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4/18/2004

Selling the sun

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Orval Snyder was interested in solar power while employed by a company that believed just the opposite about people getting their electrical power from the sun — Public Service Co. of Colorado.

At his property above Red Feather Lakes, Snyder built his barn, and is building a cabin, powered completely by the sun and the wind. No need for the company he worked for for 33 years.

Today, Snyder runs his own one-man company, Northwest Power Co., out of his house in Longmont, and in less than two years he’s built up quite a client base, including Boeing Aircraft and the U.S. Navy.

“When I first started this out it was real slow, a real slow process,” said Snyder. “I was kind of kicking rocks a little bit, but I thought, ‘No, it’ll come, it’ll come.’”

He said Northwest Power, which makes and distributes solar products and equipment as well as traditional power generators, has never lost money, and this year he already has surpassed all of what he did in sales last year.

Currently, Snyder is building pedestrian and stop signs for Boeing that have flashing lights which get the attention of pedestrians and motorists. The blinking lights are solar-powered.

When he first started his company, Snyder acted as the middle man for such products, drumming-up clients and then selling them signs he purchased from a Texas company.

“It wasn’t very professional looking, and here I was shipping to General Mills and people like that,” said Snyder. He decided to take the middle man out of the equation and began producing the signs himself.

Meanwhile, he designed and built his own Web site.

Through research on the Internet, he taught himself how to write code and learned how to have his site come up first when someone typed in the appropriate language into a search engine.

To date, his biggest sale has been $52,000 worth of solar panels for the roof of an industrial building in California. His next biggest was $20,000 worth of pedestrian signs to the Navy.

The Internet, Snyder said, is where he gets most of his business.

Out in his back yard, Snyder showed a recent visitor his yard light, which he has rigged to run on solar power. It can go five days without sun, he said, adding that he is thinking about approaching the city of Longmont with an idea he’s had for getting about half of its streetlights “off the grid.”

“Colorado needs something similar to what California has — their rebate,” Snyder said, adding that in the case of the $52,000 the California company paid for its solar panels, “the rebate will pay for half of that.”

California does have a “portfolio standard,” according to Mark McCray, managing director of Boulder’s RMS Electric, which has been selling solar systems and supplies since 1982.

McCray said portfolio standards are requirements that companies have a certain percentage of their power come from renewable resources, such solar or wind.

Involved in solar power even before the founding of RMS, McCray has seen the ups and downs over the years of the popularity of alternative energy sources.

He said he clearly recalls 1980, when President Reagan ripped the working solar panels off the White House roof,
symbolizing a return to the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and a dismissal of the thought that there might be a better way.

Over the years, McCray said, solar-related sales have accounted for 20 percent to about 50 percent of his company’s business.

“I would say it’s running kind of low right now, because overall in the country right now, there’s not been what I would call a sense of urgency,” said McCray.

“When you take a look at the conditions here in Colorado, we have some of the lowest rates in the country, probably third or fourth from the bottom.”

Politics always has played a role in renewable energies, McCray said.

Back in solar’s heyday, solar power users could claim a combined state and federal tax credit for up to 70 percent of the price of their systems. Such breaks are long-gone, said McCray.

To clarify: For renewable energy sources, those tax breaks are gone.

“I would say behind the scenes, (politics figure in) very largely,” McCray said, “because if you consider the real macro view of things, if you look at all the non-renewables and all the subsidies they get, and all the tax benefits they get.

“‘Environmental externalities’ almost never get factored back in to the cost of producing energy. In other words, what is the cost on the environment?”

Politicians aside, more and more consumers these days have just such thoughts in mind. That helps explain the increasing popularity of things such as bamboo and cork flooring, said Troy Wonnacott, general manager at Bassett Carpets.

Wonnacott said he’s been carrying bamboo and cork flooring products for about five years, and the sales of those environmentally friendly products keep increasing.

Bamboo is considered favorable because the trees renew themselves so fast, and with cork, only the bark of the tree is stripped to make the flooring, allowing the tree itself to live and grow more bark, renewing the process.

“It’s really growing in popularity,” said Wonnacott, whose office has a bamboo floor. “We’re finding more manufacturers are starting to carry it and more customers are starting to ask for it.

“And it’s not just because it’s environmentally correct; you’re not sacrificing anything. You actually gain in performance.”

While cork is priced similarly to traditional hardwoods or laminate, Wonnacott said bamboo remains pricier, about at the level of a premium hardwood, he said. As its popularity increases, however, prices will inevitably drop.

The same can be said of solar power, which, McCray said, is about five to seven times that of utility-produced electricity. That discrepancy is eventually evened out over time, McCray said, but it can take 20 years for the investment to pay off under current conditions. How many consumers have the freedom to make that kind of investment up front?

The key, McCray said, is for the price of solar electricity to drop to about $1.50 a watt. Or, as he puts it, “You punch through the ceiling and suddenly there’s a whole new playground.”

Snyder agrees. He said he’s built solar-powered generators that power electric fences, ones that power radio-triggered fire signals, and was even approached to build what he called an “S.P. Bubbly,” a solar-powered water pump that would keep a livestock water tank from freezing in the winter.

He sees no reason why solar couldn’t be adopted now on large projects on a widespread scale.

“I really haven’t had time to work on it all. There are just so many projects out there people want you to create,” Snyder said.

He said he’s given thought to buying a building and expanding his operations beyond being a solo operation. “I haven’t been looking at it very hard, but if I did I would probably quadruple my business.”

Snyder has a pragmatic approach to solar power. For example, one of his single-sided stop signs sells for about $2,500, and a double-sided one for about $2,800. But if the sign is being put in a remote location, what does it cost to hang power lines out to it or dig a trench for the lines?

What could the city of Longmont save in utility bills if half its streetlights were solar-powered?

“There’s money to be made out there,” he said. “What you’ve got to do is offer that customer exactly what they want, and then build a better mousetrap — build it better than the other guys.

“I’ve always been interested in (solar). It’s almost magical when you think about it, getting your electricity for free.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.