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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April
14, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Armed with Solar Technology, Their Target is Iraq
"There’s a line between courage and foolhardiness," says Quentin
Kelly, CEO of WorldWater. As the Pennington-based solar powered water
pumping company he founded prepares to send seven of its own to
Baghdad, he knows that he is walking that line. There is a map of Iraq
spread out on a table in his office, and he leans over it again and
again as reports of new battles come in from CNN. A mosque has just
been bombed, killing some 40 Iraqis. Media commentators are starting
to refer to "the new war in Iraq." Just the week before, four American
contractors were pulled from their truck, brutally murdered, burned,
and hung from a bridge as crowds of young boys cheered.
A call comes in from the Sandi Group, the international development
company with which WorldWater is to meet in Baghdad. Kelly calls for
Anand Rangarajan, his executive vice president and the man who will
lead WorldWater’s group to Iraq. The two talk via conference phone
with their Iraqi contact about how close the violence is coming to the
hotel in which the WorldWater contingent will be staying.
The hotel, which Kelly refuses to identify, is surrounded by massive
concrete pylons. Sandi has hired a top-notch security force to
safeguard its contractors. Still, even as WorldWater employees from
around the country gather at the company’s Pennington headquarters in
preparation for the trip, originally scheduled to begin on Saturday,
April 20, and now postponed for at least a few days, doubt remains. Is
the company being foolhardy in pressing ahead? The stakes are
"Iraq is transformational for us," says Kelly. He founded the company
in 1984, working with five volunteer scientists from Princeton
University to develop a water pump powered by the sun. "We were in R &
D for a long, long time," he says. A major breakthrough came two years
ago with the invention of a control mechanism that increases the power
of its solar water pumps enormously. Manufactured by Rockwell and the
"brains" of the system, it is a modification of the devices that drive
elevators in large buildings. Using this technology, the company’s new
Aquamax system, says Kelly, "allows us to take the level of solar
power of 5 horsepower to 20, 50, 100, 400, 600 horsepower."
While its competitors still pump with only five horsepower, an amount
that produces a modest amount of water, WorldWater’s Aquamax is able
to pump enough to fill the water needs of a small city. "We could pump
the Delaware River dry!" says Kelly with a grin, before adding, "No,
no, just kidding."
After 20 years, the company has impressive, proprietary technology in
place. It also has new financing. During the first week in April, SBI
USA, an investment banking firm based in Irvine, California and
feeding on money from Asia, gave WorldWater a $3.64 million common
stock purchase order, with a call on an additional $3.64 million at
the company’s option. This is a significant investment in a company
with a market cap of $10 million.
"Oh, this is huge for us," says Kelly, a low-key, engaging Irish
American, who leads his devoted troops in blue jeans and sneakers.
"For the first time, we are properly funded."
Seconds later, an investor calls, asking about recent activity in the
company’s stock, which trades over the counter as WWAT.OB. He tells
his caller the story of how the financing came about. It involves a
speech Kelly made at a financial conference in New York, two people
who heard him and instantly realized that his was exactly the type of
company in which SBI wanted to invest, and a deal that was consummated
in under seven days.
The pieces are falling into place for WorldWater. Its technology is
ready for prime time, its ledger is ready to fund new orders, and it
is poised to win a great deal of business in Iraq, which is just the
sort of place where its revolutionary method of supplying water is
most needed. Business from Iraq could easily push the company, which
went public in 1997, into profitability. But for Kelly, and for many
of his employees, using the sun to pump water is about much more than
The mission that led Kelly to the moment where he has to decide
whether or not to send his employees into a war zone began at a
cocktail party in New York City in 1984. There he met a man who was an
economic advisor to Sudan. At the time, Kelly owned a company that
sold pressurized water systems for boats and RVs. He and his new
acquaintance talked about the water needs of Sudan, and Kelly was
invited to survey the situation for himself. He promptly agreed.
"It was catastrophic," he says. "There was little water in all of
Khartoum." Refugees from Ethiopia, 100,000 men, women, and children,
were gathered in the capital of Sudan. "They were dying in a mass
lump," he recalls. He stood with the country’s natural resources
director and watched.
"Isn’t there anything that we can do?" he asked.
"What can we do?" replied the minister. "We have no diesel fuel. No
pumps. We’re not on an electric grid."
"What’s the water table?" Kelly asked.
The minister told him it was 10 meters. "Thirty-three feet!" he
exclaims. "They were dying of thirst standing just thirty-three feet
Has he ever forgotten the scene? "Never," he says. And it’s not only
the sight that remains in his mind. "There was a smell," he says, "and
a sound. Sort of a humming."
The experience changed his life. He went straight from the Sudan to
Princeton, in search of scientists to help him develop a water pump
for Third World countries. He is not an engineer himself, and in fact
he traveled anything but a straight path to the work he is now doing.
Kelly, one of four children, was born in New Orleans and spent a good
part of his childhood in Washington, D.C. His mother was a school
teacher and his father owned a construction company. "He built a lot
of the streets and sidewalks in New Orleans in the ’20s and ’30s,"
says Kelly. "I still see his ‘Globe’ symbol on corners when I visit."
After earning a degree in English from Kenyon College in Ohio, Kelly
hitchhiked to California. "I got a job at MGM," he says. "I was the
youngest guy there." After writing for the movie studio, he left to
write a novel and to work for a small newspaper in Southern
California. He left after a short stint, however, because he was about
to be drafted and decided he would prefer not be.
"I went into the intelligence business," he says. After joining the
CIA, he studied Russian at the Monterey Language School before being
posted to Europe. He will not discuss specifics of the work he did,
but he does convey the impression that it was intense. "My feet were
to the fire every day," he says. "It was so challenging, and rewarding
– and scary."
Released from service to his country, Kelly got a job as a writer for
the San Francisco Examiner. From there, he went on to become a
writer/producer for Westinghouse Broadcasting, first in San Francisco
and then in New York City. He moved up in that company, writing
speeches for the president of the broadcasting unit, and then for the
president of the corporation. By the time he left, he was the
It was a good job, offering an overview of all of Westinghouse’s
operations, but there came a point where Kelly, the son of an
entrepreneur, wanted to be on his own. Westinghouse had introduced the
English major to engineering, and that is the direction in which he
went as a business owner.
"I went into the water business," he says. "I made some pretty good
money." He started several companies, including the one that sold the
pressurized water system, and then sold them. He also invested in
companies. One of his investments was in a Somerville company that
"started to go south." Living in Connecticut, he had to travel down to
check up on that company more and more frequently. The time he had to
put in became so great that he started to look for a new home in New
Jersey. House hunting in Hopewell, he came upon the farm that had been
owned by Keith Robertson, author of the Henry Reed series of
When Kelly and his wife, Peg Kelly, who now teaches English at MCCC
and at the Princeton Adult School, told their three children about the
farm, the kids, big Henry Reed fans, eagerly signed on to the move.
It was at about that time that Kelly started WorldWater. For many
years it was a part-time endeavor. "I met with the Princeton
scientists, who were instrumental in designing rocket engines for
NASA, on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings," he says. He also
worked with solar power experts, but they too were supporting
themselves mainly through other jobs. "We were all doing other
things," he says.
Within the past few years, after obtaining patents on its technology
and receiving backing from a group of Swedish investors, WorldWater
has begun to build its employee roster.
How many employees now?
"Let’s see," says Kelly, leaning back in his chair, counting in his
head. "We have 15 employees here, 10 consultants, 5 employees in
California, 5 manufacturing reps in California, and 4 employees in the
Philippines." The numbers may well soar – and soon. WorldWater is
working on two fronts. It has small-scale prototype projects in the
Third World and it is building a client roster of big water users in
the United States.
Chris Sherring, vice president and director of operations, brings his
laptop into Kelly’s office and fires up a CNN video telling the story
of WorldWater’s solar pumps in the Island Province of Cebu in the
Philippines. On the screen, villagers insert plastic "smartcards,"
developed by WorldWater’s software team, into a sleek blue and white
pump, which fills their buckets with water.
The water Americans take for granted, and for which they pay an
extremely small percentage of their income, is a scarce, precious, and
wildly expensive luxury in much of the world. In Cebu, for example,
Kelly says that profiteers, using donkeys to transport water of
dubious quality, charged villagers exorbitant amounts for the
essential commodity. "People had been paying guys with donkeys 25 to
30 percent of their income," he says.
WorldWater found water, drilled down to it, and now pumps it through
solar-powered pumps. A big problem in much of the developing world is
financing. The village in which the pumps sit had never before
obtained financing for a project. Kelly’s company convinced a local
bank to make a loan for its system by assuring it that repayment would
"Villagers take their cards to town hall and buy X number of liters,"
explains Kelly. "There’s a little machine. It marks up, say, 100
liters. We have tap stands with aqua meters. They take the card, push
it in, and see the number of liters." The water flows into the buckets
the villagers bring, and when they have enough, they pull out the
smartcard. A percentage of each purchase goes directly to the bank to
repay the loan, a percentage goes to the community for infrastructure
improvements, and WorldWater takes a percentage. And the villagers
have clean water for 15 to 20 percent of the amount they were paying
"We can replicate this all over the world, and make a profit," says
Kelly. One of the biggest obstacles to large scale projects is
financing. In the Philippines, his company is close to starting 100
more projects. It has backing from two banks, and is working on
getting backing from the government.
The big issue driving demand for WorldWater’s technology in developing
countries is a lack of infrastructure. In the United States, issues
include the soaring cost of energy, the unreliability of the electric
grid in some places, increasing brown outs and black outs in times of
peak usage, and the need for energy conservation.
Many of the company’s projects are in California, where recent energy
problems, combined with new legislation and incentives, is creating
demand for solar power. The company is installing a one-megawatt solar
power system, enough to power 1,000 homes, at Cerro Cosa Community
College, which is located in the Mojave Desert in Ridgecrest,
California. Half of the cost of the $8.9 million system, which is one
of the most powerful solar fields in the country, was paid for by the
California Energy Commission, and half was funded by a voter-approved
Elsewhere in California, WorldWater is powering irrigation pumps for a
cotton farm. Recently patented technology developed by Rangarajan and
by another WorldWater employee, Thomas McNulty, causes the pumps to
spring into action when electric power is disrupted, and then switches
back to electricity when it comes back on. The company just received
an excited call from the owner of the cotton farm. There had been a
power failure, all the farms around him had been shut down for three
hours, but his pumps had continued to work without a blip.
"He said ‘it works! it works!’" recounts Rangarajan, with a smile. "We
were so excited. I guess we shouldn’t have been because, after all, it
just did what it was supposed to do, but we were."
A branch of farming in which WorldWater sees great potential is
wineries, where solar-powered systems could both irrigate grape vines
and chill wine. Vineyard owners signing on for a solar system should
see their energy prices drop. In addition, they would be eligible for
a 50 percent utility rebate, a 10 percent federal tax credit, and a 15
percent California tax credit. They would also be able to bank unused
solar-generated electricity with state utility districts.
New Jersey has not suffered the acute energy woes that have shut down
California businesses for days at a time, but the state is looking
ahead. In late March, with snow falling despite the fact that spring
had officially arrived, the state passed regulations that make it the
most aggressive promoter of solar power in the country. New Jersey’s
Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved standards that call for 90
megawatts of solar power in the state by 2008.
"That’s 90 Cerra Cosa colleges," says WorldWater’s Sherring, referring
to the solar-powered junior college in California.
SolarAccess.com, a website serving the solar industry, proclaimed that
the BPU’s "historic vote" will cause steady growth in new solar
systems in the state.
All of this is good news for WorldWater. It has a number of
competitors, but none yet have the ability to power projects of the
size that it can take on. Conditions are improving for big solar in
the United States, and there are pressing needs for solar, on any
scale, in the Third World.
Iraq falls somewhere in the middle. Its water needs are enormous; it
has some power infrastructure in place; and WorldWater’s solution
comes in the form of the same large pumping systems it is installing
in California. But in terms of working conditions, Iraq, with its
extreme weather, distance from Pennington, delicate diplomatic
situation, and hostile citizens, presents challenges not found in the
On its upcoming mission to Iraq, the WorldWater team is planning to
meet with the country’s Ministry of Housing and Ministry of Public
Works and also with the big American contractors working in the
country, with Bechtel, Parsons Engineering, Perrini, and others.
WorldWater will not be bidding on contracts, but rather it will be
seeking to obtain subcontracting work from these construction giants.
Rangarajan, who is leading the WorldWater group, explains why a solar
powered system is perfect for war-ravaged Iraq. "Each one is a
self-contained utility," he says. "There are no wires that can be cut;
there is no need to transport diesel fuel."
Rangarajan has been working on solar power projects for some two
decades, since his graduate school days at M.I.T.. Calm and reserved,
he is as passionate about solar power as is his boss. His family
worries about his upcoming trip, but he is absolutely committed to
spreading the non-sectarian gospel of clean, reliable, renewable power
And how about Kelly? Does he wish that he were going too?
"Every night I go home and say to my wife ‘I’m the one who should be
going,’" he says, "but Anand is so much better. He can analyze a
problem on the spot, and come up with just the right solution. No one
The danger doesn’t especially bother him. "Anand and I have been in
much worse situations," Kelly says. "We’ve been in rebel camps in
Afghanistan, in Pakistan. We had no protection. In Iraq, they will
have a full security detail."
Still, Kelly rises to study his Iraq map, and marks the distance from
the latest battle to the hotel where his team will stay. Rangarajan,
his colleague and friend, remains seated, calm and assured. "I want to
make solar mainstream," he says. "There is a perfect opportunity in
Iraq. They’re struggling for water, and we can make a unique
contribution. I feel like I have no choice. I must go."
Business Park, Building B, Pennington 08534. Quentin T. Kelly, CEO.
609-818-0700; fax, 609-818-0720. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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