CAPE ELIZABETH — Two boys mowing lawns to make money in the summer? Nothing new there.
How about teenage twins with a growing, all-electric, zero-emission lawn care business fueled by sunshine?
Now that’s cutting edge.
Dimitri and Philip Coupe, both 17, are the owners of Solar Mow, among the state’s few all-electric lawn care services, and likely the only one charged by solar energy. Their 3-year-old enterprise is on the vanguard of a national trend to phase out noisy, polluting gasoline landscape equipment, in favor of battery models.
The evolving story of Solar Mow is as old as the quest to earn some bucks in the summer and as fresh as how to save the planet, one lawn at a time.
It’s also a tale of generational entrepreneurism. Their father, Phil Coupe, is the co-founder of South Portland-based ReVision Energy. From its start as a small renewable energy company in 2005, ReVision has grown to become a leading rooftop solar installer in northern New England, with 350 employees.
It was the elder Coupe who told his then-high school freshmen in 2020 that their parents would no longer give them money for eating out with friends. Time to get summer jobs.
Recalling his teenage days mowing lawns, and always thinking of climate-friendly angles, Coupe suggested that the twins start a zero-emission lawn care service. Be your own boss, he told them. And because they (of course) live in a house with solar-electric panels on the roof, they would be able to charge the mower batteries without fossil fuels.
The idea wasn’t a slam-dunk. The kids were 14 years old. They were busy with sports. And they only had $400 in the bank. Luckily, they were able to negotiate a favorable loan at the Bank of Dad. For $6,000, they assembled a basic, all-electric landscape lineup: a Ryobi ride-on mower with a 42-inch deck, a 21-inch EGO push mower, a cordless string trimmer and a small trailer.
Next came some Facebook ads, a few flyers and lots of knocking on doors. Suddenly the boys had 12 customers around their Cape Elizabeth neighborhood. Solar Mow was in business.
Too young to drive, the twins depended on dad to move them around at first. They towed the trailer behind an all-electric Nissan Leaf, a company vehicle that featured a graphic and logo, “This car is powered by solar energy.” They tried to find customers close together, so they could ride the mower up the street.
“In that first summer,” Philip remembered, “we didn’t make all the loan back. But it gave us confidence.”
The following spring, it was time to get the business rolling again.
“Dad started hounding us every day to knock on doors looking for more work,” Philip said. “We were hesitant to do that.”
Dimitri explained why.
“We were really just lazy,” he said. “Being high schoolers, we’d rather be playing sports on the turf with friends.”
They did reach out, and by the summer of 2021 Solar Mow had 30 accounts, including some in South Portland and Portland. But the riding mower, built chiefly for weekend warriors and suffering from improperly stored batteries over the winter, started to die. It just wasn’t up to mowing 3 acres of lawn a day. The twins faced a decision: Get another homeowner-style rig or step up to a commercial-grade machine.
They decided to go big. Midway through summer, they went to New Hampshire to take delivery of a Mean Green riding mower with a 60-inch deck. Built in Ohio and billed as having been the world’s first commercial-grade electric ride-on, the Mean Green Rival model can run seven hours on a charge. It’s the Tesla of riding mowers.
It came with a Teslaesque price, $24,000. That required an additional loan from the family bank. But the new mower’s capabilities allowed Solar Mow to grow to 35 customers this year.
Getting paid an average of $50 for a weekly cut, Solar Mow generated enough cash flow to pay down the dad debt. Business is good enough that the company has taken on its first employee, a high school friend.
“We’ve made the money back to pay back the loan from dad,” Philip said last week. “Everything now is profit.”
Last Tuesday the young men were working at a home in the Kettle Cove neighborhood of the Cape. They pulled up towing their landscape trailer in the family’s 2022 Ford Escape hybrid plug-in. The SUV can travel more than 40 miles on battery alone and is charged at the Coupe home.
Soon the home’s owner, Sam Milton, came outside.
Milton had learned about Solar Mow in May through a notice at Cape Elizabeth High School, where the Coupe twins presented a TEDx Talk called, “the future is electric.” Their business model resonated with him.
Milton’s consulting business, Climate Resources Group, helps companies with sustainability issues. He also has solar panels on his roof and drives an electric Chevy Bolt.
“I didn’t even know this was an option until I saw the TED piece,” he said.
Recent rain and warm temperatures had created a shaggy green carpet sprinkled with white clover. As Milton watched, Philip cut a wide swatch in the Mean Green machine. Dimitri maneuvered the weed whacker along the fence line. Their friend, Jack Carignan, trimmed the margins with the push mower. Working together, they buzzed through the half-acre yard in a half-hour.
Milton said he’s happy to support young running a clean-energy entrepreneurs business.
“I hope more companies emulate what they’re doing,” he said.
CLEAN AND QUIET
The push to electric lawn care is being propelled nationally by laws and ordinances targeting the noise, air pollution and climate-warming emissions associated with gasoline-powered equipment.
California enacted a statewide ban on the sale of most new gas mowers, trimmers and blowers starting in 2024. It includes a $30 million subsidy program to help small landscape companies convert.
In Washington, DC, gas leaf blowers were banned as of Jan. 1. Some towns around Boston, such as Marblehead and Lexington, have similar bans aimed at quelling cacophony in the leafy suburbs. Some landscape companies have pushed back against these ordinances, citing the cost of converting their equipment. But others have embraced it. One company, TJ Collins Landscaping in Westwood, Massachusetts, has formed a division called the Quiet Crew that promotes its electric equipment hauled in a large enclosed trailer with solar panels on the roof.
Homeowners also are embracing cordless electric lawn care, according to industry projections. Longer-lasting batteries, reliable operation and prices on par with conventional gas models are helping drive the conversion. For instance: The sort of push mower used by Solar Mow sells in home improvement stores today for $300 to $400, including a battery and charger.
And unlike electric cars, lawn equipment is widely available. Electric mower market share in America has grown to 65 percent, according to a recent report by Fact.MR, a market research firm.
“Electric lawn mowers have made a complete transition into the mainstream from a novelty,” the report said.
In Portland’s suburbs, though, battery lawn care still has enough cachet to give early entrepreneurs a branding edge.
Jason Batchelor of South Portland parlayed his education in environmental technology and biology into a one-person landscape business, beginning in 2017 with a Kobalt electric push mower. After a couple of years, he also moved up to a Mean Green rider and branched out into organic lawn care. Today his business, Sweet Pea Lawn Care, services 38 customers in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
Clients appreciate the no-emissions equipment, Batchelor said, but that’s not their biggest rave.
“I started it for the impact on air quality,” he said. “But what I found is people are just as excited about how quiet it is. That has spread the business even more than the environmental part.”
Chris Capron is a real estate investor in Scarborough who has grass to mow at his area properties. He wanted to go electric but also decided to launch a side hustle called Lawn EV.
Capron bought two Mean Green riding mowers with 52-inch cutting decks at a dealer in Massachusetts, for $23,000 each. He also has an EGO push mower, weed whacker and blower.
Capron has been splitting lawn care work with his 15-year-old son, Sean.
“The long-term goal is for him to take over the business,” Capron said.
As Solar Mow becomes more established, the Coupe twins also are becoming ambassadors for beneficial electrification, the goal among environmental advocates of phasing out all fossil-fueled machines and appliances for those running on electricity from renewable sources.
Last fall the twins were invited to bring their riding mower to LL Bean in Freeport and show it off to the grounds crew. A friend’s father supplies equipment to the retail giant and set up the presentation for the crew, which had expressed interest in going all-electric. It was a moment of validation for Solar Mow, as was their TEDx Talk.
Both Dimitri and Philip Coupe said they are interested in climate activism and have begun thinking about how that might translate into career paths. They want to find jobs in something related to sustainability. Rising seniors, the young men are looking at colleges this summer, recently touring their father’s alma mater, Boston College.
Looming graduation has opened up a discussion about the future of Solar Mow. They could run it next summer, but what happens when college starts is an open question.
“We’ve got to make a business decision,” Dimitri said. “But there’s nothing better than being your own boss. That’s what my dad taught me.”