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Clean Energy's Rising Star

by Aimee Keane
Aug 21, 2014

When Chicago-born Claire Tramm was in the second grade, she had the concept of sustainability figured out. Now straddling two jobs, one as CEO of clean tech startup Effortless Energy and the other spearheading the city’s energy efficiency upgrades at the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, 30-year-old Tramm has created an attractive energy finance model that is planning for the future.

“I remember sitting on my dad’s lap after he got home from a conference in Denmark,” Tramm said over lunch in downtown Chicago, “and he just said, ‘It’s kind of like Lake Michigan. There’s a lot of fish in it, and there’s always going to be a lot of fish in it as long as you don’t over fish this year.’ ” Tramm’s eyes lit up as she retold this moment from her childhood. “As a kid I got it,” she said. “The basic principle is the long term plan.”

Long term planning has been the root of Tramm’s success so far. She discovered a hidden market opportunity when she was working with McKinsey & Co. out of college. Tasked with analyzing carbon and energy efficiency cost curves, Tramm found what she called a “win-win” opportunity. “When you line everything up on the carbon cost curve, you find that some things don’t actually net cost you anything to save carbon,” she said.

Tramm credits annual family road trips to the national parks and a year working on an elk refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo. with expanding her appreciation for Mother Nature and a desire to preserve its beauty for future generations.

During her time at McKinsey, she also realized that despite the potential savings in energy efficiency, homeowners were overwhelmed by a disaggregated opportunity. Instead of asking homeowners to identify sources of inefficiency, picking the right upgrades and then coordinating the installation, Tramm opted to create a company that would take care of everything and at no initial cost to the customer.

In 2012, while a master’s student at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, Tramm partnered with a classmate to create the concept of Effortless Energy. After a successful round with Impact Engine, the business accelerator program based out of Chicago tech startup hub 1871, Tramm said she and partner Matt Gee found their feet as entrepreneurs.

What Tramm now sells is an agreement with a homeowner: Effortless Energy assumes the cost of an energy upgrade, whether it’s a Nest thermostat, new boiler or both, and charges the homeowner for every “negawatt” or unit of energy saved within the contract period. She assumes the risk of energy savings materializing during that period. Contracts for homeowners run anywhere between 10 and 15 years, and Tramm said her company is working on a one-year, scaled-down contract model to reach renters.

“We’re selling you the upgrade,” Tramm said, “and we’re going to keep most of the savings...We’re a finance company.”

With Tramm as energy director, the Chicago Infrastructure Trust took this micro financing model and executed it on a much larger scale. The trust, which was announced to great fanfare by Mayor Emanuel along with the help of former President Bill Clinton in 2012, is slowly gaining speed. It broke ground on the first municipal building energy retrofit in April and announced approval in June of a city pool retrofit project.

“Even if you don’t self-identify as a green person,” Tramm said, “energy efficiency is still smart for a lot of other reasons.”