On Nov. 1, 2015, the first commercial wind power project in Connecticut began spinning its blades for profit. It’s the product of Greg Zupkus (’86, DB), CEO of BNE Energy, and his desire to build something tangible after years as a lobbyist for a telecommunications business.
It took three years to reach that point, Greg says. He and his business partner found initial investors who trusted them and their vision to get the project started and to study the feasibility. They bought 80 acres of land in Colebrook, Conn., built a meteorology tower and measured the wind for two years.
“We had to prove that the fuel, the kinetic energy, was there in the wind,” Greg says. “We negotiated a power purchasing agreement with the utilities; from there it was math with finance people.”
Getting the business model and the science of the project aligned was only part of the battle. BNE Energy juggled environmental regulations, bureaucracy and a temporary statewide ban on wind power. The result of public opposition to BNE Energy’s wind turbine proposal, the ban gave the Connecticut Siting Council (the state entity with legal jurisdiction over power installations) time to develop more defined regulations for the renewable energy. The ban was lifted in 2014. Even after gaining state approval, however, there were additional legal appeals.
“Being first is not always a good thing,” Greg says.
The last appeal failed in Connecticut Superior Court, so they were finally able to erect the two 2.5-megawatt turbines. BNE Energy now provides power for about 2,000 homes, Greg says — better output than their original projections.
There’s room on those 80 acres for two more turbines, and he’s working on setting down 30 megawatts worth of wind power in another facility near Goshen, Conn.
“We follow best practices in the industry. Once they were built, the opposition dropped off and the true supportive majority came out. We actually have a tourism problem now, to the point where we had to put fences and cameras on the property,” Greg says.
Greg and his wife, Lezlye (’87, DB), are each other’s staunchest advocates. So, when she decided to run for a seat in the Connecticut House of Representatives, it was natural that Greg would be her campaign manager.
Lezlye, who also works as state director of Best Buddies of Connecticut, says people pressed her to get into politics in 2006. She declined. They were beginning the adoption process. The Zupkuses now have two daughters they adopted from China: Aizlyn, who is 16 years old, and Reagan, who is 9.
When Lezlye decided to run for office in 2012, her introductory material included a mention of her alma mater. It was a surprise asset for the Republican underdog. “It was amazing how many people came up excited about that. Even now people come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re a graduate of Embry-Riddle!’” Lezlye says.
Lezlye says she beat an 18-year incumbent to win her seat in the House. Greg adds: “Not only that, but she was the only Republican in the state to beat a Democrat.”
Once in office, she worked to increase penalties for drunk-driving offenses, when there are children in the vehicle, earning Lezlye an accolade from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She has also served as a ranking member on the public safety and children’s committees.
She is now the deputy chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus and just won reelection for a third term.
“It’s an honor to represent people who put their faith in you and to make a footprint in this great state. We want to make it a great place for us, our kids and our grandkids,” she says.
Making a Future
The couple met and started dating while studying at Embry-Riddle. Lezlye met Greg at a Super Bowl party put on by his roommates.
“We were friends for almost a year. I would see her in the caf [cafeteria] while I was taking a break, and if she was walking by, she would stop and talk for a while. Back then she was really friendly,” Greg jokes.
Drawn to his sense of humor, Lezlye didn’t hesitate when he asked her on a date. They graduated a semester apart and were married a year later in the summer of 1988. They celebrated their mutual passion for wine with a honeymoon in Napa Valley, Calif.
The Zupkus family now lives in what used to be Greg’s grandfather’s home in Prospect, Conn. They renovated and expanded the 100-year-old home. Greg built the wine cellar himself using wood from the wind farm in Colebrook.
“Sometimes I sit on the back deck and think of this picture I have of me as a 1-year-old, on a lawn mower in this backyard,” Greg says.
He sees wind power as his legacy. “When I was a young boy, my father always said that you should provide for your family, but also that you should produce, you should make things. That was the engineer side of him. After all my years of corporate work, I wanted to be on that producing side,” Greg says.
“The turbines that are installed today have a useful life of 25 years. It’s a beautiful thing. At my age, it’s nice to know that they’re going to be up there producing that clean energy well into the future.”