Solarizing In The Upper Valley
By George Harvey
How many solar installers does it take to finish 53 home systems in a year? Answer: “Three, if they are a woman named Kim Quirk and two members of her crew at Energy Emporium.” I struggle to describe what an amazing accomplishment this is. I could compare it to a stupendously complex juggling act, but that does not do it justice.
Talking with Quirk about organizing the Solarize Hanover, New Hampshire project, I came to understand that some kinds of engineering really are more like art. The underlying work of organizing a project, getting the right people to be at the right place at the right time, with the right equipment and the right tools, is rather like choreographing an elaborate dance. Everything must flow in a manner one might call elegantly beautiful.
Quirk said that the first problem for Energy Emporium’s work in the Solarize movement was getting over the misconception that the business was too small. Given the chance to prove itself, however, in the case of Solarize Hanover, it installed 53 home solar photovoltaic systems for a total of 355 kilowatts of solar panels, in a single year. And more to its credit, its installations there will save about 9,500 tons of CO2 emissions over the lifetimes of the systems.
When she started working on the Solarize community projects, Quirk understood that a smaller business had the advantage of not having to maintain a large permanent staff. Energy Emporium is much smaller than one might expect, given the size of the job. There were a total of three employees who did all the site evaluations and worked with multiple sub-contractors to all the solar panels. Work that did not need the special skills of solar experts, including roofing, excavation, construction, and electrical wiring, was done by local, experienced independent contractors.
This approach means less overhead for the business, which in turn means that Quirk can produce more competitive bids on projects, saving customers money. Apart from that, however, it means that a lot of her time is spent making sure that things flow according to plan. The plan had to take into account not only such things as personnel and logistics, but also seasonal weather, maintenance of existing customers, along with all the other responsibilities of running a business.
In the Hannover project, everything started with doing almost 300 site visits in the three months between December of 2014 to the end of February 2015, a time when actual installation work would be difficult, at best. This was followed by a lot of lively activity for the next nine months, as installations had to be completed at a rate of two to three per week to have all 53 completed by the beginning of the next winter.
During the course of that rapid work, planning and execution had to flow like a New England contra dance. Each step had to be done precisely as ordered, executed precisely as designed, with perfect timing.
An important additional part of the installation process is making sure that all the homeowners know precisely what to expect. They have to be told when to expect workers to show up and when they will be able to see the systems they ordered completed, providing clean power and reducing the electric bills. “Open communications is the most important thing,” Quirk said.
Starting in March of 2015, the 53 Solarize Hanover installations were completed before the following winter began. But the work was not over when all installations were completed in Hanover, because Energy Emporium had to move on to new work for Solarize Lebanon-Enfield. And so the elaborate grand ballet began once more.
Solarize Lebanon-Enfield had its own complications. The New Hampshire cap in net metering was hit just as installation work was underway, leading to delays. Nevertheless, 40 systems were completed, all within the allotted time. They total 283 kilowatts and will eliminate about 7,500 tons of carbon emissions. In this case, Kim Quirk had to switch her show to highlight patience and flexibility. With those, she and her company succeeded in providing the solar systems people wanted, despite regulatory delays.
For the future, Kim Quirk told us that people are beginning to move more and more toward battery based grid-tied and off-grid systems, because the prices of these systems will soon be low enough to be competitive, and they are not affected by net metering changes that we are now seeing.
For those interested, an earlier story on the Energy Emporium appeared in the April 2014 issue of Green Energy Times. It can be found at http://bit.ly/GET-April-2014-Energy-Emporium.
Energy Emporium’s web site is http://www.energyemp.com/.
These and many more towns that were involved in the Solarize Upper Valley program have served to largely increase solar in the region, moving us closer to a clean energy future.