Michel Kamel, CEO of MelRok, holds the MelRok Touch, a universal energy router. The Santa Ana company makes hardware and cloud-based software to help buildings monitor energy consumption in real time. The result: lower costs and a cleaner environment. MelRok employs 20 engineers and expects to double the number by the end of 2017.
Michel Kamel is a Stanford-educated rocket scientist. But the one-time aerospace executive is happy to have embraced a new career.
“When you launch a rocket, there’s thunder and light,” he said. “But what we’re doing now has far more impact on the nation, and on the globe.”
Kamel, 47, is co-founder and chief executive of MelRok, a 5-year-old Santa Ana company that builds hardware and cloud-based software to monitor energy use in buildings – helping to slash costs and, along the way, green the planet.
With 20 engineers, and plans to add another five this year, MelRok has helped UC Irvine save energy in 160 buildings, from dormitories to research labs.
By July, 430 JCPenney stores will use MelRok software to watch how lights, air conditioners and other systems are working at any moment of the day – and detect any wasteful glitches.
MelRok’s latest experiment in the “internet of things” or IoT in engineer-speak: sending silent signals through a San Diego FM radio station to shut off swimming pool pumps at 24 homes.
An estimated 43,000 California businesses spend all or part of their time on “advanced energy,” including 3,870 in Orange County, according to a new survey by Advanced Energy Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. Three quarters are small companies like MelRok.
In California, 508,000 people work full-time or part-time in advanced energy, including 44,100 in Orange County, from solar panel installers to electric car designers, home energy auditors, irrigation specialists, chipmakers, bio-fuel scientists and sustainability executives.
The sector’s California job growth is explosive: up 18 percent in 2015, more than six times faster than the state’s overall payroll expansion of 2.8 percent.
“Whether you realize it or not, clean tech is all around us,” said Scott Kitcher, president and chief executive of CleanTech OC, a local trade group that includes advanced energy firms.
Earlier this month, CleanTech OC convened 50 professionals, including facilities managers from the Irvine Company, Broadcom and UC Irvine, for a workshop on integrated LED, or light-emitting diodes, the bulb-free, energy-efficient technology in which lighting is part of the fixture.
Irvine’s Altura Associates, an energy consulting firm, acted as a moderator and local lighting companies, including Tempo Industries and Performance Lighting Systems, both in Irvine, touted their expertise.
“New companies are springing up in Orange County, with solid revenue and hiring,” Kitcher said. “Big O.C. corporations are bringing in sustainability officers to look at their supply chains. It is not just about the environment, but about creating a more competitive business model.”
Advanced energy businesses spawn both blue- and white-collar jobs. Installation, maintenance, and repair firms account for 42 percent of the sector’s California companies, with heating and air-conditioning technicians and solar-trained electricians in high demand.
San Francisco-based Sunrun, one of the largest U.S. solar installers, has added 210 employees in Orange County in the past year or so, including 119 designers and technicians at an Irvine design center. So far, it has installed 4,648 solar panel arrays on county homes.
San Mateo-based SolarCity, which employs 6,000 in California, has boosted its Santa Ana workforce to 300 from 200 since early 2015.
Other local companies: Newport Beach’s First Element Fuel, which is setting up hydrogen fueling stations; and Irvine’s Blossom, which sells a $199 watering controller that allows sprinklers to be adjusted from a smartphone or tablet.
Richly-paid engineering, research, and professional services are a growing slice of the sector, accounting for a third of the state’s advanced energy firms.
In 2012, when Michael Freeman, an Oklahoma-based engineer and inventor, looked to found a company to manufacture energy-efficient chips, he considered Boston and Silicon Valley, but settled on Orange County. “Irvine has a large pool of expert semiconductor engineers,” he said.
Moreover, he added, “California has cornered the market on green thinking. People gravitate here to start companies. When I think green tech, I think California – from solar to battery powered cars to energy efficient power supplies.”
Freeman’s company, Semitrex, has more than 90 employees in the U.S. and Europe, including 20 engineers in Irvine. “We’ll add another 20 by the end of the year,” he said.
Semitrex chips slash the amount of electricity wasted by so-called “vampire power,” the standby power drained by televisions, washing machines and other appliances when they are not turned on.
“Until recently no one thought about power supply in designing consumer products,” Freeman said. “A stereo system was on 24/7 and the cabinet it sat in was hot enough to bake a cake.”
California was the first state to adopt stiff appliance and equipment efficiency rules and, under President Barack Obama, the U.S, Department of Energy has tightened federal standards. “Consumers are driving change too,” Freeman said. “They’re saying, why pay to waste electricity and pollute the air?”
Not every advanced energy company has been successful, however. Anaheim-based Fisker Automotive, a luxury electric automaker, declared bankruptcy in 2013. In March, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies, a Lake Forest company that made energy-efficient natural gas and hydrogen tanks for trucks, filed for bankruptcy protection.
Still, “California has 10 percent of the U.S. population, but it has 20 percent of the country’s advanced energy jobs,” said Steve Chadima, who commutes between Laguna Beach and San Francisco to direct California policy initiatives for the Advanced Energy Economy trade group.
Much of the explosive growth in advanced energy jobs is driven by government policy, beginning decades ago when California “decoupled” utility profits from the amount of electricity generated, thus spurring conservation.
In 2012, Proposition 39, a ballot initiative, closed a corporate tax loophole, and dedicated $550 million annually over five years to energy-efficiency and clean-energy projects at public buildings and schools.
Meanwhile California utilities are scrambling to add large scale solar and wind facilities to comply with a state law requiring them to generate half of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The state’s cap-and-trade program, which uses fees on fossil-fuel burning companies to fund low-carbon initiatives, is also stimulating the advanced energy sector.
AEE’s report, which draws on a survey of 831 California businesses, as well as data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is broken down by congressional district and state legislative district to send a message that advanced energy initiatives are an economic boon.
“There’s a perception that all this advanced energy stuff – solar panels for your house, driving an electric car – amounts to playthings for the rich,” Chadima said. “People think these jobs are all in Silicon Valley or on the coast. We show people jobs are everywhere.”