Educate March 2017

Solar Impact: 10 Years of Making Solar Affordable


Written By: JACKIE SMITH & ZACH SEYMOUR

Over the past 10 years, a small Gainesville-based team of highly educated solar professionals has been blanketing North Central Florida with some of the largest and most innovative solar systems in the area. Founded by Drs. Barry and Elaine Jacobson, Solar Impact, Inc., has earned a reputation both locally and beyond as a knowledgeable and dependable provider of solar power. This year marks the company’s 10th anniversary and a decade of sustained effort by the Jacobsons to provide the community with high quality and affordable solar power.

The Jacobsons first entered the solar market in 2006 as customers. After seeing firsthand the causes and consequences of environmental pollution through Barry’s work as a partner in a local environmental engineering company and Elaine’s work in environmental economics, the pair sought to install a solar system on the roof of their home. “The reason we got started with solar was really about helping the environment,” Barry recalled. But after some research, they found the $50,000 estimate provided to them by the area’s only solar company at the time to be unsatisfactory.

Barry, whose unique qualifications include a Ph.D. in biological and agricultural engineering with a specialty in computer modeling of light interception, decided to take matters into his own hands. “It turns out solar panels are leaves — just artificial leaves,” noted Barry, who is also a licensed engineer with a background in construction. He contacted a supplier in Tampa to sell him the parts, and with the help of an electrical contractor, the Jacobsons and their two sons installed their home system for a fraction of the original estimate. They were told that they were the 12th home to ever hook up a solar system to Gainesville Regional Utilities, Barry said.

When friends and family began to inquire about affordable solar for their homes, Elaine, who was teaching economics at the University of Florida, decided to start a solar business with Barry providing technical support. Solar Impact was born, with a distinct mission: make solar affordable. “We didn’t want to be business owners, per se,” said Elaine, whose Ph.D. is in food and resource economics. “It had to be something that we felt was worth doing.” In three months, the Jacobsons more than doubled the amount of solar in Gainesville. At that point, Barry left his other work to join Solar Impact full time.

“We founded Solar Impact with the goal of installing a lot of solar,” Barry said. As a Ph.D. engineer and Ph.D. economist, Barry and Elaine knew the key to this was to make solar affordable while maintaining the highest quality. “When Elaine and I started Solar Impact, we were able to drop the net cost [of a system] by over a third from what was the standard pricing,” Barry said. “We could still make a profit, and we could install more systems, which we’d rather do.” The company has kept this focus throughout the years — since 2007, Solar Impact has been the leading solar electric company in this region every year, he said.

“Our customers are the reddest of the red, bluest of the blue and greenest of the green,” said Barry. “They came to solar for various reasons — environmental, increasing utility prices, and even because of the value of solar in dealing with zombies on ‘The Walking Dead.’” In almost every case, potential customers are surprised by the strong financial returns, he said. For commercial customers, the annual returns are always double digit and often exceed 20 percent.

“Today, solar panel prices have never been lower,” Barry said, although he cautioned potential customers from waiting too long. “Although the future of the industry feels very safe, because as prices for solar drop, the prices of utility-provided electricity continue to rise, typically the people who move the fastest reap the biggest rewards,” said Mike Garrett, the company’s director of sales and marketing. Last month, Garrett traveled to Washington, D.C., with the Solar Energy Industry Association to lobby federal legislators about the federal tax credit, which provides a 30 percent federal credit on solar purchases throughout the US. The 30 percent credit is expected to continue through 2019, however “this is an industry where every year tends to change,” said Garrett, who also serves on the board of the Florida Solar Energy Industry Association as second vice president.

On the company’s long list of commercial and residential projects are a number of statewide firsts and innovative installations, including the first solar-covered parking lot in North Central Florida in 2009 — the top floor of Gainesville’s downtown parking garage on Southeast Second Avenue owned by Ken McGurn, the president of McGurn Investment Company. The process has worked so well, McGurn said, that he has installed solar panels on 14 local projects with Solar Impact.

“The owners [of Solar Impact] believe in the product and truly care about the environment, and I trust them implicitly,” McGurn said. “I’m proud that I’ve done solar, which is helping to reduce climate change. But more than that, it has reduced my energy bills, made my businesses more cost effective, and saved me a lot of money.”

A monitor in the lobby of the Sun Center, where McGurn Investment Company operates, displays real-time monitoring of the solar system’s performance, courtesy of Solar Impact. “We were the first company around to provide remote monitoring for everybody,” Barry said. Customers can check on their systems using a smartphone app or web portal. “And more importantly, we get access [to the data],” Barry added. Through this remote monitoring, the Solar Impact team has the ability to locate and fix problems before the customer even has a chance to notice anything is wrong.

“Around the New Year, my wife and I were leaving the house and noticed the Solar Impact hybrid vehicle parked out front. We walked around [the house] to see Barry and his son Kyle on our roof,” remembered residential customer Dave Viti. “In their periodic checks, they noticed that one of our panels was not producing as much energy as it should, so they were up on the roof, without any fanfare. This is after almost two years of it being installed. Where else do you get that customer service?”

The above-and-beyond care and attention to detail has been a constant in working with Solar Impact, Viti said. “They handled [our project] every step of the way; they handled the permits, they handled the materials. Our construction project became their construction project.” Like McGurn, the environmental benefit was the Vitis’ primary driving factor for installing solar, but “the financial benefit was a high secondary consideration,” Viti said. “Quite frankly as we look back now that we’ve had the solar a little over two years, we couldn’t have made a better investment.”

When the Solar Impact team conducts an initial site survey, they spend a lot of time modeling exactly how the system will perform to give the customer a clear financial picture. “That’s the beauty of solar, it’s predictable,” Barry said. At the end of the first year, the company evaluates the system’s actual solar site efficiency against their estimate, and “if you’re not what we said you were going to be, we’ll return that difference,” he said. Ensuring customers have a good experience in the long term and a good impression of the solar industry overall are extremely important, he said. “The litmus test is always, ‘What’s best for the customer? What’s best for solar?’”

“It’s not about just getting the system up, it’s about the life of the system,” agreed Richie Wilhoit, Solar Impact’s project manager. “Our goal is to create a worryfree system.” The company utilizes only tried-and-tested materials, and even takes the manufacturer’s longevity into consideration to ensure they’ll be around for the next 20 or 25 years, Wilhoit said.

Wilhoit is one of seven members of the tight-knit Solar Impact team. After receiving a Masters of Science in building construction management at UF, Wilhoit was hired by the Jacobsons as an intern and then became project manager. “All of our employees are people that we’ve worked with outside of our employment first,” Barry said. “People don’t come and go casually around here. We try very hard to be inclusive and make a good work environment where [employees] know they’ll be taken care of.”

Beyond investing heavily in their team members, the Jacobsons also share their success with the community. Throughout the years, Solar Impact has sponsored several charitable events, including Cinema Verde, The Education Foundation of Alachua County, the Downtown Arts Festival and UF Solar Gator, in addition to spreading awareness of the importance of solar energy to schools and civic organizations around the community.

In 2014, the company launched Tree Fest, joining forces with Swamp Head Brewery to raise money for the Alachua Conservation Trust. At the event, held at the brewery every year around Earth Day, event-goers fund the planting of five trees in Alachua County with every drink (or food item) purchased. The event builds on Solar Impact’s ongoing program in which they help plant 500 trees for every residential solar installation and 1,000 trees for every commercial installation. Over 75,000 trees have been planted so far thanks to these programs. “Since day one we’ve made contributions, we’ve sponsored events,” Elaine said. “We are very much a part of the community. If the community succeeds, we succeed, and we want everybody to succeed.”

Looking toward the next 10 years, Barry doesn’t know exactly what the future holds for Solar Impact, but solar use is trending in the right direction, he said. “We’ve gotten to a point where solar is not a novelty anymore, it’s just a thing people do,” Barry said. “Going into our 10th year in the solar business, the only consistency has been its unpredictability. However, the pricing for solar has dropped to the point that the cost of solar electricity is well below what homes and businesses are paying to the utility,” he said. “This means that Solar Impact will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.”

Regardless of future growth, Barry said he already feels extremely fortunate. “I tell my sons, if you can have a job that makes money, that’s a good thing; if you can have a job that you enjoy, that’s a good thing; if you can have a job that you feel good about doing, that’s good,” said Barry. “If you can get all three, you’ve really hit the jackpot. I feel we’ve hit that. It’s been a very successful business in every way because of that.”

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