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Denver’s Solar Entrepreneurs Outlast the Trend

The solar panels atop the Rockmount Ranch Wear building in LoDo.

A close-up of the solar panels on the roof of the Rockmount Ranch Wear building in LoDo.

The solar panel production facility for SMA America, LLC in Denver.

Another view of the rooftop solar panels atop the Rockmount Ranch roof.

With enough solar energy systems in the Denver metro area to power more than 2,500 homes, Denver's solar innovators have helped Colorado become No. 3 in photovoltaic solar systems per capita and No. 10 in solar energy installations. While the solar trend caused many national businesses to fold, those in the Denver solar industry innovated to survive and believe the best is yet to come.
The likes of Robert Redford, Cary Grant, Don Henley, Miley Cyrus, Kid Rock and Slash from Guns N’ Roses have been wearing Rockmount Ranch Wear western-style clothing since 1946. 

Another view of the rooftop solar panels atop the Rockmount Ranch roof.But Rockmount Ranch Wear is by no means stuck in the past. The company’s headquarters, which is in a five-story historic landmark in LoDo, represents Denver’s surprisingly innovative approach to solar use, which can fuel more than 2,500 homes and holds the state steady as the nation’s No. 10 solar market. Inspired by an energy audit, Rockmount Ranch Wear built a solar array on one-third of its roof space to generate energy that partially offsets its overall electricity usage. 

"While the system offsets only about 10 percent of our five-story building’s energy, we know it reduces coal energy we would have used long term," says President Steve Weil. "It lowers our carbon footprint. Also, the incentives at the time helped justify this 20-year investment with a reasonable payback ROI."

Colorado’s solar boom was sparked by a 2004 amendment requiring the state's largest utilities to obtain three percent of electricity from renewable energy -- including solar -- by 2007 and 10 percent by 2015 (targets that have since increased). This was reinforced by the 2005 passage of a national 30 percent tax credit for renewable energy systems. 

"The climate [for solar energy] is generally positive in this state," says American Solar Energy Society Director of Communications Seth Masia.

But solar supply initially outstripped demand, leading to troubles both nationally (think Solyndra) and locally (think Abound Solar). 

As a result, those left standing hardened business models in order to tap into Colorado’s continuing appetite for renewable energy. Masia points to polls that show 75 to 80 percent of Coloradoans still believe in the importance of renewable energy, including solar. 

Today, Colorado is third in the nation in the number of photovoltaic solar systems installed per capita and No. 10 in the absolute number of installed photovoltaic solar systems. While the industry has had its ups and downs, Denver’s innovators haven’t stopped exploring ways to capitalize on rays. 

Phoenix Rising
"This has been a very difficult couple of years for solar companies in Colorado," acknowledges John Bringenberg, president and CEO of SunTalk Solar. SunTalk is a 30-person company in its fourth year of designing and installing solar systems. The company handles both residential and commercial jobs with a focus on new buildings. It averages 15 to 20 photovoltaic solar system installations per month.

"Denver is among the most friendly in the region in terms of approving permits, doing inspections and just overall supporting the deployment of solar," says SunTalk CEO John Bringenberg.
But as Bringenberg explains, SunTalk isn’t a company that jumped on the solar trend only to get burned. Instead, SunTalk is an offshoot of Bringenberg’s other company, HomeTalk, which installs home theater and home automation systems. HomeTalk launched in 1996 and expanded into solar via SunTalk in 2008 to counter a slowdown in new home construction. 

"We’re kind of like a next-generation solar company in that we’re a hybrid home company," says Bringenberg. "Denver is among the most friendly in the region in terms of approving permits, doing inspections and just overall supporting the deployment of solar.”

Nick Galesic, head of business development for the Central Region at Martifer Solar USA, agrees that Denver is solar friendly. Martifer, based in Los Angeles, opened its Denver office in 2010 to establish a beachhead in the central part of the country. 

Martifer designs, engineers and installs photovoltaic solar systems. The company’s 10-person Denver office focuses on large-scale projects. Martifer’s first major Denver area customer was Jeffco Public Schools, which in 2010 announced plans to bring solar energy to 30 schools with the goal of saving around $1 million in energy costs during the next 20 years.

"The biggest advantage that Martifer had that other solar companies didn’t was that we had construction financing in-house," says Galesic. He explains that Jeffco didn’t pay anything for its solar installation. Instead, Martifer and its financial partners paid for the project’s construction with plans to recoup that investment through leasing, tax breaks and cash grants. 

So what’s Martifer’s next step? Solar gardens. Galesic says the company’s main focus for the next few years is constructing a solar array on the roof of the hanger next to the Wings Over The Rockies Air and Space Museum. Martifer will then sell the energy generated from the array (using Xcel as the middle man) to nearby residents in apartments or condos. 

"The building itself might not be able to use it [the solar energy], but the neighborhood around it can," Galesic explains.

Solar Panel Manufacturing and BeyondThe solar panel production facility for SMA America, LLC in Denver.
Installations are not the solar-related businesses in Denver. Denver is also home to the production facility for the nation’s largest manufacturer of inverters. In a solar photovoltaic system, these inverters convert energy from modules into useable power. 

Germany-based SMA employees 280 people in Denver in direct assembly and administrative positions. Scott Crabtree, general manager of production for SMA America, says the company located its facility in Denver "because of a good mix of affordable buildings, access to skilled labor, a convenient distribution infrastructure and an overall attractive and supportive business climate."

Crabtree acknowledges that SMA America is now coming under the same kind of pricing pressure -- mainly from low-cost Chinese vendors -- that has impacted other solar panel manufacturers, but said SMA "remains a well-established market leader and is in a better position than the vast majority of companies in the sector."

Masia, with the ASES, says the solar industry may yet change again due to the resurgence of solar thermal technology. However, Denver’s solar entrepreneurs have succeded where others haven't by avoiding trends and developing sustainable business models. 

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by Mike Dano.

Mike is a freelance writer and executive editor of FierceMarkets Telecom Group.
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