Nobel laureates in physics aren't always renowned for their down-to-earth insight, but Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, demonstrated some April 28 when he heard heating oil described as New Hampshire's most popular heating fuel.
"I wouldn't say 'popular'," quipped Chu. "It's just that you're stuck with it."With the price of heating oil at $3.60 a gallon, 30 percent higher than a year ago, and headed upward, he's probably right about lack of popularity.But with almost 60 percent of New Hampshire homes using fuel oil to run their furnaces, he also seems right about the difficulty of getting away from it easily.Trying to increase energy choices is what brought Chu, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for work manipulating atoms with lasers, to New Hampshire.He made the comment while touring EnerTrac, a 10-person startup company in south Hudson that benefited last year from a state program called Green Launching Pad, which gives grants and expertise help to clean-technology firms in hopes that they'll produce jobs, as well as energy innovation.Six small companies were announced during the visit as winners of the second year of Green Launching Pad.The announcement was made at EnerTrac in a ceremony that drew Chu as well as Gov. John Lynch and UNH President Mark Huddleston.This year's winning firms are developing such things as novel energy storage systems, methods of restarting old hydropower dams, and a new way to build shoes.They will share $1.5 million in federal stimulus money and expertise from UNH's Whittemore School of Business.Heating oil came up during Chu's tour of EnerTrac because the firm develops wireless gauges that send hourly data over the Internet so that, among other things, companies that sell heating oil have a better sense of when customer tanks are empty, which can greatly improve their scheduling of delivery runs.Keeping delivery trucks off the road reduces their gasoline use, but it's also green in another sense, said Jim Proulx, owner of Proulx Oil and Propane, rubbing his fingers together in the universal signal for cash."If I can improve delivery, it saves me money," said Proulx, whose company has 700 EnerTrac gauges installed on various customers' tanks, and has plans to install thousands more.
Chu, who advocates energy efficiency as much as developed alternative energy sources, pointed out that individual homeowners could benefit from hour-by-hour information about their usage of fuel oil or propane.EnerTrac Account Executive Paul Luther said one of the main things the Hudson firm did with its Green Launching Pad grant was to develop "a really good website," something their half-dozen engineers hadn't gotten to as they spent three years dealing with developing a new way to measure the amount of oil in a tank, using dielectrics rather than floats, or deciding which radio frequency to use for data transmission (433 megahertz, a license-free band).The grant also paid for help with marketing research and sales.Green Launching Pad also will connect businesses with angel investors and private sector business mentors.About 50 businesses and entrepreneurs submitted applications this year.Governor Lynch acknowledged how the sort of technical-oriented startups that predominate in clean energy fields often need assistance in business tasks."It's very, very difficult to start a small business, to grow a small business," he said during remarks at the ceremony, gazing at the crowd of Green Launching Pad winners. "But we know there are a few Googles out there."
- DAVID BROOKS/THE TELEGRAPH
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This article appears in the May 6 2011 issue of New Hampshire Business Review