From hippie cabins to solar farms, Carbondale’s Sunsense sticks it where the sun will shine

While the clean-energy industry has taken a hit like everything else during the COVID-19 crisis, one of the oldest solar installation firms in the Roaring Fork Valley is continuing to shine.

Sunsense Solar, which celebrated its 30th anniversary Monday, is trying to fill several positions as it ramps up numerous projects.

“It’s actually a busy time right now,” founder and owner Scott Ely said Friday.

He credits the Roaring Fork Valley with being a “solutions-oriented” area that has embraced renewable energy. Holy Cross Energy and the Community Office for Resource Efficiency provide incentives for homeowners and businesses to install solar. The Investment Tax Credit from the federal government remains in play, for now.

“Nobody’s going to stop the proliferation of solar.” — Scott Ely, Sunsense founder and owner

Ely, 63 and a self-described “tree hugger,” also believes the threat of climate change makes his company’s mission even more vital.

“Understanding that no technology is perfect, when you think about generating electricity from putting a solar panel in the sun, there’s just something magical about it,” he said. “If we can educate the masses to accept the technology as mainstream, ultimately benefiting the next generation and beyond, well, that’s awesome.”

Ely “got sold” on the technology and pursued a career in the field starting in the early 1980s in Boulder. The solar industry was in its infancy and there was a lot of room for innovation and creativity. He formed Sunsense in 1990 and moved a year or so later to the Roaring Fork Valley. He started as a one-man crew, usually hauling materials to secluded hippie cabins and humble mountain retreats accessed by rough Jeep roads.

“Everything was off-grid,” Ely said, “so you had to bring everything with you.”

He installed panels on numerous homes in Little Annie Basin on the back of Aspen Mountain and in the Crystal River Valley. One of the oldest systems he installed that still exists is in the Lake Irwin area, on the Crested Butte side of Schofield Pass. He worked on projects from Steamboat to Telluride. Ely said he always had the support of his wife, Chrissy Leonard, even though the trips to the backcountry made her a “solar widow” for long stretches.

His early clients came from all sorts of economic situations and political persuasions. They had a common bond of wanting to be energy self-sufficient.

Many of those early clients were “real pioneers,” he said, but now they’re “just smart energy shoppers.”

His growing reputation led to him getting hired to install solar systems on the 10th Mountain Division Huts and Fred Braun Hut System in the mountains surrounding Aspen and beyond.

“I was able to travel into the backcountry on a regular basis,” Ely said, noting that he often had a dog and a fishing pole in tow. “I used to say that my commute was over two mountain passes and miles down a dirt road before four-wheeling to my job.”

In the first decade of the 2000s, grid-tied systems hit the mainstream as more people became aware and fascinated with solar electricity as an option. Costs fell, incentives appeared and a desire to be “part of the solution” ramped up. In the Roaring Fork, Eagle and Colorado River valleys, nonprofit organizations such as CORE and CLEER were instrumental in promoting solar and renewable energy.

“I’d say it’s robust in this valley,” he said of the interest in solar. “People see that it makes economic sense.”

There was a further boost in business when Colorado voters in 2004 approved the Renewable Energy Requirement Initiative, also known as Amendment 37, which requires escalating percentages of retail energy sales from renewable sources in the state. Holy Cross Energy, which serves customers throughout the region, embraced the direction and has a goal of 70% clean energy by 2030.

The explosion in demand resulted in Sunsense’s rapid growth. Students from Solar Energy International, formerly located in Carbondale, provided a reliable and eager labor pool. The company now has between 25 and 30 employees, depending on current projects, and also occasionally hires subcontractors for big jobs.

The company had prepared for a big celebration of its 30th anniversary, but the coronavirus threat nixed the plan. Ely said his company will donate the money budgeted for the event to local nonprofit organizations and causes.

The past decade produced a significant leap forward for the solar electric industry, Ely said. Businesses and communities have dived into the rush for clean energy.

In the old days, Ely said, a job with 20 solar panels was big. Now, jobs with 40, 60 and more modules are common. In addition, panels are larger and more efficient.

Utility-scale solar farms are replacing fossil fuel-fired power plants. Sunsense built the largest solar array in the Roaring Fork Valley in 2015 when it worked with Clean Energy Collective on a 1.8-megawatt facility at Sunnyside Ranch, the site of the former Carbondale landfill in Missouri Heights.

Sunsense’s largest individual project is a 2-megawatt solar farm in Grand Junction with between 7,000 and 8,000 panels.

The big push in the industry now is for battery storage, not only at individual residences but also on an industrial scale. It’s ironic in a way, Ely said, because the pioneering projects in the hippie cabins incorporated batteries decades ago out of necessity because they weren’t tied to the grid. Once a big part of the market shifted to sites tied to the grid, interest in batteries fell. That’s changed back again so that utilities can tap into power produced by solar at all times, not just when the sun is shining. Battery storage is a big part of the push to create resilient systems.

Sunsense also is part of the team participating in the groundbreaking Basalt Vista project behind the Basalt High School. The Habitat for Humanity project will be net zero — producing as much or more power than it needs due to efficiency measures and a solar electric system.

Scott Gilbert, who recently stepped down as Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork’s president, said the chapter worked with Sunsense on projects for more than 10 years.

“Every Earth Day meant a celebration with a pro bono solar install,” he said.

He said the leadership is personally engaged in the projects and the company is truly dedicated to improving the planet by promoting renewable energy.

“Sunsense is one of those great organizations that walks the walk,” Gilbert said.

Ely foresees Sunsense’s future divided about equally between individual residential and commercial projects with larger solar farms. The company is eager to respond to future requests for bids for projects eyed by Holy Cross, he said.

Also expect advances in building integrated photovoltaics, where every shingle, tile or other roofing material is generating power. Ely sees a bright future for the solar industry and company he founded.

“Nobody’s going to stop the proliferation of solar,” he said. “It’s not going away.”

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