Industry still energizes solar pioneer

Virgil Boggess remains every bit as passionate about solar energy these days as he was when he started out in a nascent industry 33 years ago.

If anything, he’s more excited about the financial incentives, technological developments and changing attitudes that have made solar energy systems increasingly popular to a growing market.

Virgil Boggess owns Atlasta Solar Center, a Grand Junction business he started 33 years ago. Boggess recently received a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the solar energy industry in Colorado. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Even as the green movement has become cool, solar energy has become hot, said Boggess, owner of Atlasta Solar Center in Grand Junction.

Boggess recently was honored for his contributions to the industry over the years. The Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association presented him a lifetime achievement award at its annual conference in Loveland.

Scott Ely, president of Sunsense Solar in Carbondale, said Boggess has been synonymous with solar energy in Western Colorado for decades. “As a long-time solar advocate myself, I can safely say that over the years Virgil has represented a passion for the industry and a commitment to furthering the solar gospel,” Ely said.

Boggess started Atlasta Solar in 1979 shortly after changing his career and residence. He said he was looking for a fresh start after selling real estate and living in Evergreen. He said he’d been interested in the potential solar energy offers for self-sufficiency since he visited relatives who lived off the electrical grid and generated their own power.

Boggess initially sold and installed rooftop thermal systems that used solar power to heat air and in turn homes. At the time, Boggess worked out of a quonset hut and pulled a trailer with a Honda Civic. He later built and installed solar-powered water heating systems, many of them still in operation.

Boggess said he began selling and installing photovoltaic solar systems to generate electricity for homes not connected to power lines — many of them in remote mountain locations in Western Colorado.

Demand for solar energy systems varied over the years as various tax credits came and went and economic conditions changed, Boggess said.

The industry has expanded significantly over the last five years, Boggess said, with the advent of rebates and tax credits for solar energy systems and technological advances that made it possible to tie photovoltaic systems into the power grid.

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

Connecting photovoltaic systems to the power grid eliminated the need for battery storage, he said. When systems generate more electricity than is immediately used, the excess power goes into the grid and is used elsewhere.

The latest development in the solar energy industry is arrangements in which companies and organizations pay for the purchase and installation of equipment and then lease the electricity generated by that equipment to businesses, home owners and other end users. 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, Boggess said. Leasing has made solar energy available to just about anyone with a roof and good credit, he added.

Meanwhile, mass production and imports of photovoltaic panels have brought down prices. Boggess said.

According to the latest results of an annual jobs census conducted by the Solar Foundation, Colorado employs nearly 6,200 people in the solar industry, second only to California. Nationwide, the solar energy industry employs more than 100,000, an increase of nearly 6,800 in the past year.

Staffing at the Atlasta Solar Center has increased from three to 15 over the past five years, Boggess said.

Boggess expects the solar energy industry to continue to change and grow — even as his passion for the business and the potential of solar energy continues unabated. Even after 33 years, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I can’t think of anything I would have rather done.”

Atlasta Solar Center will offer a free presentation on the differences between buying and leasing solar systems. The presentation is set for 2 p.m. March 8 at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce offices at 360 Grand Ave. To register or obtain more information, call 248-0057.