If Thomas Utrup heard it once at the recent Solar Power International conference in Chicago, Illinois, he heard it dozens of times more: "Firestone?" "In Solar?" "Really?"
Such is the life of a national sales manager when his firm's parent company is one of the best known brands in the world in a completely different sector.
But Firestone Building Products is indeed steeped in solar -- and energy efficiency as well, as Utrup explains below.
Long a significant player in commercial building technologies, Firestone Building Products, a division and namesake of the automotive giant, has been supporting the PV solar market since about just before the onset of the global financial crisis.
Through its Platinum PV Program, the company pairs its well-established roofing systems with state-of-the-art PV technology to provide building owners with a rooftop solar installation that minimizes risk and maximizes investment.
In the energy-efficiency realm, Firestone Building Products offers two fully customizable solutions under the SunWave trademark.
Widely popular, both the Platinum PV program and the SunWave technologies have been embraced throughout the US and around the world.
So why the lingering surprise among the general public when the name "Firestone" is mentioned in conjunction with renewable energy?
"Frankly, it probably comes down to how we entered the market, considering these technologies an extension of the work we'd already been for decades," Utrup says. "Then too, there's the fact that in terms of the division, all the pieces came together just this past summer."
Here's hoping the interview that follows dispels a bit of the astonishment.
As a US consumer – and driver – I tend to think of Firestone as one of the great automotive-related brands. I didn’t know you did anything in the renewable energy/energy efficiency space ...
Tom Utrup: You’re not the first person to say that. (laughs) In fact, I probably hear something to that effect from about 90 percent of the people I meet. In response what I typically say is that Firestone Building Products – which is part of the Firestone you are referring to – is a quality company and a quality brand.
And not only are we part of Firestone, we are also part of the Bridgestone Group. So combined, we are actually the world’s largest tire manufacturer; which many people do not know. And we are also the world’s largest provider of automotive services.
Combined we’re an approximately $30 billion company, in terms of annual sales, and we have another $30 billion in worldwide assets. So we’re a big company and a big force to be reckoned with.
Now, the division I’m with, our building products division, also happens to be the leader in commercial roofing material. That’s also something many people do not know.
So along with our deep line building envelope and rooftop systems, we are definitely well positioned to serve our customer base with solar and other energy and green rooftop solutions.
It takes a lot of time to secure a market position like that; how long has Firestone been involved in renewables – and was it your customers who pulled you into it?
Tom Utrup: You’re right in both respects. Firestone Building Products has been in the commercial rooftop arena for several decades, and, you guessed it, we were pulled into the rooftop solar market by the demands of our existing customer base.
In the past, there have been building owners and solar investors around America that implemented solar strategies that have not taken into account all of the intricacies and advantages of fully developed rooftop installations – one that incorporates the rooftop structure and the entire building envelope into the equation.
Because of this, some of our customers have missed or are positioned not to meet their return-on-investment forecasts. Firestone is responding to that by marshalling our extensive resources in design, engineering, and our extensive contractor network to ensure our customers do have full access to a well-designed solar energy systems that meets all of their needs and expectations – including a properly designed and installed base for a solar array.
Additionally, we believe that it is imperative that a rooftop has a design life and a warranty that runs concurrently with the solar design. That in a nutshell is what we’re all about.
Did the interest in “green” roofing materials come before the interest in solar?
Tom Utrup: From what I know of the history of the company, we have been in the solar rooftop space for about five years, including our day-lighting solutions, and the vegetative roofing solutions, which is another segment of the company that has been around about the same amount of time.
Now, bear in mind, these are movements or trends that have been going on for a long time. I’m old enough to remember the first Earth Day. But within Firestone Building Products, this division has been in development for about five years, and really only came to fruition this year, when we formed what we call our Innovation Product and Services Division, which includes my responsibilities, the solar and day-lighting products, and my counterparts who oversee vegetative roofing and light-weight paver systems for rooftop gardens and stuff like that.
Now, Firestone doesn’t get involved in the actual solar panel installation, right?
Tom Utrup: What we do is provide full design services. When a customer does a commercial rooftop, we have a full team of design engineers who jump into action and help design the actual system: The underlayments, the insulation, how it’s tapered, how it’s cut in, the choice of the membrane ... the whole deal. We’re looking at what the customer is looking to accomplish? Where are they located? What environment are they in? What’s the payload of the building? What are the windloads of the structure?
All of that is folded into the traditional roofing design and we do the same thing, essentially, when it comes to solar. We procure products and solutions from around the industry – to use an old tired phrase, the best-of-breed or state-of-the-art – that meet the customers design for a new solar or day-lighting solution.
What are some of the challenges and problems people face when installing a new solar system?
Well, some of the problems and challenges are simply related to the weight of the solar array system that is going on top of a new or existing rooftop. That needs to be properly designed and those considerations accommodated. The underlayment also needs to be properly designed and prepared. And then you need to take into account the different choices for racking solutions and how they can help you achieve a lower weight solution or a longer lasting solution.
In terms of the latter, you may be able to identify an option that is more resistant to wind ... or hail ... or snow. All of these things are taken into account when we are designing a solution.
Do you have a certain type of customer that you work with, or a certain region of the country – or the world, for that matter – that you concentrate your efforts in?
Well, as you know, we concentrate on the commercial sector, and within that, generally, what we’re talking about is structures that have a low slope roof. So we do everything from large distribution centers and warehouses and manufacturing facilities to even major hotels and convention centers. What these all have in common is that they have large, open, unused rooftop real estate.
What about the regions of the country that you're active in?
Actually, we are ubiquitous. We have our daylighting solutions, both active and passive. We have our solar arrays. And they are incorporated in all sections of the US – and, in fact, we do projects around the world. The Caribbean and Latin America are very strong for us. The Pacific islands.
That said, on the solar PV side ... you know where the industry is: California probably still probably has 40 percent to 50 percent of the industry ... and some of the northeastern states are engaged due to the cost of energy in those locations. And then, of course, there’s a lot of activity in the southern parts of the United States as well.
You’ve mentioned daylight systems a couple of times. Could you explain what they are to our readers? They’re much more than the traditional skylight, from what I gather.
Absolutely. Well, let’s see ... they are part of our product line, and our product is called SunWave Daylighting System, and it comes in all different sizes and configurations, standard and custom ... and we have a solar powered version, with a tracking unit built into it – that’s called SunWave SMRT Daylighting System.
But our standard version is an advanced skylight that uses an advanced, double-layered, acrylic prismatic glazing. And I believe the concentration is about 4,000 prisms per square foot.
Now, compared to a standard skylight, which basically allows light to come into a structure in a kind of funnel or beam, if you follow me, these prisms act to scatter and disperse the lighting throughout the working space or environment.
The passive units, obviously, use no energy at all while enhancing interior lighting quality, while reducing the need for electrical interior lighting during the day by up to 70 percent. In addition to the energy savings, multiple studies by the government and non-governmental entities have indicated that use of natural light has led to significantly increased sales in a retail environment, better employee performance in a working environment, and better student performance in an educational environment.
These are all great side benefits to saving energy.
What’s the market look like for these products? Are week talking about solutions that are readily adaptable to existing structures? Or are these elements something that need to be incorporated into the planning of new structures?
It’s actually both. These products can all be implemented in existing buildings that are going through retrofit or repairs. But they can also be – and often are – something that’s mandated into the construction of new buildings. There are many municipalities across the country that are mandating these energy conserving or energy displacing products in new construction. Our contractors serve both markets.
What does the future hold for Firestone in this sector?
Well, we’re really just getting going. We do have new products in development – though I can’t really talk about them at this time. Some of the services we haven’t talked about are things like TotalGard, which is our operations and maintenance program for solar PV, and also our over-burden protection plan, which eliminates the exposure for a building owner in the event of a roofing mishap. The over-burden protection covers the removal, storage, reinstallation, and commissioning of solar PV system to conduct roofing repairs when needed.