In 2009, despite the recent economic recession, the U.S. solar industry grew by more than 30%, and projections by the Solar Energy Industries Association have called for continued strong expansion in the near future. According to Clinton Porter, government affairs, sales and marketing specialist for KACO, a leading producer of solar inverters, the U.S. solar industry has averaged approximately 25% annual growth over the past three years.

One of the more recent solar energy projects contributing to such growth was the decision by Snake Tray, a designer and manufacturer of electrical and communications cable management and power distribution systems based in Bay Shore, N.Y., to install a roof-mounted solar system that would, in essence, remove the plant from the power grid.

In 2008, faced with increasing business costs, Roger Jette, president and founder of Snake Tray, was nearly convinced to uproot his manufacturing company from its Long Island location and move to Georgia. Instead of heading south to reduce business operating expenses, however, Jette decided to take a novel step. By investigating how best to power the entire production facility through its own renewable energy system, Jette determined he could save the company a significant amount of money — enough to keep the company in New York.

Initially, Jette looked into constructing a wind turbine power generation system on his plant’s property. “Approximately a year prior to construction, we did a 2-phase due diligence process beginning with a look at both solar and then at wind generation,” says Jette.

While Jette acknowledged that erecting a windmill next to the plant would have looked very hi-tech, the company’s engineering team found it easier to select a solar energy solution. “In order to maximize the power generated, the windmill would have to have captured more wind — and that required a 156-ft-high turbine tower,” says Bob Renz, director of manufacturing for Snake Tray.

Following months of development that included having the local town government revise the code for industrial-zone turbines, the company’s due diligence steered it toward solar energy. As it turned out, solar provided a better balance between the company’s needs and the local utility’s summer load requirements. That shifted attention from the planned wind turbine installation to solar panels that were suited for installation on the plant’s flat roof.

By August 2010, when Snake Tray’s newly installed solar energy system went online, Jette was convinced the green photovoltaic (PV) installation was the ideal solution. The solar panel system is projected to generate ample power to deliver all of the facility’s energy needs while trimming the company’s utility bills enough to pay for newly hired employees despite the current economic recession. “We expect to self-generate 100% of the company’s electrical load on sunny days, and even sell energy back to the utility," says Jette. "By defraying our operational costs, this solar installation is helping us to minimize the impact of rising taxes.”

As a critical consultant on the Snake Tray project, Jerry Flaherty, chief electrical inspector for Electrical Inspection Service, has seen a significant increase in commercial PV systems within the past 12 months. “This year, I have inspected eight systems over 50kW while in past years I might have inspected one per year.”

Flaherty advised Snake Tray and the electrical contractor on the type and size of wire that can be used to connect the modules, how the wiring should enter the building, the placement of the equipment, wiring of the equipment, and how the PV system can be connected to the building’s electrical system. He also emphasized the need for the building owner to seek the advice of a knowledgeable and experienced solar contractor.

Also heavily involved on the project, electrical contractor Charles J. Hoyler, a long-time member of the local NECA Chapter and IBEW Local 25 signatory contractor, oversaw installation of AC sub panels, upgraded main breakers to comply with NEC requirements, and interior DC disconnects along with wiring to the inverters, as well as a 100A exterior AC safety switch as required by the local utility. “Working with an experienced contractor and distributor is very important,” says Hoyler. “The technology is changing so fast only those with experience in solar can provide the most current and time-saving solutions.”

According to Daniel Palmer, manager for CED GreenTech Phoenix, the distributor played a significant role in the design of the system for Snake Tray in addition to supplying the photovoltaic modules and inverters. He explains that the two major considerations a business owner needs to make when considering alternative energy solutions are budget allowance and what portion of the utility bill they seek to reduce. Once these two things are known, then the size of the system can be determined, where it will make the most sense to be physically installed, and what the payback period will be on the system investment. “On this project, our biggest hurdle was assuring ourselves and Snake Tray that we were properly sizing the system based on the building’s available real estate and the amount of utility consumption we wanted to eliminate,” says Palmer.

One major consideration many commercial solar customers fail to investigate early on is what other energy-efficient measures could they use to help them reduce the size and cost of their planned solar system installation. “We will go in and review with the building owner additional ways to reduce energy consumption that, in turn, may decrease how much solar energy they really need to install,” says Palmer.

For Snake Tray, the two-year odyssey that began with a fact-finding trip to consider moving to Georgia — and included the planned erection of a 156-ft windmill — has now come full circle. The manufacturer’s roof now bristles with the region’s largest commercial solar energy installation. While Jette isn’t sure how long his company will hold this distinction, he is convinced he made a smart decision to go with solar. “We are committed to providing our customers with cost-effective green products for cable management and power distribution, and as a company we want to practice green principles in the way we operate,” explains Jette. “Removing Snake Tray from the grid is the first step toward achieving our goals.”