Electrical contracting firms specialize in photovoltaic installations for residential and commercial clients

Every minute the sun provides enough energy to power all of humanity's needs for one year, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Electrical contracting firms are turning to this abundant and free energy source to fuel niche businesses that specialize in photovoltaics, renewable energy, and distributed generation.

Manufacturers, solar electric contracting companies, and builders are hiring electrical contracting firms to hook up inverters, install photovoltaic panels on rooftops, and tie the systems into the utility grid. While photovoltaic installations are similar to traditional electrical work, electricians who install and maintain these systems must be properly trained and intimately familiar with DC electrical theory.

“It's basic electrical theory and series parallel circuitry,” says Robert Boender, vice president of Alternative Energy Solutions. “It's just a different aspect of electrical contracting. With any DC wiring, you have to be careful and know what you're doing. As soon as the sunlight hits a photovoltaic system, it begins generating power.”

To capture a share of this growing market, two electricians launched their own renewable energy and distributed generation firms — Alternative Energy Solutions in Stamford, Conn., and Warmack Electric in Anaheim, Calif. This article will explore the challenges of breaking into a new industry and offer resources for other electrical contracting firms interested in specializing in photovoltaic installations.

Powering the Northeast with green electricity.

After working 100-hour weeks splicing fiber, Boender, who was working as a master electrician at the time, started searching for a new business opportunity. Rather than just opening up another commercial, residential, or industrial electrical contracting firm in the Northeast, Boender and his wife, Jill, founded a multi-state licensed, woman-owned renewable energy firm.

“Photovoltaics is going to be an emerging market, and in order to survive, my wife wanted to open up a niche electrical contracting firm specializing in renewable and distributed generation,” Boender says. “We believe this market is a great opportunity for electrical contractors and saw the need to get involved in the installations to promote the industry and ensure a safe installation.”

To break into the photovoltaics market, Jill became a signatory contractor with the IBEW, and Robert signed up for a training class at the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). About 20 electricians, photovoltaic system installers, and electric utility employees spent a week in FSEC's training facility in Coco Beach, Fla., to learn how to install grid-connected photovoltaic systems. The workshop taught the participants how to perform a site assessment, design a photovoltaic system, balance system components, and install a photovoltaic array.

Boender currently has a full-time crew of four journeyman electricians and plans to only hire electricians who are trained either through the FSEC or the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. The electricians install photovoltaic systems for commercial buildings in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, which all offer state rebate and incentive programs. Connecticut offers a $5/W rebate for commercial and industrial photovoltaic installations through its Clean Air Fund, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority will rebate nearly half the cost of an installation. The photovoltaic market is also fueled by support from New York Governor George Pataki, who issued an executive order in 2001 directing New York state agencies to purchase 10% of their power from renewable energy by 2005 and 20% by 2010. For that reason, New York's construction industry is thinking green and trying to build more energy-efficient buildings.

Boender says while his business had a slow start, he feels that the market will improve due to the rising cost of traditional power generation and the need to clean up the environment. He has served as a member of Local 3 in New York for 20 years, and many union contractors subcontract work out to his firm rather than training their own electricians in photovoltaics. “Right now no one else is out there doing it,” Boender says. “Hopefully by the time that people realize the money that can be made, we'll already be the go-to people.”

To drum up business and get a lower price on materials, Boender partnered with Altpower, Inc., a New York City-based design/build specialty contracting firm and Altair Energy, a Golden, Colo.-based renewable systems integrator that offers an authorized service provider (ASP) program. Altair, which is a member of the Alpha Group of Companies, provides customer leads, in-house engineering, and packaged photovoltaic systems to licensed electrical and general contracting firms. Richard Eidlin, strategic accounts manager for Altair, says 15 of its 18 ASPs are electrical contracting firms. Eight of the ASPs are in California, and the other companies are in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Delaware, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Indiana.

“Our premise has been that rather than trying to buy up small solar electric companies that have been in the business for 20 years, we have sought to involve ourselves with electrical contractors who know electricity,” Eidlin says. “They might not know anything about solar, but we're able to provide them with the services to quickly get into the photovoltaic business.”

The core business for many of the ASPs is primarily commercial, residential, and industrial electrical contracting. But as their business grows, more of their time is spent installing photovoltaic systems. Altair is developing a national network of qualified electrical contracting partners and travels across the country to train electricians how to install, test, and commission photovoltaic systems. Twice a month the company also offers online training sessions to educate the network of companies on a new technology or development in the industry.

Taking advantage of California's hot solar market.

Altair not only trains electrical contractors in photovoltaics, but also provides its electrical contractors with project leads. Warmack Electric partnered with Altair two years ago to work on a $1.7 million contract to install photovoltaic systems at a KD Development 180-unit housing development in San Diego (Sidebar at left and Photo at right).

Ron Warmack, a second-generation electrician who spent most of his electrical career building power plants and co-generation facilities, founded his company with his wife, Carol. Their firm, which specializes in both off-grid and grid-tied systems, is currently working with a rancher who has 4,000 acres of land in Santa Maria, Calif. Because of the exorbitant cost of bringing power lines to the remote location, the rancher is considering investing in a photovoltaic installation to power his water wells.

The company also installs several grid-tied photovoltaic systems for its residential clients. Warmack installed a photovoltaic installation for a homeowner in Anaheim, Calif., and 62% of the cost of the system was covered by local rebates. While many cities in California pay $3.20/W, the private utility company in Anaheim, Calif., offers $5/W. Because California is a net metering state, customers can sell back their excess electricity produced by a photovoltaic system at retail prices. Warmack Electric recently installed a 7.6kW grid-tied system with four inverters for a homeowner in Pasadena, Calif., where Warmack saw firsthand the result of net metering.

“The meter started running backward as fast as it was running forward,” he says. “The homeowners don't get excited when they see all of this stuff being bolted to their house, but they definitely get excited when the meter starts running backward.”

The photovoltaic market in California is taking off, but before jumping feet first into the industry, Warmack urges other firms in his area to research the market and, if possible, try to partner with a manufacturer or distributor to generate leads and get the proper training in photovoltaics.

“Rather than try to just go out on your own, buy panels and inverters, and slap them together, you definitely need to get some engineering experience behind what you're doing,” Warmack says. “It's not a slam dunk type business.”

With a strong background in the electrical industry, a thirst to learn about an emerging market and an entrepreneurial spirit, however, an electrician can launch a renewable energy firm and help power America with green electricity.





Sidebar: How to Get Started in the Photovoltaic Business

  • Study the National Electrical Code.

    Electricians need to brush up on Art. 690 of the Code, which discusses equipment and wiring safety for renewable energy system installations.

  • Get trained in photovoltaics.

    The Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) (www.fsec.ucf.edu/ed) has been researching energy efficiency and training installers for the past 20 years. The FSEC offers one- and two-day courses on topics like solar water heating, photovoltaics, and energy-efficient building strategies. The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) also offers a three-and-a-half day training course titled “Installing Grid-Connected Photovoltaic Systems.” The next course will be held from April 19-22 at the International Training Center in Knoxville, Tenn. Visit www.njatc.org and click on “contractor training” for more information.

  • Earn certification as a photovoltaic installer.

    The North America Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) developed a voluntary certification program for installers of photovoltaic systems. For more information on how to take the exam and become certified, download a PDF at www.solenergy.org/pdf/PVRequirementsApproved.pdf

  • Partner with manufacturers or become an authorized service provider.

    Many manufacturers offer training classes on how to install their photovoltaic systems. Altair Energy (www.altairenergy.com) offers an Authorized Service Provider program that includes marketing and technical support to electrical contracting firms looking to break into the photovoltaics market.

  • Join industry associations.

    The Solar Energy Industries Association (www.seia.org) has launched chapters in several states, and the American Solar Energy Society (www.ases.org) offers a membership program for corporations and small businesses.





Sidebar: Solar Energy Powers Large-Scale Development

A San Diego builder and Golden, Colo.-based renewable energy systems company have partnered to bring photovoltaic technology into the mainstream. KD Development and Altair Energy are currently building the largest 180-unit photovoltaic development in the United States. Warmack Electric, an Anaheim, Calif.-based electrical contracting firm, is installing a total of 210kW on six apartment buildings and a community clubhouse to provide about 80% of the tenants' electricity needs. Richard Eidlin of Altair says these new housing developments are becoming popular in states like California and Arizona, where builders are starting to offer photovoltaics as a standard feature.

“Just like a builder might put in marble countertops, a two-car garage, and a Jacuzzi, why not include a PV system that saves money and helps the environment?” Eidlin says.