Business grows as customers become educated about solar

When you come right down to it how many people can tell you off the top of their head what renewable energy is? (Hint: It never runs out.)

Renewable energies come from resources that are naturally replenished, like sunlight, wind or geothermal heat. And for the business owner in the renewable energies field education and political advocacy come with the job description.

Mike Linsea embraces that role. He’s founder, owner and project manager of Solar Winds Power Systems, a three-year-old Shelbyville company that provides solar electric and hot water systems for industry, commercial business and private homes.

Solar Winds consults, designs, engineers and installs power systems, but Linsea estimates at least 25 percent of his time goes into trips to Lansing for meetings like those of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates public energy.

Currently, he’s also keeping an eye on property tax legislation making its way through the legislature and another bill that will deals with the amount of renewable energy power companies must use.

Attention to action in Lansing is vital, as Linsea says right now some legislators are trying to roll back the amount of renewable energy that power companies are required to add to their portfolio. The current law requires 10 percent by 2015,  a goal the power companies are are on track to meet with ease.

He’ll be there if needed to represent the solar piece of the state’s energy puzzle as the legislation moves forward.

Another chunk of Linsea’s time goes into helping customers identify their best solar options. His company works with both residential and commercial customers and can help determine whether panels mounted on rooftops, poles or on the ground would take in the most sunlight.

He regularly makes presentations, training and gives workshops. He recently spoke at the Green Business Expo sponsored by the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce, an event focused on innovative ways business can become more sustainable. Linsea’s talk went into energy efficiencies for businesses.

And Linsea teaches people that solar works just fine in Michigan. He points out that National Renewable Energy Laboratory map that shows that Michigan has about the same amount of sunlight per day available for power as Northern Spain, and more than Germany, the country that is the world's leader in installed solar panels. That’s about 3.7 hours per day on average.

One customer who did not take any convincing is the owner of B&B Trucking of Kalamazoo, Andrew Blackburn. He asked Solar Winds to install 88 solar panels on the roof of his truck garage. Miller saw what companies are doing in Germany and wanted to replicate that here.

The panels will provide electricity used when the company plugs in its trucks in the winter to keep them heated. B&B Trucking expects to generate 80 to 90 percent of the electricity it needs during the winter for engine heaters and building lights and a surplus of electricity in the summer, Linsea says.

One of the most visible signs of Solar Wind’s work is the solar array that marches alongside Fluid Process Equipment next to U.S. 131. The company located in the Business, Research and Technology Park had Solar Winds install the panels in two phases. The first 90 panels installed in the summer 2010 generates electricity sold back to Consumers Energy. The second phase of 120 panels was put in by the company to run its meters backwards.

The panels have two settings, one for summer and one for winter. They do not track the sun as panels do in some parts of the country. Linsea says trackers don’t work well in Michigan where the weather is not conducive to those kinds of moveable parts.

Linsea has 30 years sales management and other management experience with a Fortune 500 company. His wife, Rosalind, has a bachelor’s of science degree in business and manages the business operations for the company. She has more than 25 years business experience including experience with Lockheed Martin Corp. the Department of Defense and a background in quality management.

In its first year, the company’s growth was slow, but has been steady since then. Its business model allows it to put together subcontracting teams as news jobs are landed. Solar experts and master electricians are some of the employees brought on as work demands.

As he stands next to the towering panels his company installed, Linsea talks with visible enthusiasm about the solar renaissance. Solar is back. And not a moment too soon. He sees solar as an important part of the country’s future power generation picture.

Linsea’s passion for renewable energy dates back to his college years in the 1970s, a time when oil was expensive and renewable energies were beginning to seriously be explored. Then cheap oil came back and most of the nation forgot about using solar or wind power.

"As the price of energy went down the nation went back to sleep," Linsea says. But the cheap oil of the 1980s and 1990s was not energy reality, he maintains. Now the United States has a lot more competition, especially from China and India, for its energy.

Some businesses reject solar options when faced with projections that it can take as many as 15 years to realize their investment. The math is not the same as that for buying a piece of equipment like a lathe. What those types of calculations  don’t take into account years of free electricity after the initial investment is realized, considering solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years and should last for 40 years.

"If they wait for the math to work they may never do it," Linsea says, because they are not calculating the investment by the right measurements.

From a broader standpoint, Linsea wants for the country to break away from an energy source that rises and falls with the economy. That can happen only by making renewable energies part of the overall energy equation.

No one knows how long oil reserves will last, but “the sun is never going away,” he says.

Kathy Jennings edits Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Eric Holladay.

Mike Linsea and the solar array his company installed for Fluid Process Equipment.
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