Carbondale firm eyes expanded role in solar industry
April 22, 2015
A Carbondale solar installation company that's already the largest based on the Western Slope anticipates sunny days ahead.
Scott Ely started Sunsense Solar in 1990 in Boulder and moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1992. The firm is celebrating its 25th anniversary in June.
"There have been a lot of (solar) businesses in the valley. A lot of them haven't survived," he said.
Ely started as a one-man operation. The company has grown to 15 full-time, year-round employees and additional part-timers are hired depending on the number of projects in play. Revenues have grown to about $5 million per year.
"Most of the growth has come in the last 10 years," Ely said.
Prior to 2005, most of the firm's projects were off-grid, battery-based systems such as remote homes and cabins, and 10th Mountain Division Hut Association cabins. An explosion in grid-tied solar electricity — where the power produced by a solar electric system at a house or business is fed back into a utility company's grid — opened the door for significant growth, according to Ely. Holy Cross Energy, one of the power suppliers in the Roaring Fork Valley, has embraced solar projects as a way to diversify its power portfolio.
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"They've been a national leader in alternative energy integration," Ely said.
Roaring Fork Valley residents have also embraced solar power. Sunsense has installed everything from a 1.8-megawatt solar array for Clear Energy Collective to small residential projects. Ely said about 75 percent of his firm's projects are in the Roaring Fork Valley at any given time. He has branched into the Interstate 70 corridor and is picking up business in the North Fork Valley around Paonia.
He was initially concerned that community solar gardens would cut into his business. Those types of projects allow residential and commercial property owners to buy into a large, collective solar array at a central site rather than install an individual system at the property.
"You don't need to put it on your roof now," Ely said.
He decided to embrace the community solar arrays rather than compete against them. Sunsense has installed three arrays for Clean Energy Collective in the Roaring Fork Valley and teamed with the company and other utilities for projects elsewhere in the state.
But Sunsense's market for individual systems didn't slow down with the advent of community arrays. Some people like to "wear the badge" by installing solar panels on their property or building, Ely said.
The company typically installs between six and 26 panels as part of its projects, though they always vary. "We've done all types of custom designs for people," Ely said.
One exciting project Sunsense is looking forward to in May is the installation of a 380-kilowatt system for Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. The panels will be installed on a hillside south of the school. They will generate enough power to offset the most of the energy consumption of the school for the year. The students in the school's Energy Club helped get the project rolling.
Ely is confident the growth will continue despite uncertainty about the federal Investment Tax Credit. If Congress doesn't act, a 30 percent tax credit on the cost of installing a solar electric system will expire at the end of 2016 for residential projects. It will drop from 30 to 10 percent for commercial projects.
The solar industry is lobbying for continued tax credits to help level the playing field. "We feel the fossil fuel industry is subsidized quite well," Ely said.
In addition, Holy Cross Energy is cutting, though not eliminating, its rebates for solar electric project installations by its customers at the end of April. That's spurred some projects to get started earlier than initially planned.
Sunsense is diversifying to try to ensure growth. It's starting a service department for maintenance of existing solar electric projects. It will continue installations.
"Our pipeline is growing. We're going to need more people," Ely said.
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