recently completed project shaved $1.2 million annually off of a larger manufacturing plant’s utility bill.  

But still, as chronicled in Part 2 of our series, customers going forward with projects can still be a barrier.  “Our biggest competitor is indecision,” says company executive Tom Kirkpatrick.  For some potential clients, the initial investment can seem like a lot, despite its being an essentially zero risk investment: many projects turn a profit in as quickly as one year.  But thanks to the increase of customers realizing and promoting their savings, as well as recent S.B. 221-spurred incentives, more and more are taking the plunge to purchase more lumens for less money.


Downtown Cincinnati is home to Kroger’s headquarters.  Also making great strides to reduce their energy-associated emissions, the supermarket corporation is one more in the region that has been devoted to energy efficiency for well over a decade.  “We don’t want to build more power plants, we want to be able to use energy smarter,” explains Corporate Incentive Engineer Tracy MacDonald, and “each facet of our business is pursuing being energy efficient.”  Through lighting retrofits—some including adding skylights to take advantage of the sun’s natural glow—and a whole slew of other projects, the company better known for their groceries is selling something new: sustainability.

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All photos credit: Lauren Kubiak unless otherwise noted.

And it’s been profitable: since 2000, they have reduced their energy consumption 30 percent, saving a lot of money on their energy bills.  What’s more, in addition to implementing energy efficiency initiatives—“using energy smarter”—the energy they use in the first place is becoming cleaner, as many of their stores switch to solar power.

While Kroger and Eco Engineering might be some of the more established players in Cincinnati’s clean economy, thanks to a green roofing company, and a vision for Cincinnati’s economy, smaller businesses are combining to emerge as a larger player in the form of the Sustainability Partnership of Cincinnati, or TSPC.  

Up against the overflow issues that have long plagued Cincinnati’s combined sewer system, TSPC founder Ben Haggerty decided to do something.  So he started Green Streets.  Conceptualized initially as a rain barrel company, it has since evolved to include green roofing services, pervious pavement, and other storm water mitigating services.  In 2010, it completed Cincinnati City Hall’s green roof, and became the cornerstone of TSPC.

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A green roof, completed in 2010, graces the top of Cincinnati's City Hall. A collaboration between Green Streets, Lisa Yunker of City Roots, and Urban Sites, the roof includes layered roof boxes and a path in addition to the live roof itself. Photo credit: Green Streets LLC.

Since then, TSPC has grown to include sustainable building materials dealers, a geothermal developer, and even an environmental lawyer.  The group collaborates to offer Cincinnatians the most comprehensive set of environmental products and services, mitigating the city’s environmental maladies while maximizing each company’s business contacts.

“I think it’s the business model of the future,” says Haggerty.  


Further north in Columbus, the business model of the future is also at the forefront of nearly everyone’s minds, many of whom convened in mid November at the TechColumbus Early Stage Summit.  Bringing together new companies, established venture capital firms, and the thought leaders supporting both, the Summit offered a glimpse into the future of Ohio’s high tech economy. 

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Venture capitalist Tim Draper gives the keynote at the Early Stage Summit. 

So how does it look?  Between LineStream Technologies, a group that develops energy saving software to improve efficiencies in production, University of Akron Research Foundation’s advanced solar materials research, and a 110 mpg hybrid car engine, there is more than enough justification for Forbes recently naming Columbus the number three U.S. city for tech jobs

In other words, Ohio’s clean tech future looks quite bright.  And no, contrary to what Mark Twain may have said, the future is not 2002.