|Both Solar 4 Leesburg and North Gate Vineyard won awards at the 2013 Chamber of Commerce Green Business Awards. -Courtesy/North Gate Vineyard|
When Vicki Fedor and her husband Mark, owners of North Gate Vineyard in Purcellville, decided to construct the building that would become their tasting room and main center of operations they wanted it to be eco-friendly.
They knew the decision would cost them financially. Building materials which allow a building to become LEED certified, a federal rating system for the design and construction of green buildings, are expensive, prohibitively so for some businesses starting out.
"It would have been cheaper to not be concerned with being environmental," Vicki Fedor said.
Mark and Vicki Fedor, however, believed they could market the LEED certification.
"We wanted to be a showcase for other businesses," said Vicki Fedor.
So North Gate hired Solar 4 Leesburg, a partnership of solar professionals.
Joe Sanchez, a partner with Solar 4 Leesburg explained how he walks through the process with prospective clients. First he judges the available space at the business and figures out where the company could put solar panels.
He used software to calculate how much energy he could deliver and then suggested a potential array of solar panels and financing options.
The bottom line: How the customer can afford solar is often the most important question Sanchez must answer when meeting with a prospective client.
"It has to make financial sense," said Sanchez.
He usually makes statements like, "This is how long it will take for you to hit the breakeven point on your investment," or "You could see positive cash flow in this many years."
In order for solar to make financial sense, a company must have a long-term look on its business.
Vicki Fedor explained that her business will take about nine years to get to the breakeven point for the extra construction and installation costs she incurred for panels and outfitting. The panels are warrantied for 25 years.
Vicki Fedor said she went with solar because prices had come down drastically. A new product had also hit the market and less expensive technology and special panels allowed North Gate to save on the cost of roofing material.
By turning their attention to living off the land, Vicki Fedor says for the most part her tasting room has net zero energy consumption, meaning the building uses as much energy every year as the site generates for itself.
Sanchez argues that even without Virginia state incentives, solar makes sense. He clarified that almost every US homeowner or business owner receives the federal 30 percent tax credit.
Most solar panels are warrantied for 25 years, and the timetable for reaching positive cash flow for businesses varies depending on initial expense and the nature of the project.
Because there are fewer moving parts and the maintenance is minimal, her year-over-year hassle to keep up with the system is less than traditional power, says Vicki Fedor.
Sanchez also explains that a solar array allows a business to be less reliant on a grid approach. If your business relies on refrigeration or needs energy to survive, he says relying on a strained grid can be risky.
"We only owe a couple hundred dollars a year, as opposed to $700-800 dollars a month," said Vicki Fedor.
Explaining the business proposition to legislators is arguably a bigger test for clean energy proponents than the salesmen trying to sell the product to businesses.
Sanchez explained that Virginia has traditionally been a coal state, and incentive programs for solar and other green technologies have lagged behind Maryland, North Carolina, D.C. and other states.
"We gotta break through this mindset that we have to protect coal," said Mike Healy of the Virginia Advanced Energy Industry.
Healy and Francis Hodsoll, another member of VAEI, believe that the way to bipartisan support for legislation is making a business case for clean energy.
"We need to show how these projects will create jobs and jump start industry," said Healy. "If companies can get a better return on tax equity in Maryland or D.C. they are more likely to go there."
The two like what North Carolina did with a tax credit program, and are lobbying the state for more solar business-friendly legislation.
In the long run Healy believes clean energy options will reduce cost, dependence on imported electricity from out of state and will allow the state to take a proactive approach to what he believes will be a strained energy grid.
"I think if we do a good job of showing the economic growth potential, Democrats and Republicans will be on board," said Healy.