This summer the New Orleans Business Alliance released its ProsperityNOLA plan, a comprehensive strategic plan for the economic development of New Orleans over the next five years. The plan focuses its strategy on the development of five distinct clusters that will lay the groundwork for the economic growth of the city: Advanced Manufacturing, Bioinnovation & Health Services, Transportation, Trade & Logistics, Creative Digital Media, and Sustainable Industries. Throughout this series of articles EMH Strategy will be profiling local companies within each of these sectors to show what has made, and what will make, New Orleans the place for companies in these spaces to do business.
For the third installment of our ProsperityNOLA cluster series, EMH Associate Robert Bray sits down with Joule Energy co-founder Julian Thomas. Since 2009, Joule has been providing Louisiana homeowners with custom solar panels, and the company recently expanded into solar leasing. Because of its focus on alternative energy, Joule is a quintessential example of the kind of company New Orleans hopes to attract and retain in this region through its emphasis on “Sustainable Industries”.
Q (Robert): Why did you decide to start your company in New Orleans?
A (Julian): There are 3 factors that typically indicate a viable market for solar energy—adequate solar resources, high cost of electricity, and incentives. When I was looking to start this company, Louisiana had 2 of the 3 ideal market factors (sun and incentives), and this, coupled with the fact that I had a few close friends living in New Orleans, made the city a natural fit.
Q (Robert): What are the disadvantages to doing business in New Orleans?
A (Julian): There is a lot of wasted time and effort, on both sides of the equation, in processing permits and issuing licenses. New Orleans is just now embracing data processing technologies that similar cities have been using for years. We still have a long way to go, but the efforts of Mitch Landrieu and his team are being felt downstream. Tax revenues could be used more effectively, but overall it seems like progress is being made and some long held attitudes are starting to shift from the status quo to what works.
Q (Robert): I’ve read on your website that you are a Certified B Corporation. Can you talk about your decision to pursue this certification?
A (Julian): When developing the company, I reached out to Southern Energy Management in North Carolina to learn how Maria and Bob Kingery (formerly of Burt’s Bees) built their business. As strong supporters of B Corporations, they encouraged me to pursue the certification, which is offered by the independent rating agency B Lab. We had already been operating our company with a focus on environmental impact and employee satisfaction, and so it was natural for us to pursue.
Q (Robert): What benefits do you receive from being a Certified B Corporation?
A (Julian): Going through the certification process really requires you to focus on your corporate values—helps you define them, and then stick to them. From a business philosophy standpoint, I believe that creating value for a firm’s stakeholders is just as important as delivering value to a firm’s stockholders. Taking this approach may actually be a profit maximizing strategy. Joule is also considering a legal switch from an LLC to a B Corporation status (which is different from just being certified), and B Lab would assist with this process.
Q (Robert): What do you think New Orleans needs to offer to attract future businesses to develop an entrenched network of sustainable industry-focused companies here?
A (Julian): It is encouraging to see that sustainable industries are being identified as a main focus of the city’s 5 year economic growth plan—it shows that city’s leaders are beginning to embrace the reality that sustainability is an key driver of business development and also critical to cities like New Orleans that potentially very vulnerable to climate change. The City Council is in a particularly unique and powerful position in their role as a regulator of Entergy New Orleans (ENO). From this vantage the city council can dramatically improve the city’s adoption of renewables and transition to a much smarter (read stable, efficient) grid. I think it’s likely that we see the council ask ENO to provide a Feed-in Tariff, which is essentially a policy that offers long-term contracts to renewable energy providers to boost investment, for solar before the current Integrated Resource Plan process is completed. Adopting this type of policy, in addition to city-wide improvements in public transportation and recycling, are necessary to attract and retain the type of businesses that the city needs to thrive.
During our visit to Joule Julian stressed that New Orleans, more than anywhere, should be strongly motivated to support companies in sustainable industries that are focused on solving environmental issues. From devastating hurricanes to rapid coastal erosion, New Orleans has a lot to lose from climate change and environmental degradation. By the same token, New Orleans also has a lot to gain from these environmental challenges and opportunities; the same tax incentives that served as the catalyst for Joule have the potential to attract more “green” companies to our city that can, as ProsperityNOLA points out, serve as a cornerstone for our economy. With collective city-wide support for companies like Joule, we can continue to address environmental challenges through successful, thriving businesses.