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Vermont Solar Contractors Prosper with IBEW

December 28, 2009

The Green Mountain State is getting greener as Montpelier Local 300 builds fertile relationships with influential, home-grown renewable energy contractors who are looking to expand with new support from the state legislature.

ReKnew Energy Systems, currently building a solar array for Central Vermont Public Service in Rutland—near Killington ski area—became a signatory contractor last month.

Brett Tofel, who founded ReKnew in 2006, completed 200 residential solar installations before founding his commercial division in 2008.  He says:

Signing with IBEW gives us access to a work force that is trained in solar installations as we expand.  We’re hoping to build our relationship and go forward with the stability to advance on commercial projects.

While residential installations have been encouraged by net-metering—allowing consumers to recover some of their investment by selling power back to utility companies—Tofel
and other renewable energy contractors are hopeful that the state’s new feed-in tariffs will encourage solar, wind and other technologies, energizing the commercial market. Already, the price of solar panels and other parts has been cut in half, he says.

“A lot of players are dropping in on solar,” says Tofel.  When legislators see the amount of jobs that are being created and the revenue stream from renewables, it’s likely they will come back with stronger requirements for renewable energy development, he adds.

USA Solar Store, a Vermont-born, expanding business—with 23 shops throughout the nation—has developed a relationship with Sherwin Electric, a longtime signatory contractor, using IBEW electricians on installations.

Dave Bonta, the founder of USA Solar Stores, set up his first shop in 2001. With a background in marketing, Bonta had concluded that the renewable energy industry was doing a poor job selling itself and serving customers. He focused on marketing and answering customers’ questions and less on developing his installation force.  After Vermont passed its feed-in tariff, however, Bonta became concerned. He says:

As soon as the country wakes up from the stupor of this economic slump, people will see the great incentives out there for solar installations.  I knew it would be a matter of time before I would be without enough installers.  More and more customers want licensed, bonded installers who can make safe tie-ins to the power grid, who have a good handle on AC electricity.

A visit from Local 300 Marketing Director Matt Lash convinced Bonta to tap those skills at the local union hall. Lash addressed Bonta’s concerns about unions being “too bossy and too expensive” and his request to keep his existing installers from losing their jobs.

 “We hit upon a great feeling of synergy,” says Bonta.  The first job combining Bonta’s crew with IBEW journeymen and apprentices was a 10KW array for an architect. “It’s a beautiful thing in every way,” he says. The crews have also collaborated on the array at the USA Solar Store’s headquarters in Weathersfield Business Center in Downers Four Corners and offered vital electrical service to the post office—located in the center—during a power outage. “It would be logical to assume that more post offices would consider moving to solar power,” he says.

Bonta expects his collaboration with IBEW to clinch more residential solar market share due to Vermont’s recent passage of the Property-Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE). The act enables municipalities to create bonds—supported by the state—that will allow homeowners to borrow up to $30,000 for initial installations of solar. Homeowners will derive immediate savings on energy costs while paying back the loan through their property taxes.  “This will drive tremendous amounts of business to our stores,” says Bonta. 

Peck Electric the state’s largest signatory contractor, has been “enormously helpful in getting into renewable energy,” says Lash.  Peck has three local electricians installing a solar array at Montpelier’s waste water treatment plant and a 60 KW array at a high-rise senior facility in Burlington.