Sunny side up
As local businesses realize the return on investment for going solar, the future seems bright for Greater Madison’s solar economy.
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Though SunPeak can boast some of the biggest solar projects in town, other solar players are thriving off local solar interest and smaller-scale projects.
Burke O’Neal, project engineer/director, and his brother Mark O’Neal started full Spectrum Solar in 2002, when Burke returned to Madison from the San Francisco Bay area.
“Out there, I worked four years as an engineer and director for a rapidly growing solar energy contractor,” says O’Neal. “Mark and I started out part time with a Corolla wagon, a handful of our own tools, and $5,000 of starting capital. We have grown the business to five trucks and 17 employees currently, and have installed over 500 residential and commercial solar energy systems.”
Full Spectrum Solar also walks the walk, operating out of a zero-energy cost, solar-powered building on East Washington.
Installers with Full Spectrum Solar place solar panels on top of Oregon Middle School as part of its 62 kW photovoltaic system. Photo courtesy of Full Spectrum Solar.
Some notable projects Full Spectrum Solar has been involved with include a 62 kW photovoltaic system for Oregon Middle School and a 36 kW system for Brooklyn Elementary (part of the Oregon School District) in 2016. O’Neal notes Full Spectrum will be installing a 135 kW system for Oregon High School in the next few months.
Between the two existing installations, Oregon School District owns more solar generating capacity than any other K–12 school district in Wisconsin, says O’Neal. “The solar installations supply about 10% of the electricity consumed at the two schools, or about enough to cover about 20 area homes. The systems were installed with module-by-module online monitoring, and the Oregon Middle School installation has arrays facing slightly different directions and at different tilt angles to optimize the education opportunities for the students.”
The 135 kW installation scheduled for this summer at Oregon High School will provide about 10% of the high school’s electric use, or enough for about 25 area homes. It will also have module-by-module monitoring, and arrays tilted at different pitches to increase the educational opportunities of the installation.
Full Spectrum also does residential solar installations, like the one at the Regent Street home of Christian Wolf and Natalie Rudolph. That residence features a 4 kW system with a dozen 335-watt modules that produce more than 90% of the homeowners’ electric use. O’Neal says the system was designed with the possibility of future expansion in mind — to cover an electric car, for example.
The modules Full Spectrum Solar is installing today are about twice as efficient as the ones O’Neal was installing in California in 2008, he says, “so we can produce twice as much power in the same roof area. The modules are also 10 times less expensive, and that’s not accounting for inflation.”
“They are also much more reliable with warranties up to 25 years, are higher voltage, which means less wiring cost, and they’re much lighter and easier to set up,” O’Neal explains. “Modern inverters include sophisticated online monitoring and can send email alerts to us if there is ever a problem.”
O’Neal says Wisconsin is actually a lot better for solar energy than people may think.
“While the solar radiation in the northern parts of the U.S. is about 80% of what it is in the deserts in the Southwest, the cooler temperatures here help make the production more efficient. Photovoltaic modules are more efficient the cooler they are, so the actual energy production per year is pretty close.”
According to O’Neal, Wisconsin has more sunlight than Germany, yet the Germans make a significantly greater portion of their electricity with solar power. “It’s fairly common for our customers to have enough roof area that they could cover 100% of their energy use. I cover all of my electricity at my home and business, and still have roof area left for future expansion. We find that homeowners and businesses with minimal shade usually have positive cash flow in less than 10 years. Over the 25-year warranty period of the modules, return on investment can be 10% or more.”
Businesses also can take advantage of both a 30% federal tax credit and accelerated depreciation, notes O’Neal, making solar installations economically viable for even small operations.
“Currently, there are Focus on Energy (state-level) incentives available, as well, says O’Neal. “The economics are sensitive to what utility rate the customer is on, but it’s not uncommon to see 10–20% internal rates of return on even relatively small photovoltaic system installations.”
O’Neal says the Madison area is ripe for increased solar adoption.
“I think the strongest driver recently has been the increasingly strong economic rational for adopting solar energy technology, as prices have rapidly decreased in the past few years. As photovoltaic systems become more common in the Greater Madison area, business owners feel more comfortable with the technology and can talk to others who have benefited from using it.
“There have always been business owners that say it reflects positively on their own values and shows their commitment to the community,” he adds. “Some tenants would pick a green-built building over an otherwise similar apartment building. A grocery co-op has members that would take a lot of pride in their co-op reducing its environmental impact.”