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From Solar Works To Real Goods Solar

By George Harvey

The story of Real Goods Solar (RGS) goes back to Real Goods, a store that opened in California in 1977. The business was the first ever to sell solar panels on the retail market, in 1978. Solar was very expensive in those days; the price of a nine-watt solar panel was $900. They were tiny, of course. The first hundred panels actually came from a salesman who showed up with a hundred of them in his Porsche.

Real Goods is very important in the memory of many people, as an inspiration for off-grid, sustainable living. Not content merely to sell solar panels and the hardware to install them, Real Goods published the Solar Living Source Book. This wonderful book taught and inspired us, and continues to do so today, as new editions come out. It was what taught Nancy Rae Mallery, our editor, how to live off-grid, and what gave her much of the technical knowledge she needed to go solar and, eventually, to start Green Energy Times.

In 1981, not long after Real Goods sold its first panels, another company called Solar Works opened in Vermont, selling and installing solar panels. The business was founded by Leigh Seddon. Solar Works set up the first grid-tied solar system in Vermont, twenty-eight years ago, a system, with its original panels, that is still in use. In 2008, Solar Works merged with SolarWrights to form Alteris, and in 2011, Alteris merged with RGS, bringing two of the oldest retail solar companies in the country together to become Real Goods Solar.

You might think Solar Works would have lost its identity in all the mergers, but you would be wrong. Solar Works’ original office was at 64 Main Street, in Montpelier, and through the changes that time has brought about, the company has always stayed there. RGS’ office is still at the original location. In fact, the original records of Solar Works, dating from 1981, are still filed in the RGS office.

Thomas Champlin, who is the senior solar energy consultant for RGS Vermont, started dreaming of solar panels at a very young age, around thirty years ago, and about the time Solar Works was starting up. Though he was raised in Massachusetts, his family has a long history in Vermont, to the point that he has always identified with it. His background includes working in the park service in Washington, gaining a lot of off-grid experience, and a first-hand understanding of the environmental destruction of extensive clear-cutting of forests. He came back east and ran a fencing business in Massachusetts. But his interest in solar power came through and Tom joined Alteris. He was with the company when it merged with RGS.

There are several sales representatives in Vermont and New Hampshire, Pete Edling, Mark Spyrzynski, and Robert Morton. Tom does about 500 site visits each year, with 115 sales this year, with an average system size of five to six kilowatts. He had seen solar systems installed in 339 homes and businesses at the time of our interview, and no doubt more since then. He says rooftop systems average about $2.75 per watt, installed, after incentives. That is a far cry from the original, uninstalled nine-watt solar panels Real Goods sold for $100 per watt.

RGS tries to use locally-sourced components wherever it is economically possible. They use local excavators, such as Stonehammer, LLC, of Woodbury, Vermont. Poles are purchased locally. Where soil conditions allow, Techno Metal Post of VT, of Monkton, supplies self-augering posts with a frost sleeve that do not require concrete, for minimum environmental impact. Gridwork (racks) comes from Unirac or DPW in New Mexico and Alberta. Fasteners are by Ecofasten of Morrisville, Vermont.

RGS uses solar modules made by Solar World in Oregon. They have not been around quite as long as RGS, but they have 35 years of experience.

RGS for Vermont:

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