For five years, Chris Byrnes, president of Viability in Holland, Mich., has been behind the scenes helping growers land serious grant money for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Many of these grower case studies have been featured in Greenhouse Grower, including Walters Gardens in Michigan, Buckley Growers in Illinois and Pleasant View Gardens in New Hampshire.
The deadline for the next USDA Rural Energy For America Program (REAP) grant cycle is looming, but it’s never too late to start preparing for the next one. This source has been the sweet spot for most of the funding growers have received, but there are many options to explore at the federal, state and local levels. Byrnes specializes in helping growers and other agribusinesses navigate through this process and maximize the success of their projects being funded.
Before founding Viability, Byrnes was an economic development professional, serving as CEO of economic development agencies and chambers of commerce for 25 years. We asked Byrnes for his advice to growers interested in pursuing incentives to maximize their investments in energy savings.
GG: How did you come to specialize in writing grants for greenhouse and agribusiness industries?
CB: Our first few clients, including Walters Gardens, were ag related businesses. Most of our clients have been greenhouses and food processors. Both are energy intensive, a huge cost of production.
GG: How does the process begin with growers?
CB: It all begins with an initial inquiry via phone or email. Growers provide information on what they would like to do and we prepare a brief report explaining the programs they are eligible for and dollar amounts. We do this part as a free service. They may or may not choose to go with us. Folks aren’t necessarily going to want to do it themselves, but they can.
We’re not free. Our fees represent a percentage of the grant amount. Half the fee comes after the funding application is successful. We can’t guarantee funding because it’s a competitive process and we don’t know who else is applying. Our job is to submit the best application possible. Our success rate is five to seven times higher than the national average.
Connecting the dots is what we do. Nobody wants to deal with the federal government if they don’t have to. We understand what’s required in the grant application and have even helped agency staff better understand the potential use of programs. We have a clear understanding of the question and way it needs to be addressed to maximize the score. We work with clients on the best ways to reduce the cost of the project and score better with the granting agencies.
Every grant is not the same and every program is not the same. While the federal funds are competitive, others, such as water line extensions or road improvements, can be negotiated with the state or local government. Some states have aggressive programs.
A big part of our job is making it easy for the client. We’ll work with vendors on equipment and engineers on the tech side and stay out of the client’s hair as much as possible. Our staff has developed relationships with state and federal agencies.
GG : How long does the process take to develop and submit the grant proposal?
CB: Our fastest one is 32 days, but the client was very ready and responded quickly. We tell clients 60 to 90 days is typical. Once the applications are in, it takes from 60 to 75 days for the granting agency to score, review and award. The federal fiscal year ends Oct. 1, when there will be a new budget. Federal grants have to be awarded by the end of September.
GG : How can growers increase their odds and maximize their funding?
CB: If you want to access incentive funds, start inquiring early. If you begin the project and buy equipment without the grant, it can make you ineligible for funding later. What is typical is a business or home owner does the easiest and cheapest things first, like buying compact fluorescent light bulbs and insulating walls, and then they look at a grant for a big investment. You may hurt yourself if you do the other steps first. You often will score better with a more comprehensive proposal that demonstrates a good return on investment. You can do a better job and get more money.
We recommend pursuing the USDA companion loan guarantee to secure the rest of the financing. If you tie the grant proposal and loan guarantee together, you score more points and reduce the risk of the proposal.
Our engineers may reveal alternatives growers didn’t think of, which makes our application better. While the vendors who serve growers are good at what they do, the guy selling energy curtains may not know much about biomass boilers.
We also recommend pursuing efficiency improvements first. Get as efficient as you can before pursuing renewable energy options. Energy curtains are effective and score well on grants. An energy audit is included with our funding. At least inquire now. You can put three projects together in one grant application and space out the improvements. For REAP, you have two years to implement. When you spend a buck, USDA sends you 25 cents.
GG : Carbon credits have been an intriguing opportunity for growers to continue to receive money. How do they work?
CB: Essentially, for carbon credits, we quantify the amount of greenhouse gases you are emitting and how much you would reduce the carbon footprint with the projects you undertake. We write a project development document validated by a third-party engineer and put it on a registry, such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) in Europe. The carbon credit value on some registries may be four to five times higher than others, and we help our client get the highest value possible. We help growers keep records on their fuels and temperatures and validate this information, which results in credits being sold through brokers on the market. Carbon credits can bring you money for 10 years.