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Jon M. Williams pictures a future with construction equipment operating quietly and cleanly on job sites.
Now he has to persuade the companies that make equipment like excavators to buy into his “Green Machine” concept, powered by lithium-ion batteries instead of diesel fuel.
If Williams succeeds, a former auto parts plant on the East Side will be the hub for producing the renewable energy systems. He hopes the company will employ 100 to 200 people over the next five years. The new technology is part of a broader revival of the former American Axle & Manufacturing facility that is taking shape.
But it’s far from a sure thing.
Williams is better known as CEO of Ontario Specialty Contracting, a demolition and environmental contractor. Another part of his business leases and sells construction equipment.
But it is Williams’ emerging venture, Viridi Parente, that is trying to build on his experience in construction by adding renewable energy systems to the mix. He intends to make and sell lithium-ion battery systems as components, comparing it to how Cummins Inc. sells engines to makers of different over-the-road trucks.
While Williams believes the construction industry is ripe for equipment powered by renewable energy, he needs manufacturers to agree with him — by placing orders for the new, environmentally friendly equipment.
“It has been an interesting pitch because the initial response is, ‘That can’t work, it’s not going to run long enough, it’s not going to have the same power, it’s not going to be reliable,’ ” he said.
Viridi Parente has retrofitted potential customers’ equipment to let them see for themselves. But the company has also has built a relationship with National Grid, which operates four mini excavators using the technology on Long Island.
“They gave us a third-party validator to run the machines,” Williams said of the utility. “The thing about this is, it’s not if it works, but how well it works.”
National Grid has subjected the systems to inclement weather and wear and tear on job sites, the types of conditions that Viridi Parente couldn’t replicate at the manufacturing plant, Williams said.
Dennis Ruppert, National Grid’s director of research and development, said the utility is “very happy” with the systems.
“They operate all day long without any issues about recharging,” he said. The machines also run quietly, which allows workers to communicate more easily and to hear road traffic. The systems are also less expensive to operate, he said.
Ruppert said he expects National Grid will add more mini excavators to its fleet with the lithium-ion systems as older diesel units are retired.
Williams said he believes the technology is best suited to job sites where noise and emissions would be the biggest issue for quality of life, including urban settings, medical campuses and college campuses. The systems could also be used for projects like installing light towers or energy storage.
Viridi Parente consists of two subsidiaries: Green Machine and Volta Energy Products. Green Machine makes the lithium-ion battery packs and electric drive systems, while Volta develops next-generation lithium cells and modules.
Viridi Parente wants to make the leap from retrofitting machines and proving the technology to signing commercial contracts with manufacturers. The company has attracted more than $4 million in private equity funding and has a $1 million working capital line of credit from KeyBank, a $1.4 million loan from an affiliate of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, and a $600,000 loan from the Western New York Impact Fund.
Viridi Parente would likely bring in a manufacturing partner from the automotive industry that could handle building thousands of units.
“We’ve got 300,000 square feet of production space that’s ready to be outfitted to be located in,” he said.
To get his ambitious plans off the ground, Williams needs commitments from customers. He concedes the lithium-ion systems are more expensive than their diesel counterparts up front, but cost less in the long run when operating costs are factored in.
The makers of the type of equipment Williams is targeting are all based overseas, in Japan, South Korea, France and Italy.
“We currently have a number of companies at the table that we’re negotiating to develop drive systems that would go into their 2019 production models,” he said. Williams declined to disclose the companies’ names, without signed agreements in place.
Employees of Viridi Parente are eager to see the company take the next step. Mustafa Celebi, an engineer, has watched customers react to how the technology performs.
“It’s kind of one thing to say, ‘Go ahead and do this,’” Celebi said. “It’s another to actually see it done properly and have all the engineers work on it and do a really wonderful job.”
All of this is unfolding at an industrial site whose future was 1.3 million square foot question mark a decade ago.
Back in 2008, American Axle closed its East Delavan Avenue complex for good, after idling the parts plant the year before. The shutdown halted decades of manufacturing under the General Motors and American Axle banners. Suddenly, the sprawling complex needed a new purpose.
Williams bought the site, demolished part of it, and set out to revitalize the rest of it. His own company, OSC, moved in, as have several other tenants. Not all of them lasted: Galvstar, which marketed a galvanized steel product, left. But Niagara Lubricant bought a standalone building on the property — a former paint shop — and remains there.
Williams needed help resolving an environmental cleanup issue with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on part of the former American Axle property. He credited state Sen. Tim Kennedy and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, both Buffalo Democrats, with devising a solution that allowed his ventures at the site to move forward. Both lawmakers attended a showcase of the technology last month.
“As this company takes root here and employs hundreds of people in the city of Buffalo, it’s going to give new opportunity to folks that may not have had this opportunity without this investment right here, if it had gone somewhere else,” Kennedy said.
Catholic Charities’ Workforce and Education Services just moved into refurbished space in the complex. Jeffrey Conrad, workforce and education director, said the new offices are a big step up and make a positive impression on students who come into the classrooms.
Williams still has a vision of opening a charter school on property across the street from the manufacturing complex. He’s also creating meeting space inside the main complex that will be accessible to community groups, part of his goal to connect the facility with the neighborhood.
“When GM and Axle were here, this was kind of an island,” Williams said. “Nobody came, nobody went. There were guards at every gate.”
Meanwhile, Williams is moving ahead with his plans to make a breakthrough in how construction equipment is powered.
“The construction industry is a good 15 years behind the (electric vehicle) industry, but it’s coming.”