Solar – a clean take on energy

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Mankind has spent centuries trying to harness the power of the sun and with the evolution of technology, it has become more efficient than ever to use solar energy to power homes and businesses.

Solar has been a popular alternative to other renewable energy resources in other parts of the country and Solar Holler is bringing that option to homes and businesses in West Virginia.

Solar Holler, based in Shepherdstown and with an office in Huntington, was founded six years ago by Dan Conant, a Shepherdstown native who wanted to help his home state find a cleaner and more efficient power source.

In late March, Conant and Solar Holler director of community outreach, Leah Cunningham held a workshop at the Almost Local Business Hub on Main Street in Marlinton.

“We realize solar is not new nationwide, but it is new to West Virginia, so it’s kind of a foreign technology to a lot of folks,” Conant said. “I started Solar Holler six years ago and really our vision within the company is that West Virginia, and Appalachia as a region has powered the country for the last 150 years – and our wish is that we keep doing that, just with clean energy.”

Solar Holler is unique in that it is not focused on profit as much as it is the customers.

“We’re actually a benefit corporation which is a little bit of a funky setup where we wrote it into our bylaws that while we’re a company, we are not focused on profit,” Conant said. “Instead, we’re focused on how we can make West Virginia better; how we take care of our neighbors and all of our coworkers.”

Solar Holler’s initial projects were for non-profit organizations, including churches and homeless shelters.

With the completion of some projects, Solar Holler found it needed to increase its workforce.

In staying with its efforts to help West Virginians, the business partnered with Coalfield Development Corporation, which provides training for former coal miners in the southern part of the state.

“We partnered with them to launch the first solar training and apprenticeship program in West Virginia,” Conant said. “Through that program, we’ve had thirty folks come through in the last four years. They have their associate’s degree paid for, they have their electrical apprenticeships paid for, their solar certifications and then they go to work full-time on our crews installing projects in the state.

“It’s a really cool setup where we could work with them to build up the workforce we needed while we’re sending labor dollars into the towns in Mingo and Wayne [counties] that have been hit really hard by mind closures.”

In one year, Solar Holler installed 115 units, for homes, businesses and non-profit organizations. Conant said the increased interest in solar is partly due to the drop in cost.

“What we’re doing here is comparing the price of a kilowatt hour of wind versus a kilowatt hour of solar over the last ten years,” he said, displaying a graph. “This graph starts in 2009. The price of a kilowatt hour of electricity of solar since 2009 is down close to 90 percent. Back in 2009 it was at about 36 cents per kilowatt hour. Now, it’s down to four cents.

“As the prices dropped precipitously, we’ve seen the explosion in installations,” Conant continued. “California and Massachusetts – they started first – but now it’s hitting every state. We’re finally on the cusp of that happening here in West Virginia, and we’re trying to push it over the edge to get us there.”

Once a customer contacts Solar Holler to do a project, the team gets to work on an assessment and overview of whether or not solar is the right avenue for power.

“We do these solar assessments that are really in-depth for anybody who’s interested,” Conant said. “The first step is to get your usage over the last twelve months from your utility bill. We’re not looking at a day-to-day, we’re looking at an annualized period. We’ll be able to see the difference between what you used in December versus June and the differences between AC and DC.”

After the assessment determines the number of kilowatts needed for the customer, the team designs a system that will produce as close to that as possible given the constraints of the structure’s roof.

Next, they create a 3D model of the house using Google Earth or Bing imagery. Once a 3D computer image is made of the home or facility being assessed, Solar Holler runs a sunlight simulation to determine the perfect position for the panels to get optimal exposure.

“We’ll be able to tell how much sunlight hits this square inch of the roof versus that square inch of the roof and from that, we’re able to plot out how much electricity this system will produce month by month, year by year,” Conant said.
The entire process takes around 15 minutes from the time the customer provides an address for assessment.

“From that, we’re able to put together a detailed financial report for folks so they can crunch the numbers,” Conant said. “Really, every situation is different. It’ll just depend on the angle of your roof, is there any shading, what direction is the roof facing. We filter through all of that, crunch all of those numbers and then we’ll put together a project plan based on that information.”

Solar Holler finances solar projects to help customers pay for the system, as well as have the system help pay for itself.

“Every situation will be slightly different, but our goal is to get these monthly payments as close as possible to your monthly savings, just depending on the site situation,” Conant said. “You might pay a little bit more for the first couple of years, but as you go on, usually what we’re seeing, within years two, three, four, somewhere in there, these lines crossover so that your utility savings is above your payments and once the system is paid off, you’re in the clear.”

The system is usually mounted on the roof, unless it is too large, and then, it is ground-mounted behind the house or facility.

“It can either be on the roof or on the ground,” Conant said. “If you’re looking at whether this can work for your house, any type of metal roof – whether it’s standing seam or corrugated metal could work. If it’s standing seam, we actually just clamp on to the seams themselves. We don’t have to penetrate the roof. If it’s corrugated, we do kind of go around the corrugation and drill on either side. If you don’t have a good roof for it because you’re in the shade, that’s where ground mounted comes in.”

Solar Holler uses panels made by REC, QCells and LG. The panels come with a 25-year warranty and are able to withstand winds of up to 110 miles per hour. They also shed snow well and do not require owners to manually remove snow.

For more information on Solar Holler and the free assessment, visit www.solarholler.com

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