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Into the Sun: Companies, individuals willing to spend on solar projects

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Three years in the making, Ozarks Food Harvest completed a $4.8 million warehouse addition this year.

But there’s a small investment tucked into that which might have a big payoff: a nearly $300,000 solar array system of more than 400 solar panels.

“We always wanted to incorporate solar in the new facility,” said Bart Brown, the nonprofit’s CEO.

Ozarks Food Harvest and others are in the middle of a renewed commitment to solar power.

According to a June 2018 report from the Solar Energy Industries Association, more solar power was added than any other type of electricity in the first quarter of 2018. The solar market grew by 2.5 gigawatts of capacity in the first three months – an increase of 13 percent from the same period in 2017.

Solar companies in the Ozarks are meeting the demand.

Sun Solar CEO Caleb Arthur said his company’s sales have grown 20 percent in 2018, with projected revenue growth of 40 percent to $32 million in 2019.

Arthur sees corporations moving toward renewables for the bottom-line difference on utilities.

“But there’s another huge force moving here, and that’s the public perception and the public voting with their dollars,” he said.

Pensmore’s project
Ozarks Food Harvest isn’t the only large-scale solar system project, as the owner of Chateau Pensmore, a high-profile house under construction in Christian County, gladly invested in the industry. 

Though he’s had an interest in solar energy since childhood, Chateau Pensmore owner Steve Huff picked quite a large first investment project for solar.

The former CIA counterintelligence agent’s massive 72,000-square-foot house near Highlandville hired Ozark-based Skywire Electrical Services LLC in 2015 to install 208 solar panels on the roof of the main house and an adjacent barn.

“Our system is a little more complex than the typical solar install,” Huff said. “I’ve been pretty happy with it.”

Skywire sales consultant Mike Mertins said NorthStar Battery provided a backup battery for Huff’s system. The Ozark company also electrically wired four floors of the house.

“It all plays a role in the design of the home, which is the way solar is supposed to work,” Mertins said. “A home is just like a fingerprint on a person – no two are the same.”

Mertins said the Pensmore installation is Skywire’s largest single residential solar project.

Solar family
Springfield’s O’Reilly family has been involved in solar projects, with the south-side Farmers Park making extensive use of solar panels as well as O’Reilly Auto Parts stores in Missouri and South Carolina.

Charlie O’Reilly made an $85,000 contribution to Ozarks Food Harvest’s solar project. The system was installed in May, which included a large solar carport and solar canopy mount, totaling 428 solar panels.

Arthur said O’Reilly was able to help fund the project through a federal tax credit, which OFH was restricted to use as a nonprofit.

“It’s a pretty good deal because people like Charlie O’Reilly can take the benefit of that tax credit,” Arthur said.

The 30 percent solar investment tax credit can be claimed against the tax liability of residential, commercial and utility investors in solar energy property on projects that have completed or commenced construction through 2019, according to SEIA. The investment tax credit reduces to 22 percent for projects that start construction in 2021, according to SEIA. After that, the residential credit ends, and the commercial and utility credit drops to a permanent 10 percent.

Brown said the Ozarks Food Harvest solar project cost around $287,900, with the tax credits eliminating the upfront costs.

“The O’Reillys are passionate about our ecology and supporting our organization,” Brown said. “This was a way to marry two of his passions.”

Charlie O’Reilly said he’s invested in solar at his Nixa home and at the family’s business office on South Ingram Mill Road. Between the two projects, he said he’s invested about $100,000.

“It’s a good economic and environmental investment,” he said. “I’ve talked (solar energy) up and encouraged it with other family members.”

O’Reilly said he netted a full return on investment eight years after the residential installation.

Brown said the anticipated return on investment for Ozarks Food Harvest is about five years.

Considering the large freezers and coolers in use by the nonprofit food distributor, the utility bill has typically been $6,500-$7,500 per month, Brown said. The solar panel system, which went live in October, is projected to save 15-20 percent off monthly utility bills, he added.

Banking on the sun
OakStar Bank has been on the solar path for a couple of years.

Six of its 15 branches have solar panels installed by Sun Solar. A project at its headquarters, 1020 E. Battlefield Road, includes one of the nation’s first SmartFlower solar systems, which mounts on the ground and tracks the sun through the day.

Jimmie Stilley, senior vice president of commercial lending at OakStar, said the bank and Sun Solar in 2017 did an analysis of each building to determine which ones were best suited for solar usage. He noted the second Springfield branch, currently under construction on East Sunshine Street, would not have solar installed.

“From the economic standpoint, it’s an attractive option,” he said.

Stilley declined to disclose the bank’s financial investment in its solar projects. However, online estimates for the SmartFlower place its cost between $17,000 and $22,000.

OakStar also is a financing partner for Sun Solar’s customers, Arthur said.

“If a homeowner does want to go solar and they don’t want to own it, Sun Solar will install that system, and we will take that lease and sell those leases to OakStar,” he said. “Effectively, they own our entire residential lease portfolio in all of Missouri.”

Arthur said the bank has financed about $10 million for residential projects for nearly 300 of his company’s customers over the past year.

Though residential jobs make up the majority of Sun Solar’s work, at about $20 million per year, Arthur sees commercial on an upswing. Historically, he said commercial projects were coming in at less than $5 million, but they’re track for as much as $20 million next year.

Huff cautioned people to not rush into the decision.

“Do your homework. Research what’s available,” he said. “It’s cash out up front and you recover it over time. But it does cost up front.”

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