Monday, October 8, 2012

A Bright Idea In Solar

Vincent Battaglia is eagerly awaiting former President Bill Clinton's keynote speech this week at Solar Power International, a convention expected to draw thousands of solar industry experts to Orlando.

Renova Solar installation team work on the roof of a Rancho Mirage
home as they install a 30KW solar system. The system triples the
 kilowatts of the home’s original unit (seen behind the workers), and
has  more than 2,000 feet of conduit.

Better yet, the CEO and president of Palm Desert-based Renova Solar Corp. said he is looking forward to having his company singled out as the first in North America to earn a new industry accreditation.

Previously, only individuals who installed solar equipment at homes and businesses could be certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.

The new NABCEP program certifies entire companies.

Renova Solar spent nearly eight months in a “completely transparent” mode so NABCEP inspectors could take a thorough look at its operations, Battaglia said.

Inspectors examined several solar systems that Renova Solar installed at homes in the Coachella Valley.

“We gave them all of our mission statements, our employee manual, insurance coverages, everything to show them that from soup to nuts, we are a company that is very much into customer service,” Battaglia said. “We wanted to be given the gold standard.”

Renova Solar scored a 99 percent grade from third-party inspectors on its operations and solar installations, said Ezra Auerbach, NABCEP's executive director.

The accreditation process for companies is seen as an important step for the industry and NABCEP, said Don Warfield, chairman of NABCEP, a New York-based nonprofit organization that develops quality credentialing and certification programs for the solar industry.

“We hold consumer protection as one of our core values,” Warfield said.

Auerbach said achieving the certification will require solar installation firms to demonstrate a “companywide and systematic commitment to quality assurance,” whether in sales, installation or other facets of their operations.

Battaglia admits many consumers remain skeptical about the fledgling solar industry.

Some consumers may perceive solar installers and companies that they know little about as “Dan in the van” or “Chuck in the truck,” Battaglia said.

Incentives a key

What's certain is that more homeowners in the valley and across the state are at least considering solar installations to slash electric rates.

“Net metering” has been one of the most important drivers in the growth of residential solar, as well as other state and federal incentive programs aimed at spreading renewable energy, solar industry advocates said.

Net metering enables homeowners to get credits from utilities for excess electricity their rooftop systems generate.

Nate Otto, president of Palm Springs-based Hot Purple Energy, said net metering has been an important tool because it gives companies a chance to use the electric grid as a “battery bank.”

Net metering is a key to allowing solar to go mainstream, Otto said.

Such incentives have helped California become the top state in the nation in terms of solar home installations. A study by the University of California-Berkeley noted that the state's solar industry has created 26,000 jobs - about one in every four nationwide.

By 2020, Gov. Jerry Brown has set a goal for the state to generate 12 gigawatts from solar, wind, fuel cells and other clean energy sources. So far, the state has installed generating capacity of about 1.2 gigawatts, enough electricity for almost 200,000 homes a year, according to the study.

Standing out

Executives at companies across the valley said as interest in solar systems has increased, so has competition from national and regional installation firms such as Verengo Solar and SolarCity that have more aggressively entered the valley market.

So it's even more important for solar companies to be able to set themselves apart from the pack — as well as in the minds of consumers.

“Accreditation is a meaningful way for consumers to choose a company that is committed to high quality and values throughout the whole process,” Battaglia said.

He estimates only about 3,000 of 138,000-plus homes and other structures in the valley have had solar power systems installed. So there is still plenty of opportunity ahead.

“We're hiring more and more people, but we don't like to grow too quickly,” Battaglia said.

Renova Solar handles all kinds of solar installations, including one Friday at a large home in Rancho Mirage. It requires a 30-kilowatt solar system compared to most valley homes that need 8-kilowatt solar systems.

Battaglia said he started Renova Solar in 2006 as he and partner Thomas Hall merged companies. They have 24 full-time employees, and they also started RenovaPLUS, a solar maintenance service.

For Battaglia, environmental-related businesses have long been a passion.

Prior to earning a master's degree, Battaglia taught himself Russian in the 1990s and founded a business in Russia focusing on the importation of nontoxic new products, as well as environmentally responsible real estate development.

Battaglia now also teaches for UC Riverside's Extension Program through the Renova Energy Academy. He was also co-founder of the Inland Empire chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and its Coachella Valley branch.

Hall first launched Sun Powered Solar Inc. in 2004 before merging it two years later to create Renova Solar.

Battaglia and Hall said their firm also strives to help consumers reduce their electrical usage by providing advice on everything from pool pumps to attic ventilators.

“We're a company that essentially does a five-star audit” before discussing the solar system, Battaglia said.

Some company executives said consumers should check to see that solar companies are bonded, in good standing with permitting authorities and utilities and have references for past projects.

Battaglia said getting the first accreditation is as satisfying as growing the business in tough times.

“We've made it through the worst economy since the Depression in an industry that's gotten a lot of pushback and constant rivalry from oil and coal,” Battaglia said.


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