Forecast for local solar industry: sunny

Given increases in both the number of solar energy systems and businesses installing them in Mesa County, the outlook for the industry appears as bright as the sun from which a growing amount of electricity is produced.

Financial incentives and technological advances — not to mention all that sunshine — are expected to drive additional growth, said Lou Villaire, founder of the Grand Valley Solar Center and sales manager at Atlasta Solar Center in Grand Junction.

Lou Villaire, sales manager at Atlasta Solar Center in Grand Junction, expects third-party financing and technological advances to continue to bolster growth in the solar energy industyr in Mesa County. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

The trends bode well not only for solar energy companies, but also the overall economy, Villaire said. “It’s making a modest, but significant, impact on the local economy, and we’d like to see that continue.”

Villaire detailed some of the results of a study conducted by the Grand Valley Solar Center, a market research entity, in conjunction with the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association and Colorado Mesa University. The complete results of the study should be released within a month.

Since 2006, more than 1,200 residential and commercial photovoltaic systems have been installed in Mesa County. The pace of installations has quickened to a total of between five and 10 residential and commercial systems a week, Villaire said.

Ten to 15 companies are directly engaged in the solar energy industry in the county. Those companies collectively employ 40 to 50 people and indirectly account for another 25 to 30 jobs, he said.

The numbers point to what’s estimated as an industry worth between $10 million and $15 million annually, Villaire said. Business similarly has increased at Atlasta Solar over the past five years, as has staffing, Villaire said.

Mesa County constitutes something of a hot spot for solar energy in one of the top states for growth in the industry, Villaire said. Customers enjoy a sense of self-sufficiency from their solar systems as well as satisfaction from doing their part to generate electricity from a clean and renewable source, he said.

But Villaire also attributes growth in the local solar industry in large part to financial incentives and technological advances that have made solar systems more widely available at a lower cost.

A state law requiring utilities to generate an increasing proportion of power from renewable energy sources led to rebates for the installation of solar systems. Federal tax credits also are available, he said.

At the same time, technological advances have made it possible to connect photovoltaic systems into the power grid and eliminate the need for battery storage. Mass production and imported solar energy panels have brought down prices, he added.

One of the most significant developments of all has been the emergence of third-party arrangements in which companies and organizations pay for the purchase and installation of solar systems, then lease the electricity generated by those systems to home owners, businesses and other end users, Villaire said. The companies and organizations take advantage of the rebates and tax credits, while end users purchase solar power at what are usually lower rates and without any upfront costs. That makes solar energy available to to just about anyone with a home or building and good credit, he added.

Although utility rebates have decreased and tax credits are scheduled to expire in 2016, Villaire expects the solar energy industry to continue to grow on the basis of cost. Even as the price of solar panels decreases, the price of electricity purchased from utilities increases, he said.

Given the combination of recent growth and what’s expected to be continued growth, Villaire said the outlook for the solar industry appears, in a word, well … “sunny.”