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With greater public attention to the problem of global warming and the solution of renewable energy, business is booming for Third Sun Solar and Wind Power, a seven-year-old business that passed the $1 million revenue mark for the first time in 2007.
In the past several years, Third Sun has installed solar panels across Ohio and the surrounding states, on buildings including the Denison University library, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and the carriage house at the Ohio governor's mansion, not to mention numerous private homes across the area. On the heels of all these successes, we asked Michelle Greenfield to tell us more about the business of producing clean energy.
Green America: Where are you located, and what does your business do?
Solar power at home...
Michelle Greenfield: Third Sun Solar and Wind Power is a specialty contractor, designing and installing solar and wind electricity systems. My husband Geoff and I are the owners, and we have 11 other employees. We are based in rural southeastern Ohio, but work all over Ohio and surrounding states. We install clean energy systems on homes, businesses, schools, affordable housing developments – really anywhere we can. We have been a business member of Green America for about two years, but my husband and I have been individual members for many years, starting back in the 1990s.
What makes your company green?
Michelle: Our company was founded on the idea of “green energy”. Our products produce clean electricity, which is extremely important in our state that so heavily relies on burning coal for power (90% of our power is coal based). Our employees also have a green mindset – we re-use and recycle everything we can, from paper to ink to construction materials. We also feel strongly that our workplace should be a healthy place to work and provide health benefits, despite the expense.
What's the story behind Third Sun's beginnings?
He has three sons.
Michelle: My husband and I started this business in 2000, after building our own “green” home on a piece of rural land that did not have utility power. We decided to invest in our own solar power system and live off the grid, rather than paying the utility to bring power in, and then paying the bill for the rest of our lives. After that, people asked for our help to make their own power, and our business was born. We have always believed in the Gandhi quote “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and our business has grown from the root mission of wanting to spend our energy and talents to make the world a better place. The name Third Sun came to use one night after we had just put our kids to bed and were sharing a glass of wine. We have two boys, and we decided that if we started a business, it would be like another child, needing help to grow – it would be like our “third son.” We changed “son” to “sun,” since we were going to sell solar, and there was our name!
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Michelle: One of our toughest issues is that we provide our services to such a large geographic area. This requires a lot of driving to do site assessments, installations, and service work. To reduce our vehicle impact, we have done several things: we have reduced the geographic area that we serve for complicated or really small projects; we do as much work with a customer on the phone and internet as we can, utilizing satellite images and photos to help plan projects; we have purchased the best mileage vehicles that we can (i.e. Sprinter van); and our installation crews strive to complete installations in one trip, rather than having to return to the site many times. Using bio-fuels or grease for fuel may be in our future, to further reduce our vehicle emission impact.
What’s been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Solar power at school... PV panels from Third Sun power the science labs at the Twenhofel School in KY.
Michelle: There is a lot of pride in looking at how many systems we have been involved with — more than 150. That’s a lot of green energy, a lot of avoided coal power. There is also a lot of pride in the fact that we have a growing and thriving company that is employing a group of people who all believe in renewable energy and love what they are doing. We have staff meetings where we share what has been good in our lives, and it can turn into what one employee calls a Third Sun “love fest” where employees expound on how much they love their job and their work. As a business owner, that makes me feel great.
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Michelle: The renewable energy industry has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. Many large corporations are investing in solar power, states are enacting legislation that favors clean power, venture capital is flowing into the industry at growing rates, and the problem of climate change has entered the public dialogue. This has changed the way we think about our business — when we started it seemed more like a lifestyle “mom and pop” business, but we have such a huge potential to make a positive impact that we have started to think bigger and realized that we can make an even better impact if we grow this business wisely.
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Michelle: Our biggest eye opener after we had been in the business for a couple of years was that the business was running our lives. We were both overworked and getting stressed. It was at that point that we began to hire a few people, teach them what we were doing and let them innovate from their experience. Wow! That has helped propel the business forward, with fewer burdens on just my husband and me. We are still very busy people and sometimes feel like the business runs us, but we have gotten better at delegating and realizing that there are lots of great people out there who want to work in a great business.
What are you excited about going forward?
Michelle: We are most excited about the potential federal and state policy changes that are happening that favor and incentivize renewables. The fossil fuel industry has received so many tax credits, incentives and government help for so long, it is now time for renewables to get their fair shake.
What green product could you not live without?
Michelle: I have just purchased a couple of “chico bags” for groceries. They compress down into their own little sack that is half the size of my wallet, so I carry two of them in my purse. I have my own bags ready for whatever I may need.
Questions from readers:
Q: My husband and I are retired (my husband was in the solar business in the early 1980s until Reagan cut the solar credits and the entire DOE) but now we would like to build a green house in a rural area of Ohio that shows what can be. Where do we begin? — Charlotte
Michelle: I would begin by doing some research on the Energy Star Web site. There is information there about building energy-efficient homes, and even zero-energy homes. They also list the best appliances to use in the house to reduce your home’s electric loads from the beginning. You can also check out other sites like the US Green Building Council and its various chapters around the state of Ohio. You can look for LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design) accredited architects in Ohio, and interview some to see if they work on residential projects. You should be able to find a list of those on the Green Building site. The best thing you can do up front is design the home with passive solar elements and as smart as possible to reduce its electrical needs from the get go. (There are many great books, Internet resources and magazines now that talk about passive solar and green design.)
As for adding renewable energy, once you have a home design ready, you can contact an installer (hopefully Third Sun!) to look at the plans, the site, and give you an estimate on what a solar array would cost you. If you have done your homework on the plans and the house is super efficient, the cost of a solar power system will be much lower than if your house is inefficient.
Good luck to you. You are doing a smart thing by designing and building a house that will help you save money during your retirement – a time when you will have better things to spend your money on.
Q: We had Third Sun install both solar electric and hot water systems in our house re-build because we believe in green energy. But another important consideration was the sizable state grant we'll be receiving. How important are state and federal grants to you and Geoff growing your business? — Ann
Michelle: They are pretty important right now. The cost of solar power is still much higher than the cost of our utility power in Ohio. The price of our utility power is actually artificially low because of the way Ohio deregulated back in 1999. So when you compare the two costs, solar looks really expensive. All that may change, though, because Ohio rate caps are set to come off at the end of this year, and our rates could go up 30, 50 or even 70 percent. Then solar costs look more in line with market rates.
Solar costs continue to come down as demand and supply both increase. We have been depending on these incentives (rebates and tax credits) to help jump-start the industry. (In fact, the fossil-fuel industry has been enjoying very generous tax credits, rebates, and other incentives for years and years, so don’t think that they have built their industry purely on the market alone. There has been a lot of public money funding our current energy infrastructure. It is time to move more of that to the renewable side). The Ohio incentives have been so inconsistent and, frankly, inadequate, thus far. Our business will survive if they go away, but obviously would thrive if they continue and are correctly structured. There is a bill going through the Ohio House right now that deals with renewable energy incentives and adding a Renewable Portfolio Standard as a state requirement. This will require utilities to get 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025. This is a law in 25 other states and would be another way to add incentives for increasing the deployment of solar.
Q: What a great business. I would love to find out about starting one here in Indiana. Also where do you get your chico bags? — Beverly
Michelle: There are a couple of businesses like ours in Indiana, and the state just started an Indiana Renewable Energy Association to help lobby for policies that will promote renewables. As far as starting a business, some resources you may want to look into are: Solar Energy International trainings, Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association trainings, subscribe to Home Power magazine, starting the process of NABCEP certification.
I got my Chico bags through my niece’s school fundraiser in Portland, Oregon, but they do have a Web site, www.chicobags.com. You can buy them there, or look for a store near you that carries them by entering your zip code.
Q: Congratulations to you and Geoff on your success. We had solar panels installed one year ago and have never regretted it. Chicago area gets plenty of useable sunlight, and we get most of our hot water and some heat from the sun. I am wondering how the PV technology is coming. Solar panels were projected to pay for themselves in 6-8 years, but PV seems like it's still inefficient and costly. Also, have you installed wind power on residential homes?— Ken
Michelle: See my above answer to Ann’s question regarding cost. PV can still take 15 to 20 years to simply pay back (the system should last 40 years), but this period can be reduced by grants, rebates, tax credits, and other things like being able to sell your kilowatt hours for a premium to help a utility company comply with a renewable portfolio requirement. We encourage folks not to just look at the simple payback, though. A solar power system will start paying for itself DAY 1 that it’s installed. (You can’t say that about the granite countertop that may cost just as much!) And the inflation rate of utility power is an unknown that far into the future. Most payback scenarios are based on a regular, average utility inflation rate of 3 or 4 percent. But if there is a spike in rates or the rate accelerates, your payback suddenly gets better. A solar power system is really a hedge against future utility cost increases. When you purchase one today, you lock in the price of your power for 40 years – something that should be very comforting in a volatile energy market. You also increase the resale value of your house.
We have installed wind power for residences. We never install them “on” a house or building and no one should ever recommend that. The residence has to have some land (2-5 acres), and be in a more rural area. Wind is not appropriate or economical in every area; we consult wind maps, wind test result,s and historical data to determine if you have a good wind site. Also, wind has moving parts and requires a lot more maintenance than solar, so we want to ensure that the homeowner is both ready and willing to do that or take on a service contract to pay us to do that. Wind can have more down time (non-productive time) than solar due to seasonal variations in wind velocity and consistency, and possible mechanical issues.
Q: What average installation costs can we expect for western PA? — Rob
Michelle: The average residential installation that our company has been doing is a 4 kw system which ranges from $32,000 to $40,000. The range reflects the different complications in mounting the panels, whether on the roof or ground or awning, etc. There are also “premium” panels and regular panels. We would look at your home’s actual electrical usage to determine the optimal size system for you, and the see what your roof square footage can hold. Your actual home may be more efficient and only require a 2 or 3 kw system, or if it is large and has lots of electric loads or is inefficient, it may require a larger 6 or 10 kw system.