Your solar project with the city of Willard – using energy from the sun to power USB charging stations at a park – just won an innovation award from the Missouri Municipal League. Can you talk about that project and why it’s important?
One of the guys came up and said, hey, we could do some really neat stuff with solar structures. We could build benches. We could build columns and build these huge shade structures that allow people to come to the park, stay at the park longer, and actually feel safer and have the ability to charge their phone. Use Wi-Fi, maybe the municipalities can use solar security cameras. We can put Bluetooth speakers on them. We can put lights on them. We can let people charge their computers. Let’s say Susie wants to bring her kids to the park. She pulls into the park and walks the 200 yards to the playground, looks down and notices that her phone’s dead. Is Susie going to stay or is she going to pack her kids up and leave because she feels exposed? Well, more than likely she’s ... going to leave and find another thing for them to do. We came up with a whole bunch of (prototype) ideas and didn’t put them in motion, and then had a conversation with several municipalities and have sold a ton. Willard was our first. That’s kind of how it all started, and then it just blew up. We’ve got these items all over the United States. It’s been crazy. Our No. 1 selling item by far is solar-powered security cameras.
You found a product niche within the solar industry?
We did. What’s happened is municipalities and individuals will need to have power someplace. Let’s say it’s at a park and it’s on the other side of two soccer fields and a tennis court, and there’s no power up there. For years, that municipality has been like, well, it’s just a field. We can’t really do anything because it’s going to cost us $80,000 to trench electricity from where it is to where we need it. And it’s just not in our budget. I started having conversations with these folks and started going to parks and rec expos for the state of Missouri. That land is still 100% usable, and I can put power there for whatever it is you need. There is no cost other than the item there; I don’t have to trench anything. In one particular case, what was going to cost them $30,000 to do, I can provide power for the entire project for life for half of that. Not only will they never ever have an electric bill for that project – they’ll have power for 20, 30 years, no matter what, and that includes the wiring. It includes the objects. You need lights in a pavilion. You need phone-charging stations. You need lights in the bathroom, you need hot water heaters, and you need something so people can dry their hands – I can do all of those with solar.
How does the project at Willard’s Jackson Street Park work?
There’s three items in Willard. The first item is a bench and it’s right there at the entrance to Jackson Street Park. It’s a memorial bench for the armed forces. You just sit down, and it’s got a solar panel above it and where you would rest your arms, there’s a Qi charger. You just take your phone and set it right on there and it’ll charge your phone while you’re sitting there taking a break or reading a book. The second item at Willard is located inside the pool area. You can never have power in a pool ever because 8-year-old boys and girls will get shocked when they try to plug their phone in. We came up with one of our items, called a Grasshopper – it’s just a pole with a solar panel and a battery. It charges your phone. It’s completely safe. Our last item ... it’s got a 30-foot shade structure and then a table with seating for eight below it. That structure has lighting that also has USB ports to charge your phone. [The cost was] $50,000, all said and done.
Solar seems to fit in a park environment because it’s unobtrusive. Can you talk about that?
The goal is to be as environmentally conscious as humanly possible, but provide and fill a need that benefits all aspects of the community. It helps the city. It helps the citizens. It helps that this is a one-time cost. There’s no electric bill. Solar gets a bad rap in the Midwest, for whatever reason. We put power in places that’s either too expensive or just doesn’t make sense ecologically. You don’t want to tear up an acre worth of ground to get to trench wires so you can plug in a fountain or something. It just doesn’t make sense when I can do all of that with solar panels and be completely green. If something changes, we just take the panel down and move on.
What do you see in the future, and how does it relate to your Willard-based company?
I answered two phone calls (May 24), one from a suburb in Chicago and one in Utah that heard about our solar-powered security cameras and wanted to know more. I do a ton of solar-powered parking lot lights. The whole concept behind environmental energy is really simple. … We’ve got a really cool project going in Ozark right now. There’s a place called Garrison Spring. I had never heard of it, but it’s deep in the valley. They wanted to put a new gate up – think Bass Pro [Shops], Big Cedar Lodge-type gate – but there was no power there. We came up with a way to power their gate, put a new light in their parking lot, put security cameras on there, and then put lights up and down the drive, all with solar.
Glyn Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mercy Springfield Communities is replacing its Mercy Clinic Family Medicine – South Creek building, located at 2711 S. Meadowbrook Ave., with a new building that is 1,500 square feet larger.