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Solar power rising in West Virginia, company official says

Kenny Kemp
Solar panels were installed at the Hurricane Wastewater Plant during the summer of 2011.
Kenny Kemp Colin Williams, director of operations for Mountain View Solar, stands beside the solar panels his company installed at the Hurricane Wastewater Plant in the summer of 2011.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Just four years ago, solar power got little recognition as a viable alternative to mainstream energy.

"There wasn't something you could consider an 'industry,'" said Colin Williams, the vice president of marketing and sales of Mountain View Solar. "There were very few people who had installed systems, but there was little in the way of industry."

Things have changed.

Experts say solar power is now one of the fastest-growing industries in America, with a total capacity of 1,992 megawatts, enough to power one million homes, according to data from the Solar Energies Industry Association.

With increasing demand, the prices of raw material and installations are plummeting. In 2011 alone, the average price of a solar panel has dropped 58 percent. The price drop and the hiked demand has put a strain on oversees manufacturers, according to the SEIA.

Williams said that since 2009, Mountain View Solar has installed solar systems on 200 homes in the state, along with a bevy of government buildings -- some as part of projects funded out of the federal stimulus.

"Our company has grown from three people in 2009 to 25 full-time employees," he said. "And you know they're good-paying jobs."

Mountain View Solar started as a custom homebuilders company 20 years ago, Williams said. They switched to a model that focused on renewable energy systems in 2006.

In 2011, Mountain View Solar installed 84 solar panels on the wastewater plant in Hurricane. Town officials said that the 20-kilowatt panels, which are visible from Interstate 64, are expected to shave $1,000 a month off the power bill.

"Our plant costs the city a lot of money -- around $15,000 a month -- to operate," city manager Ben Newhouse said at the time.

The installation marked the first time that solar panels were built on a West Virginia wastewater plant, Williams has said.

And the city didn't have to pay a dime, thanks to a $193,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was part of a larger $9.5 million energy conservation block grant awarded to West Virginia.

The grant also funded other solar projects, including 25-kilowatt panels on the Morgan County Courthouse, 19-kilowatt panels on the municipal building in Man, and a 4-kilowatt system on the Beach Bottom village municipal building.

Williams said that tax breaks and public funding from the federal government had a large part to do with the newfound success of the industry.

A 2009 law gave solar consumers an uncapped and unlimited tax credit for installing qualified solar systems on their homes or businesses. Essentially, for each geothermal dollar a consumer spends, they earn a 30 percent tax credit. There's no limit on the dollar amount.

"I think it may have been one of the catalysts that stirred it," Williams said.

People are learning more about solar power, too, he said.

"It's less of a novelty," he said. "Solar technology is proven technology. It's powered every satellite that orbited the planet. The state uses it to power road signs. The military uses it to generate power at forward deployment."

Williams also pointed out that while industry is booming, it has not reached a level to where it is independent of mainstream energy.

"There's nothing about this company that's in opposition to fossil fuels," he said. "It's a supplement, we need the grid in order to operate."

"Some people believe that [solar] is in opposition to the coal industry and it's just not true," he said. "We're simply not [taking away jobs], we're adding jobs."

Others say that West Virginia is not sunny enough to really have much success in the solar industry. Williams said that's not true. In fact, West Virginia receives only 5 percent less sunlight than Florida and 20 percent more sunlight than Germany, which can run its entire country on solar power on some days.

Williams said that their current residential installations account for less than 1 percent of homes in West Virginia, indicating that the potential for the energy market here is large indeed.

"Even if we do 1 percent, it's exponential growth," he said. "The potential for growth in West Virginia is very, very big."

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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