I had the pleasure of meeting Eric in 2016 while shopping for rooftop solar for my own home. After having spent over a year researching and reaching out to several different solar installers in the Chicago area, I was very impressed with Eric’s responsiveness, knowledge, honesty and level of service.
What got you started on the path of being in the solar business?
I was interested in sustainability from an early age, and never wasting anything was a core value from my upbringing. What’s great is that investing in solar today is not only a sustainability decision, but also a business decision. It is a great opportunity to produce energy, save money and do something good for the environment. That is a powerful trifecta.
What was your background before founding GRNE?
I studied for double major of Industrial Engineer and Economics at Northwestern University. After I graduated, I played football professionally for a few years.
Professional football? Please elaborate.
I was a wide receiver for da Bears. That was my first real job. Later, I worked for United Airlines doing revenue management. It was when I was with United that I realized that I don’t like sitting in a cubical all day and needed more dynamic work.
When we first started GRNE, it was a struggle initially to find investment money. I had a consulting job and did my GRNE work on the side for a few years. The consulting work was to help folks to shore up their bottom line. Two or three years ago, we were able to bring on enough investment to provide operating capital. I’m happy to say they we have now paid all our investors back, and hired a few new folks.
I know GRNE has other locations. Is it a franchise? My co-founder Jess Baker and I started the business in Lincoln, Nebraska. We also have a warehouse there. We are one business entity with a few branches. Jess runs the Nebraska location and I run Illinois. I currently oversee our crews in Indiana and Minnesota as well.
We did consider the franchise route, but decided against it because legal fees and regulations make it very expensive.
I recall seeing that you are working on a large project in Indiana. Tell me about that. It is very exciting. It is a middle school project. There was a formal proposal RFP process and we got the contract for the largest of four schools in the project. Our part of the installation is a little over a megawatt. As a point of reference, your rooftop solar is about 7 KW. This is about 150 times the size of yours. We have a full install crew that started a few weeks ago and will be there until around the end of June to install around 3,500 panels. This scale of project requires a lot of resources. We rented a house for the crew and set up mobile offices there.
Speaking of installing in different states, I read recently that Indiana passed legislation that was not good for solar. Also, as a recent residential solar customer, I get the sense that Illinois is not legislatively optimized for solar like some states. Tell me about that.
I was in Springfield lobbying for solar yesterday. Our team was with state legislators asking for strong policy support. A strong bill was passed toward the end of 2016 to prolong tax credits.
There is another upcoming bill we are pushing for: PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy). PACE is used in many other states, but hasn’t quite come to the Midwest yet. PACE is business-focused for now, but we hope to see it expanded to residential. In a nutshell, what it does is sets it up so that solar customers don’t have to pay for their system on the front end, but instead it is financed and added to property tax. This alleviates the stress of an upfront capital requirement. The system stays with the property if it changes hands.
From a legislative perspective, Illinois is primed to become a leader in solar in the next 5-10 years because of the 2016 legislation. I already see a lot of new companies coming in and expanding. There was uncertainty around RECs (renewable energy credits) in the Illinois budget, but the Clean Jobs Bill gave us a leg to stand on and we are sure that RECs will be around for years to come.
I would say that in Illinois today, the biggest hurdle is education — getting people to understand that they have a choice and how the choice of solar benefits them. The need to understand that going solar is not only an environmental decision, it is a solid financial decision.
We lobbied against the Indiana legislation you asked about, but it passed. That was Senate bill 309. The main impact is to net meter regulations in the state. In the past, when utilities would give solar customers credit, they would pay the retail rate. Now, solar customers in Indiana will get a reduced wholesale rate. Instead of 12 cents per kilowatt, they will get 6 or 7 cents. The lower rate will go into effect in 2018, then there is a five year step down. If you know anyone interested in solar in Indiana, tell them to do it now. If the system installation is completed in 2017, they will be grandfathered in. The large utilities lobbied for this and were successful.
I have ComEd, but recently learned that Chicago area residents, can choose a renewable energy utility if they would like. Can solar customers with net metering do this as well? Yes, you can pick whoever you like. Just check with the utility in advance to confirm that they offer net metering.
(Note: I plan to switch to Arcadia Power, who I learned about from my fellow Climate Reality Leaders.)
Have you considered expanding into wind or other renewable energy sources?
We have thought about it. We have a patent on a wind energy technology —an “energy column” — which we have installed in a few locations. This is a tunnel that allows air to flow through and power a turbine. As for other renewable energy sources, we have decided to hold off. The small wind industry is struggling in U.S. because it is not reliable. You can predict solar, but not wind. Also, gusts can damage equipment, so there is a lot more complexity. Big wind is doing really well. There is a lot more consistency and mechanisms in place, however windmills are constantly breaking and need expensive repairs. There is a huge barrier to entry because of the cost involved. Other hurdles in the wind space is the large lack of regulations. In many cases, building codes and permit requirements do not exist and can delay project significantly.