George Sakellaris, a Greek immigrant who earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Maine in 1969 and went on to become a leader in energy conservation and the founder of Ameresco, Inc., the largest independent energy solutions provider in North America, has been awarded the highest honor for alumni by the College of Engineering.
Sakellaris, who created two other highly successful energy conservation companies, was given the Edward T. Bryand Distinguished Engineering Award in November for his contributions to the energy industry and to his community.
“I’m pleased and honored, but at the same time humbled, because there are so many other graduates who deserve this more,” said Sakellaris in an interview before the ceremony where UMaine President Robert Kennedy presented him with the award.
Sakellaris lives in Milton, Mass., with his wife, Cathy, and children, Christina and Peter.
Committed to making a positive contribution to the health and welfare of the planet, he established Ameresco in 2000, aiming to help customers lower energy costs, increase energy reliability and enhance the environment.
Headquartered in Framingham, Mass., with offices throughout the U.S. and Canada, Ameresco has worked with hospitals, schools, public housing, government and businesses to modernize infrastructure, manage power supply, and build and operate renewable energy projects such as small scale windmills and hydroelectric dams and landfill gas-to-energy systems.
“There is no building that we haven’t gone into that we haven’t reduced their energy consumption by 25-40 percent,” said Sakellaris.
Known as a pioneer in solving tough energy conservation issues, Sakellaris was asked in 2005 to be among the technical experts to join the Clinton Climate Initiative, launched by the former President Bill Clinton. The partnership between the Clinton Foundation and some of the world’s largest cities aims to lessen the impact of harmful greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy demand.
“I was thrilled to be part of it,” said Sakellaris. Today, Ameresco is helping out by auditing energy use and performing building retrofits at no cost to homes in Louisiana.
Participating in the initiative has given Sakellaris the opportunity to spread his message that energy conservation is one of our best global supply options. “If everybody saved 20 percent of their energy costs that would translate to 25 billion barrels annually and emissions would be reduced by 9.55 billion metric tons of CO2 per year.”
His words have resonated, he added happily, noting that Bill Clinton and others have been repeating those numbers.
UMaine administrators praised Sakellaris for his many professional accomplishments and his foresight.
“For more than 35 years George has been at the frontier of tough energy conservation issues,” said President Kennedy, who hopes to work with Sakellaris on the University’s own energy plan.
“We at the University are very committed to energy conservation, so I have a special appreciation for the work that George has done and will continue to do.”
President Kennedy also noted Sakellaris’ “deep sense of integrity, powerful personal initiative, and respect for others.
“An unwavering commitment to family and community are also important to George, as is a sense of humility and the ability to be flexible and to think “out of the box.’’’
Professor Mohamad Musavi, chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who nominated him for the Bryand Award, said Sakellaris had the courage to try new approaches and that his experience and influence have been helping to shape the energy industry for more than two decades.
“He was thinking about these issues 25 years ago when very few people were making the case that energy conservation made sound business sense. This is what distinguishes him. His accomplishments ultimately will benefit not only humankind but also the environment.”
Sakellaris’ story typifies the American Dream. He grew up on a farm in Sparta, Greece, where the importance of education, hard work, integrity and determination was instilled in him at an early age. His goal always was to attend college in the U.S., so after graduating from high school he packed his bags and moved to Bangor to live with the Brountas family who were relatives.
“You’ll be close to Orono. There is a great engineering school there,” they told him.
He enrolled at UMaine speaking little English, but armed with a fierce determination to build a better life for himself. He credits the flagship University with giving him a strong academic foundation thanks to excellent courses, such as power engineering and engineering economics, and patient, helpful professors such as Carlton Brown, Ned Sheppard, Fred Irons and Dick Hill.
“Socially, UMaine helped me too,” Sakellaris said. “I was exposed to different cultures and different people. It broadened my horizons.”
The days were jam packed as he juggled studies with jobs as a clerk in a variety store and a short order cook in the family restaurant. During the summer, he’d pick up the pace, working 16 hours a day seven days a week.
But he found time for fun, too, socializing with classmates and area families who would take foreign students under their wing.
The cold weather took some getting used to, Sakellaris admitted. “That first winter, I said to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’ But I stayed focused on the mission I came here for.”
After graduation, he began his career at New England Electrical Systems (NEES) where he adapted quickly thanks to his UMaine background.
“I knew so much that after four months, I told them I had enough training and that I wanted to really do something,” he told his boss. While working, he earned graduate degrees in electrical engineering and business from Northeastern University.
In 1979, he was recruited to analyze whether it made better economic sense for the company to promote energy conservation and energy management or to build a power plant.
“You’d better do the analysis if you want to move ahead,” a senior vice president advised him.
So Sakellaris asked for a team of bright young colleagues and they got to work and ultimately proved that indeed it was cheaper and better for the environment to encourage energy conservation and reduce consumption.
“We developed some analytical tools that are still being used today,” Sakellaris said.
He subsequently launched NEES Energy, a subsidiary of NEES, and pioneered the Energy Savings Performance Contract Concept (ESPC) which has since become a cornerstone in the industry. It operates under a simple premise, Sakellaris explained: “If I tell you you’ll save a million bucks, and you don’t, I’ll make up the difference.”
It’s all about integrity, he added. “Deliver the customer what you promise.”
Under Sakellaris’ guidance, NEES Energy implemented the first ESPC at the Mercantile Wharf in Boston in 1981.
In 1987 NEES was converted into NORESCO, an energy conservation company serving municipalities, government agencies, school districts and hospitals. Sakellaris served as president and CEO until 1997 when the company was acquired by Equitable Resources, an integrated energy company. He then served as president and senior vice president of that corporation.
Reflecting on the twists and turns his life has taken, Sakellaris said it’s hard to believe how far he has come. The personal motto that he adopted nearly 30 years ago has stood him in good stead: “Work harder than the other guy, be persistent and focus.”