Making a powerful impact
Published: Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 4:52 p.m.
Solar power was very much a niche market in early 2007 when Barry and Elaine Jacobson decided they would install solar panels themselves on their own home, making it just the 12th home in Gainesville to do so.
Since the couple, both 51, started Solar Impact later that year, they have installed 170 solar projects on homes and businesses, providing about 6 megawatts of power — enough to power 500 homes.
They jumped in the business just in time to take advantage of state and local rebates and, starting in 2009, Gainesville's solar feed-in tariff program.
Gainesville now has 381 solar projects providing nearly 16 megawatts of power, according to Gainesville Regional Utilities.
"We just entered the market and the market exploded in Gainesville," Elaine said.
They have installed solar on 85 homes and 85 commercial projects that include the Gainesville Regional Airport, Plaza Royale, the Downtown Parking Garage and Sun Center East, with the largest being a 750-kilowatt array on the Stoneridge Apartments.
On Tuesday, the School Board approved leases to additional rooftop space that will bring the total number of school solar projects to 2.24 megawatts of power on 20 schools. Solar Impact lines up local investors who buy the solar arrays and pay the School Board for roof space, and Gainesville Regional Utilities pays the investors a set rate for the power generated over 20 years through its feed-in tariff.
The school district will receive nearly $3 million over those 20 years.
"To me that kind of epitomizes what we're about," Barry said of their school projects. "It was an innovative project of how to get solar — the School Board has no money to do anything like this but they have lots of roof space they're not using — and how to get that combination to make it where they're making money, investors are making money, we can install systems.
"There's an educational component," Barry continued, "money being used to fund renewable energy education and energy improvements at the schools. We created over $1 million in local jobs. It runs together a lot of the stuff that we're about."
Barry said the idea behind their company was to get more people to do solar by making solar more affordable — by cutting a third off the cost of the $50,000 they were quoted for their home before deciding to do it themselves.
As a partner in a small environmental engineering firm, Barry had experience setting up small solar systems to power water monitoring stations for regulatory agencies.
After installing their home system, Barry suggested that Elaine go into the solar business. Elaine, who has a doctorate in food and resources economics, was between jobs as a teacher, researcher and consultant. Barry offered to use his engineering experience to design the systems on the side, but when the business took off, he left environmental engineering and went into solar full-time.
"We thought we'd just do it for a few friends, and it just went from there," Elaine said.
The business has grown to between $6 million and $8 million in sales a year and has eight employees, including sales manager Don Ryan and project manager Richie Wilhoit.
Barry said Gainesville's feed-in tariff program has been a success in that it was designed to stimulate the market and then fade out.
With GRU dropping the rate it pays new projects each year of the FIT program and the cost it otherwise pays for energy going up, Barry said it is starting to make financial sense for some people to do solar without the feed-in tariff program by selling excess power back to GRU at the going rates.
"Our goal is we want it to make sense without any incentives because as long as it's incentive-based, it's at risk," Barry said.
"A lot has been about getting acceptance of solar, for people not to view this as this wild, crazy thing. I think we're getting there pretty rapidly," said Barry. "I feel like the Gainesville market is growing just because, as more people see it, they're more comfortable with it."