Twin Cities solar energy system firm born of frustration

May 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Dan Williams was born during the summer solstice — the day when the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere receives the most hours of sunshine. Appropriate, he says, given what he does for a living.

Williams and his partner, Rebecca Lundberg, own Powerfully Green, a Twin Cities-based solar energy system installation company. While they’re both passionate about the work, they concede that the business is about as unpredictable as a sunny day and wrapped in layers of red tape.

The two work out of their home in Champlin, where their own solar energy system produces enough electricity to cover their household needs — called “net zero.”

“We try to lead by example,” Lundberg said.

That system was the first one they installed together

In her own words: Rebecca Lundberg

On owning her own business: “It’s really awesome to be in charge of my own schedule. On the other hand, the work is never done. It’s my business, so I can never leave it at the office.”

On remaining a two-person operation: “I feel like a sustainable business doesn’t hire 10 employees and then lay them off every winter. I don’t want to be that kind of employer.”

On making a sale: “A typical salesperson will say anything to get the sale. For me, education comes first. I feel better about that. Then they don’t feel pressured to make an investment because I’m cornering them.”

On competition: “There are a lot of roofs. I have no intention of putting solar on every single roof. There’s lots of room for small businesses.”

On her home office: “Some people are apologetic about it. They’re embarrassed about telling people that they work out of our home. We don’t shy away from it. We spend a lot of time on someone else’s roof. It doesn’t make sense to have a separate office to heat and cool.”

– and that led to the business.

After shopping around for about five months, the couple was frustrated to find that while plenty of companies were happy to install a system for them, they had no interest in helping the couple understand how it worked.

Lundberg and Williams decided to look into doing the work themselves. Williams took a class put on by Solar Energy International in California and quickly realized there might be a market for the skills he’d picked up.

“I said, ‘I think I see a niche there, and I think we can make a go of it,’ ” Williams said.

In 2007, he and Lundberg left their jobs — she was teaching in Anoka-Hennepin schools and he was a network manager for Kraus Anderson Construction — and went into business.

They’ve since taken between 300 to 400 hours of additional training and have installed solar energy systems on about 120 homes and businesses, including the city of Lindstrom’s offices.

They’ve also watched the cost of the systems they install drop by about 60 percent. They paid roughly $12 per watt-hour of electricity generation capacity for the system they installed in their home seven years ago. Today, Williams said, they could buy the same system for closer to $5 per watt-hour.


costs can be even lower when tax credits and rebates from utility companies are thrown in. A $20,000 system, typical of the ones Lundberg and Williams install in a home, can end up costing closer to $12,000 with incentives.

And, depending on consumption habits, a solar energy system can save a homeowner enough to pay for itself in less than a decade, Lundberg says.

But the tax credits must be renewed periodically through legislation, and the rebate programs have annual caps on how much can be paid out.

Their clients know the incentive programs exist and often will put off investing in one of the systems until they’re able to take the greatest advantage of them.

This was the case with their most recent job at Mark Coffey’s home

in Minneapolis’ Linden Hills neighborhood.

“This project’s been almost 11 months in the making,” Coffey said. “We’ve been waiting this whole time for Xcel to approve the project.”

Through its Solar Rewards program, Xcel Energy, the region’s primary electricity utility, offers one-time rebates to residential and business customers who install a solar energy system.

However, the program had run out of money by the time Coffey was ready to apply in July. He put the project on hold until Xcel began processing 2013 applications.

Although Xcel has tried to phase out the popular program, the state has insisted the company continue it.

Even the more stable Federal Solar Tax Credit, which offers up to a 30 percent credit for those who qualify, has faced its share of opposition.

This perennial tug-of-war over incentives has been the source of uncertainty for Lundberg and Williams. They now follow state and federal solar-energy legislation very closely.

This isn’t the only way their business brings the couple into contact with government. They also have to apply for permits — both a building permit and an electrical permit — for each municipality they work in. So far, Lundberg estimates, they’ve installed systems in more than more than 30 cities.

Although this was daunting at first, Lundberg has found that the process got easier once they learned to work with the bureaucrats, rather than treating them as adversaries. “We’re partners in this,” Lundberg said of regulators. “I’m not the enemy; I want to follow the rules.”

Williams estimates that for every 40 hours of installation work, there is an additional 40 hours devoted to paperwork and inspections.

All in all, he said, they put in about 70 hours each week during their busy season from about April to December, during which they’ll install roughly 25 systems, both small residential jobs and larger commercial ones.

“I joke that we take all of our weekends in January,” Lundberg said.

Nick Woltman can be reached at 651-228-5189. Follow him on Twitter at @nickwoltman.

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