Friends Eric Scheier and Karyn Miller grew up together in Raleigh and have always bonded over their mutual passion for sustainability and equity. In 2018, the two became business partners and founded Carrboro-based Emergi, a cooperative nonprofit startup that connects homeowners to solar energy via the existing electrical grid.
Scheier, a UNC alum with a history of working in solar energy, and Miller, with experience in the Peace Corps and working with nonprofits, are participating in the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator this summer. Emergi evolved out of a consulting company Scheier began in 2014 called Emergi Solar, where he advised businesses on clean energy solutions.
After launching their product in spring of this year, Emergi has already prevented hundreds of tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere, Scheier said.
How do they do it? By using a concept called “emergy,” which traces the flow of energy through ecosystems, Emergi connects North Carolina homeowners to local solar energy farms by connecting those farms to the grid.
“The grid is a giant pool of energy, and every unit going in and out is being meticulously accounted for,” Scheier said. “And because of that, we can ensure that for every unit of energy that you use from the grid, there was a unit of energy from a solar farm on the same grid, put in on your behalf.”
Based on each customer’s energy bill, Emergi generates a personalized plan for going 100% solar and gives a free quote for how much it costs. Once a customer decides to activate their plan by linking their utility account through the online portal, Emergi matches their energy use with solar power connected to the grid. As customers pay their monthly bill through the Emergi platform, they receive monthly updates with analysis about their energy usage and their impact, Scheier said.
For every year that a home uses solar energy through Emergi, eight tons of carbon are prevented from entering the atmosphere. That provides the same positive environmental impact as five people going vegan, taking a car and a half off the road, planting 125 trees or preserving 10 acres of forest, Schier said.
Because solar energy is the cheapest form of renewable energy available, Emergi is able to provide it at a fixed month-to-month rate, thereby preventing any seasonal variation—which can be up to 70% between spring and summer, Scheier said.
One in 10 Americans are in energy poverty, meaning they spend more than 10% of their income to pay their energy bill. So, as more businesses and individuals in the world switch from fossil fuels to solar energy, Miller said they want to ensure Emergi is doing its part to provide equitable access to clean energy.
“In order to create a sustainable world,” Miller said, “we all need to have the opportunity to take advantage of the energy flowing throughout the different systems that we interact with, and we’re trying to leverage this moment of transition in a system that is historically very government-regulated and investor-owned. As we grow and as more money comes into the system and as we’re able to offer people better benefits, we really want to make sure that we’re offering those benefits to everybody, and especially the people who need them the most.”
In fact, promoting equity is why they chose to follow a cooperative nonprofit model. Under the model, every customer is a member and earns points according to much solar energy they upgrade to. Points unlock group savings, Scheier said. It’s a similar model to what many American farmers use to take their products to market, or what some retailers use to offer competitive prices, he said.
“Not only does this make our accounting simple and transparent, but following the cooperative model is a big part of how we are building equity into Emergi from the ground up,” Scheier said. “Having our customers be members of a cooperative gives them an ownership stake in what they are doing, and a democratic say in how we do it.”
Tracing energy is the key to sustainability across industries
The over 99% of energy on the earth that is generated from the sun can be traced, and all of the energy that goes into making a product can be measured. Although Scheier and Miller decided to first apply the concept to electricity, it can be applied to other industries as well (like food and transportation) in the same way to track the inflows and outflows of energy and create a localized cycle using the grid, Scheier said.
“Everything needs energy and energy drives everything,” Scheier said. “So when we were thinking about sustainable development and how to create a sustainable future as a society, we realized that it really was all about energy.”
In fact, the genesis behind Emergi began while Scheier and Miller were visiting a mutual friend in Guatemala. When they toured a Fair Trade coffee farm there, they started talking about the different criteria that food products must meet in order to earn the fair trade certification. Scheier was studying the concept of emergy heavily at the time and wondered, what if the criteria was expanded to account for whether the energy used to create that product was sustainable?
“There are certifications relating to how a product was produced in almost all industries, like organic, fair-trade, kosher or conflict-free,” Scheier said. “Those are all different sides of the same coin, and to us, the common denominator that is missing for all that is tracing the energy that was put into that product or service.”