Sustainable, Sharing, Stable, Sensible
By Evan Lawrence
Catamount Solar has the distinction of being the only Vermont solar design and installation company that’s set up as a worker-owned cooperative.
Kevin McCollister, Dan Kinney, and Howie Michaelson, formerly of groSolar, founded Catamount in 2011. “We looked around and realized there was an opportunity for a new solar company,” said McCollister, Catamount’s managing member. “We wanted to establish a company not completely focused on growth, but more on stability and sustainability and that had an economic fairness aspect.”
The time was “not too long after the U.S.financial system almost melted down,” McCollister recalled. A few years earlier, hundreds of thousands of people had lost jobs as companies shed employees or closed. Catamount Solar’s partners thought there must be a better way to organize a business and wanted a business structure “that would work better for us and our customers,” McCollister said. They chose to become a worker-owned cooperative.
Catamount’s employees are paid under a rate structure depending on their job, but they also share in company profits at the end of the year. To become worker-owners, new hires work for three years and buy into the company, so they “truly have some skin in the game,” McCollister said. “There’s incredible pride among our employees.” As owners, “they understand the need to get it right the first time.” New employees “see how other workers do their jobs, and if they’re going to succeed, they get it.”
Worker-owners have a say in what happens at the company. “Collaborative decisions are often better,” McCollister said. Also, a cooperative has a built-in succession strategy. “It’s not just (the founders’) company,” he said. “The founders won’t cash out and sell to out of state owners. The people who came after us (in Catamount Solar) will take over when we retire.”
Customers benefit too. “We’ve seen quite a bit of attrition in the Vermont solar world,” McCollister said. When solar companies go out of business, their customers have to find another company to repair and maintain the systems on which they rely. Catamount Solar is in Vermont to stay.
As part of its commitment to the larger community, Catamount Solar donates 5% of its annual profit to Vermont non-profits. As an ownership perk, employee owners each are able to designate $1000 contribution annually. Remaining charitable funds are distributed by a committee of employee owners. Past recipients have included the Orange County 4-H club, the Randolph Area Food Shelf, and the Catamount Pipe Band.
Catamount will install photovoltaic systems for “the smallest off-grid cabins to big 500kW solar fields” in Vermont and western New Hampshire, McCollister said. Due to Vermont’s regulatory structure, 500kW is the largest capacity allowed for net-metered systems, he said.
Catamount Solar’s designers and technicians can collaborate with architects and contractors on new construction, integrating the photovoltaic system with the building’s structure and other systems, McCollister said. “Several architects and contractors work exclusively with us,” he said.
One memorable job was a commercial installation for Copeland Furniture on a brownfield in Bradford, Vt. The ground-mounted panels had to be arranged to maintain access to active monitoring wells. “That was a great success story,” McCollister said. The project made good use of blighted land, and “it won’t be challenging to decommission in 20 to 30 years or at the end of their life, at which time the brownfield remediation work might be complete enough to allow for another type of use.”
A 100kW photovoltaic system for the McKnight Farm in East Montpelier also took advantage of idle land. The organic dairy farm needed to keep a 50-foot buffer between its cropland and its neighbors, McCollister said. “About 75% of the farm’s PV system is in that buffer zone, which otherwise he can’t use.”
Catamount will put in battery systems so homeowners can store their solar electricity. PV systems are good power sources for cold climate heat pumps. “Combining heat pumps with solar provides a carbon-free strategy for home heating,” McCollister said. The company is happy to install Level 2 electric vehicle chargers on new builds. “EVs and solar go very well together,” he said. “An EV charger is an easy thing to add to a project. It’s a new direction that we’ll see more of.”
Climate change “is a great opportunity for us to do something practical to reduce the use of fossil fuel,” McCollister said. “Our national government has unfortunately taken steps in the opposite direction. People in Vermont and the Vermont government understand that’s not really progress. We’re taking the matter into our own hands.”
The employee-owners at Catamount Solar “want to keep building solar in Vermont,” McCollister said. “It’s gotten a little harder the way the rules have changed, but Vermonters want to do the right thing. We want to maintain our business and treat our customers right. Solar power is the way of the future. It’s clean, renewable power.”