Full Spectrum Solar sets ‘perfect’ example for environmentally minded businesses

Burke O’Neal isn’t just interested in selling you solar panels (though he’d no doubt gladly take your call if you’re interested). As the co-owner and co-founder of Madison’s Full Spectrum Solar, he’s also interested in selling you on an idea — namely that energy efficiency is an attainable goal whether you want to go the solar route or not.

Indeed, O’Neal and his company are walking the walk — not just on the sunny side of the street but across the (pardon the pun) spectrum of sustainable building practices.

That diligence and attention to detail are what recently earned Full Spectrum’s East Washington Avenue headquarters a perfect 100/100 Energy Star rating, the highest in Wisconsin and better than 99% of comparable buildings. But it’s not bragging rights that O’Neal is most interested in — it’s setting a positive example for his compatriots in the business community.

“It would be sort of easy for a solar contractor to have a moderate-performing building and then just put an acre of solar electric on this sort of poorly designed building to make the energy use really low, but we approached it holistically.” — Burke O’Neal, Full Spectrum Solar

“We’re growing rapidly and we saw this building come available, and we saw this as a real opportunity to really create a lot of excitement in our business among our staff and the owners,” said O’Neal. “But we thought that, wow, we can have a building that’s a real showcase of what’s possible, something that can inspire other businesses and homeowners to go that extra mile with energy efficiency.”

Naturally, anyone who’s taken note of the company’s Energy Star laurels is likely to assume that its solar expertise gave it a leg up, but that’s not the case. According to O’Neal, the Energy Star rating doesn’t take into account the building’s solar arrays, but rather depends on a wide range of other sustainability measures, including a high-efficiency boiler system with radiant heat, a motion-activated on-demand hot water recirculation system, natural daylighting of the office area, a business sign lit by LEDs, a nighttime ventilation system for summer cooling, super-insulated walls, carbon-dioxide regulated ventilation, and a ductless zoned air conditioning system.

Of course, Full Spectrum hasn’t scrimped when it comes to decking out its building in solar panels. Its headquarters sports a 9.97-kilowatt roof-mounted photovoltaic system and a 1.56-kilowatt photovoltaic awning. But O’Neal says the company decided the best approach was to pursue energy efficiency to the Nth degree even before solar power was factored in.

“It would be sort of easy for a solar contractor to have a moderate-performing building and then just put an acre of solar electric on this sort of poorly designed building to make the energy use really low, but we approached it holistically,” said O’Neal.

That approach, says O’Neal, is something any business can take, even if solar not an ideal option.

“A lot of buildings have a small amount of available roof area relative to what the loads are in the building,” said O’Neal, “so making a building as energy efficient as possible in the first place is going to make the solar go further.”

The business case

Of course, any company that wants to follow in Full Spectrum’s tiny carbon footprint would be keen on knowing the costs involved. Is achieving this level of sustainability financially doable for other area businesses?

“Yeah, I think so,” said O’Neal. “A lot of things that we did were just clever. Building our sign the way we did, for example, didn’t cost any more money. … In our case, when we talk to employees, they’re more interested in energy efficiency features than somebody having new deluxe furniture, so I think within the first 10 years of operation we’re going to recoup the extra costs incurred by thinking things out a little bit more, maybe spending a little bit more on the windows, insulating a little better, thinking out the ventilation system. I think we’re going to recoup that cost, and in the meantime, we’re enjoying high levels of insulation that keep the space really quiet and comfortable.”

As for Full Spectrum’s core business, O’Neal remains extremely bullish — not just when it comes to his own company, but also with regard to the prospects for other businesses that decide to take the solar route.



“The prices have come down quite a bit, and we still have a generous 30% federal tax credit and accelerated depreciation, and at the state level, there’s a periodic competitive process for getting additional funds from the Focus on Energy utility program,” said O’Neal. “And even without Focus on Energy, just taking the 30% federal tax credit and accelerated depreciation, we’ve had a number of businesses decide this is a good investment to make.

“When you get into the 20-plus-kilowatt size, you’re in positive cash flow generally in less than 10 years, and these are systems that have a 25-year warranty on the modules. … If you look at your return on investment, assuming a modest increase in energy costs, you’re probably looking for a commercial entity, if it takes advantage of the tax credits, to get a greater than 10% return on investment. So I think it’s really compelling to a lot of commercial entities.”

In addition, says Burke, some of solar’s power lies in its predictability. Costs for installation are predictably going down year by year, and once installed, a solar system is not as subject to the usual vagaries of the energy market.

“A couple of years ago when we were seeing decreased costs in solar energy technology, natural gas prices were fairly high, and now they’re extremely low,” said O’Neal. “I can put in a solar energy system and tell you what it’s going to cost if you extrapolate the costs for the next 20 years, but I can’t really tell you what it’s going to cost to operate your boiler [with fossil fuels] or your lighting. Fuel prices are so volatile, and right now we’re kind of in a place where we have a glut of conventional energy, particularly natural gas from fracking. So that makes it hard to predict.”

As for Full Spectrum’s own future? That’s looking as bright as old Sol himself.

“We’re looking forward to a great year, better than last year,” said O’Neal. “We’ve got four to five trucks going out every day.”

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