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While it’s pretty uncommon to find full service gas stations these days, Paul Nelson and his team at Ward Alternative Energy have incorporated integrated services (vehicle and fueling station services) into their natural fuel business model and so far it’s serving them well. We got a chance to speak with Paul about Ward Alternative Energy’s beginnings, what’s coming up in his industry and his thoughts on the Boulder and STL startup communities.
Talk to us a little about your background and the inspiration for the company.
I built Blue Energy & Technologies in the natural gas vehicle (NGV) industry and sold it to T. Boone Pickens’ company ENRG Fuels in 2003. From 2004-2010 I earned two degrees in chemistry to complement my business background and to understand the science of energy, then helped launch two energy research centers.
After returning to the private sector, I set up my investment firm Saoradh Energy Partners so I and others could play operating roles and make investments in young energy companies.
In 2012, we began providing consulting services to the Ward family and then stepped into operating roles and made a seed investment in Ward Alternative Energy. The idea was to take what we’d learned from building Blue Energy & Technologies and couple it with advancements made in the NGV industry and a new approach to providing integrated services and multiple alternative fuels. This included low-priced, plentiful natural gas, mature vehicle fuel system and engine and storage vessel technology for medium and heavy duty trucks. By offering integrated services (vehicle and fueling station services) we look to solve most problems for fleets adopting NGVs, rather than just sell them the fuel.
What inspired you to work within the energy field and the startup space?
I have been fascinated with the business and science of energy since I was a teenager. It came naturally to me and is a fundamental international industry. I love to innovate, build and lead organizations. It’s my way of taking ideas and making them real, which is really satisfying.
As the president, have you seen the vision of Ward change in your time so far?
We’ve only been developing the company for three years, so mostly our efforts have been around refining our vision rather than changing it. Fortunately, we’ve been successful in passing state-level legislation in partnership with trucking associations, building new multi-fuel sites and offering our integrated set of services and products, as we had planned to do.
However, in our vehicle services group we realized in early 2014 that we should raise its game to become a final stage manufacturing partner to Ford Motor Company and received their QVM (qualified vehicle modifier) designation by Q3 last year. The associated quality control processes we put into place with Ford helped all of our vehicle services work and increased our exposure to vehicle fleets in the region.
You’re based in Boulder, any similarities with STL’s startup scene that you’ve noticed?
Boulder and the Front Range of Colorado are certainly a hotbed of startups. From what I’ve experienced in St Louis, both areas have strong start-up incubators, excellent technology coming out of local universities that young companies can commercialize, and a hard-working and risk-taking mindset.
When you’re in STL, what are some places you try and hit?
And if we’re visiting Boulder, where do we need to stop?
What role have you seen St. Louis play in your development and growth?
Our plan for building fueling facilities for CNG and other natural gas fuels is simply the I-25 corridor and I-70 corridor between Denver and St Louis. We began by opening our vehicle and fueling operations center in Denver and fueling sites along I-25 in Colorado, but this year we are building our first site in Wyoming and looking for opportunities in Missouri and Kansas to pursue next year.
Many of the truck fleets that operate in Missouri have terminals in Kansas or Colorado and vice versa. This Midwest and Rocky Mountain area is underserved by our competitors and truck fleets need the fueling sites to be built in order to move forward with natural gas truck purchases.
What is the most challenging part about your industry?
Educating truck fleet managers about natural gas fuels and how these fuels and the associated vehicle technology are reliable, cost effective and clean. These managers are rightly cautious about adopting new technologies because of the possible risk to their business, so we work diligently at Ward to help do the homework for them to become comfortable enough to move away from diesel and toward natural gas.
We provide complimentary safety training to the vehicle drivers, and we are also developing an interesting data tool to help fleets determine when they can fuel their trucks at our sites with the least wait time. This data allows fleets to maximize the amount of time each truck can being doing work.
What is the future of Ward? Does St. Louis a major part?
We plan to grow from six fueling stations operating and six in construction (plus our other fueling station and vehicle services offerings) today to about 50 fueling sites throughout the Midwest and Rocky Mountain Region within about three years. St Louis will play an important role in our plans as a center of innovation, manufacturing, and heavy truck transport hub.
This blog was created in collaboration with iSelect Fund, a member of the EQ Partner Network.