"It’s a construction company in a tech industry”—that’s how Steve Welsh ’83 describes the rapidly-evolving business of solar power. Equipped with an Executive MBA from Loyola University and a background in construction sales and operational efficiency consulting as a Six Sigma Black Belt, he acquired Standard Energy Solutions in 2015 on a hunch that the industry was on the rise. At the time, the small-scale residential solar installer was doing a little over $1 million in sales. This year, they’re on track to do $22 million.
The switch to solar has become increasingly more attractive to consumers in recent years as the cost of use has reached grid parity. Now, in addition to the environmental benefits, it makes financial sense to go solar. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the price of solar energy has declined 36% over the past five years. Today, over 4% of U.S. electricity comes from solar energy, which is more than 80 times its share a decade ago. The solar industry has set a goal to reach 30% of electricity generation by 2030.
Steve and his team are doing their part to achieve that goal, averaging 700 residential installation projects a year. They are currently building a small subdivision of three net-zero homes in Howard County, for which the solar panels and batteries will produce and store more energy than the residents use. The project, called Greenfields, is the first of its kind in the area.
On the commercial side of solar, Frank Sullivan ’01 and his company, Suntrail Energy, are keeping up with the cutting edge of solar energy innovation. A concept-to-completion development, design, and construction company specializing in commercial and industrial solar projects, Suntrail Energy provides a variety of services to property owners, development groups, nonprofits, and government organizations.
Frank sees potential solar projects everywhere he looks. “There are so many developed parking lots and rooftops,” he says. “Property owners can benefit from solar and improve the property at little to no additional cost and it’s actually something that can be a revenue stream for them.”
Going into 2022, the focus for Suntrail Energy will be on the development of community solar projects. “That’s really the future of solar in the commercial and industrial space right now,” Frank says. Community solar is a program in which multiple customers, businesses, and organizations benefit from energy generated by solar panels at an off-site array. Suntrail Energy currently operates several local community solar facilities, with subscribers saving an average of 10% on their monthly utility.
As solar technology continues to advance, Steve and Frank both project a few innovations will emerge to the forefront of the industry in the next few years. The work-from-home revolution resulting from COVID-19 has led consumers to search for more cost-effective and resilient energy alternatives. One way to improve energy resiliency is by increasing battery storage capacity. Energy storage technology is a few years behind solar production and consumption, but it’s becoming increasingly more affordable.
“The number one thing that’s misunderstood about solar is that people think if they have solar on their home and the power goes out, they can run their home from their solar panels,” Steve says. “If you’re on a grid, you can’t, and that’s by design. The systems are required to shut down when the power goes out so that they’re not back-feeding into the grid and putting workers at risk. But that’s where storage comes in. You can just send that excess energy to the battery instead of the grid and continue to run your power when a storm comes through.”
The solar industry and energy storage have a symbiotic relationship that will play a vital role in helping the SEIA reach its goal of 30% of electricity generation by 2030, as storage will continue to provide consumers with power when the sun isn’t shining.
Green roofing is another fast-catching strategy for sustainability. The sky-high gardens provide necessary green space in a concrete-clad cityscape, reducing runoff stormwater, lowering temperatures, and improving air quality, among other benefits. In cities such as Washington, D.C., there are green area ratio requirements to prevent new buildings from negatively impacting stormwater collection. Frank asserts that building owners can maximize the benefits of a green roof by installing solar panels overtop of the vegetative layer.
“Using shade-resilient plants, you can install solar over a green roof,” Frank explains. “They work together; the green roof is offsetting the stormwater, and the solar is offsetting the operating costs for the building. It helps architects and developers reach their green area requirements.”
With a three-foot gap between rows of panels and a minimum of one foot between panel and roof deck, the solar panels actually help minimize excess plant growth from bird-dropped or windswept seeds thereby reducing the need for extra maintenance. Frank and his team have successfully installed several green roofs and solar systems, including a recent project at the District Properties headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“My hope is that solar is so common that it’s in the building code, which we’re starting to see in D.C. and California,” Frank says. “Any building owner changing out the roof has to look at solar. Education and press on how solar really works has to be a part of our plan moving forward for energy independence and resiliency.”
Energy storage and green roofing are just two of many sustainable innovations already being put to practice, with countless more on the horizon. At the rate they’ve watched their industry grow and change over the last few years, Frank and Steve both see a future in which renewable energy is the standard. It’s impossible to predict exactly what that might look like with so many technologies yet to be developed, but it’s safe to say: the future is bright
.Story from The Mount magazine.