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Alumni Portrait: Kim Quirk '82 Th'83
Feb 18, 2019 | by Kristen Senz
Engineer and Entrepreneur
Kim Quirk started Energy Emporium in Enfield, NH, to help businesses and consumers reduce or eliminate their use of fossil fuels.
Whenever gas or heating oil prices start creeping up, Kim Quirk’s phone starts ringing.
In the Upper Valley community where she owns and operates a renewable energy installation business and retail store—the latest in a string of entrepreneurial ventures—Quirk is known as an expert on energy efficiency and off-grid systems. She has combined that technical knowledge with her business acumen to generate the success of her Enfield, N.H.-based Energy Emporium.
“I would call Energy Emporium an integration company,” says Quirk. “We integrate technologies—inverters, solar panels, batteries, all different kinds of things—to accomplish our mission, which is to help homeowners and small businesses reduce or eliminate their use of fossil fuels.”
To do that, Quirk asks her customers questions to understand their goals.
“Some people want to reduce their electric bills. Some people want to be able to turn off their boiler in the summer and still be able to have hot water. Other people are looking to become more self-reliant,” she explains. “Everybody is coming at it from different perspectives, and we have to be able to tease out, what is the best approach for this business or homeowner in their current situation.”
Energy Emporium has received national recognition for its zero-energy headquarters, an 1858 house and store on Enfield’s Main Street that Quirk finished renovating in 2010. Quirk lives above the shop and considers the building to be the special ingredient that enables Energy Emporium to prosper, even as government incentives for renewable energy systems have dried up.
“People walk in who just want to ask about LED light bulbs, and other people who walk in want elaborate solar arrays on their roof,” she says. “We make money on the solar array, but that person who asked about the light bulb, two years later they’re going to want a solar array, often.”
For Quirk, the business represents not only the culmination of a career as an engineer and entrepreneur, but also the manifestation of an early interest in systems and sustainability that was solidified at Thayer School.
Quirk poses with photovoltaic tubes in front of the zero-energy building that houses Energy Emporium.
“The systems dynamics classes that talk about feedback cycles really emphasize that if you continue putting input into something—like the atmosphere, if you continue putting CO2 into it—you can see the negatives that are happening. Then, if you stop, the system continues to change for some amount of time until there’s a new equilibrium,” says Quirk. “We don’t even know what that new equilibrium could possibly be, but more importantly, we aren’t even trying to stop.”
These thoughts remained with Quirk after she graduated from Thayer in 1983 with a master’s degree focused on electrical engineering. But at the time, personal computers were new, and she jumped into the world of communications engineering, working on early Ethernet devices and router technology. She and her then-husband, Kent Quirk ’82, moved south to the Boston area for a series of short-lived jobs at tech startups. After welcoming their first child, Quirk started a home-based consulting firm designing circuit boards, first on paper, then with the help of a computer.
After four years, she joined startup Chipcom, where she spent about a decade, including the year her family lived in southern France for her role in a development partnership with IBM. Quirk owned stock in Chipcom when 3Com bought it for $700 million in 1995, giving her and her husband seed money to start CogniToy, an educational computer game company. Mind Rover, a game that taught children how to program robots, went to market right before Lego launched Mindstorms. CogniToy raised $750,000 in angel capital, says Quirk.
“It was the perfect company to run while the kids were young enough that they were involved with the educational games and they did testing. It was a good family bonding experience,” she says, adding: “Both sons are software engineers now, so I guess it worked.”
About 10 years ago, after CogniToy had closed, Quirk saw an opportunity for change. She and her husband had divorced and her aging parents had relocated to the Upper Valley, where startup costs and competition were much lower than in Boston. Reigniting her early interest in sustainability, she invested $60,000 in training through USA Solar Store and started Energy Emporium. She credits her time at Dartmouth for giving her the confidence to make the leap.
Quirk oversees the installation of a residential solar array.
“I think Thayer School gives you the background and knowledge and confidence to seek out what you want to do and to not be afraid that you don’t know what you need to know,” she says. “Everybody has a lack of knowledge when they’re starting out. I didn’t know anything about solar, but I knew I wanted to learn. It’s easy enough to get started in the learning, and I think Thayer School and Dartmouth give you that confidence.”
These days, although government incentives for solar energy systems are in decline, Quirk says Energy Emporium stays busy with maintenance and new technologies, including lithium batteries.
“Integrating battery systems that work with grid-tie systems has been an interesting challenge and a lot of fun,” she says. “Solar battery backup costs more to install but the charging and the fuel is free, it’s a lot quieter, and there’s no maintenance. It’s becoming a good alternative to a generator backup.”
Looking ahead, Quirk envisions that construction companies will routinely use building materials that incorporate solar energy technology and HVAC companies will install and repair solar electric and hot water systems. This is good news, she says, even though it will inevitably lead to an evolution of Energy Emporium, which she hopes to eventually pass on to a new owner.
“The good news is that every time the gas prices go up or the oil prices go up, we get more inquiries, and when they go back down, things kind of level off, but they don’t go away,” says Quirk. “The momentum behind the renewable revolution is real. I think it’s here forever, and like any industry, it’ll have its ups and downs, but it’s not going away. There are an awful lot of fossil fuels to eliminate, and that means there’s a lot of work to be done.”
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