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July, 2021, Installation of the Month: Hedgesville Library, Hedgesville, West Virginia

The roof of the public library in Hedgesville, WV sports an impressive, 111-module solar system comprising 335-watt, high performance Panasonic solar modules, along with all the associated inverters, racking, wiring and monitoring systems.

EBSCO Information Services, a provider of research grants. databases, e-journals, magazine subscriptions, e-books and discovery service to libraries, funded the project with a $100,000.00 grant. EBSCO is based in Ipswich, MA. Milestone Solar Consultants was chosen to install the system through a competitive bidding process.

The system’s capable of producing more than 200 kWh on a good day – freeing up funds formerly used to pay electric bills for the library to use on other important community services they deliver.

Which businesses can reap the most benefit from REAP solar grants?

There are many state, federal and privately funded incentives for businesses and consumers considering solar. One of the best for business owners is the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). This program has a number of benefits tailored to helping business owners interested in solar and in reducing their carbon footprints. We’ve been very successful in helping business apply for and receive REAP grants and would be happy to discuss with you at you convenience.

Here’s an overview:

REAP grants can pay 25% of the cost of renewable (e.g., solar) energy systems, from $2,500 to $500,000. The program also offers loan guarantees for another 50% of the cost, plus accelerated depreciation. On top of that, there’s the 26% federal income tax credit.

That word “Rural” in the title may make it sound like REAP grants are just for farms. But any rural or small-town business in areas with less than 50,000 population is eligible.

Obviously, the more electricity a business uses, the more it can benefit from a REAP grant. Here are some of the leading candidates:

  • Car dealerships use lots of electricity for showing off inventory in their lots (and preventing theft) at night, for heating and air conditioning, and for powering the computers, security systems, and tools in the service bays.
  • Auto Body Shops – Whether independent or part of a dealership, a body shop’s paint booth air heaters are big electricity consumers.
  • Gas station convenience stores – Those bright lights by the pumps out front and the refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners inside don’t power themselves.
  • Groceries – Keeping constant temperatures inside refrigerators and freezers (particularly those that that customers keep opening and closing), and in open refrigerator and freezer cases, eats up lots of electricity.
  • Bakeries, Delis, Restaurants – Whether standalone or part of a supermarket, ovens, other kitchen equipment, and refrigeration all increase power consumption.
  • Motels and B&Bs – As 24-hour establishments, motels have high energy costs – not just for round-the-clock lighting and HVAC, but also for operating any onsite kitchens or restaurants. B&Bs have many of the same electricity costs, but on a smaller scale.
  • Dry Cleaners – Electricity can consume 25% of total operating costs, with steam boilers accounting for 20-80% of energy costs.
  • Craft Breweries in West Virginia, for example, turn out an average of 728 barrels a year, according to the Brewers Association. Between refrigeration, packaging, and compressed air, it takes from 50 to 66 kWh of electricity to produce just one barrel of beer. At 10¢ per kWh of local electricity, that’s $5 to $6.60 per barrel. A solar installation like this one, for a brewery in Elkins, WV (population: 7,072) can crank out more than 500kWh a day.
  • Farms’ operations don’t use that much electricity, partly because so much of their acreage is so far from power lines. But off-grid solar installations can pump cattle tanks and water wells, irrigate crops, and ventilate buildings in remote areas. If at least half your gross revenue comes from farming, you’re eligible for a REAP grant.

As part of the required paperwork, you’ll need to show that your project has technical merit and uses commercially available technology. We routinely conduct free on-site solar surveys and provide complete, detailed custom plans, itemized lists of materials and delivery schedules – that we stick to. And as far as technical merit goes, our CEO is one of only 93 solar installers nationwide to have earned double NABCEP certification.

Installation of the Month – June, 2021

Agricultural Ground Mount, Southern PA

This month’s featured system, from Southern Pennsylvania, consists of 48 high-performance Panasonic modules, and SolarEdge inverter and optimizer technology. Annual production approximately 20,500 kWhs.

One interesting aspect of this install is that the property has two service delivery accounts (meters), and the solar interconnect is made at the barn with the lowest annual usage. But this power company allows for aggregated metering, so the solar production is credited to one virtual billing account made up of the two accounts onsite.

We have aggregated metering in place at a number of installations and would be happy to discuss with you at your convenience.

Do reviews really matter?

Spoiler alert: They matter. A lot.

The process of deciding on a solar system for your property, and deciding on the company you want to install it, is one of the more important decisions any property owner can make.

You’ll be looking for all of the obvious issues such as price, warranty and quality, but just as important is the safety aspect of putting a high voltage power plant on your roof (if roof-mounted, of course).

NABCEP certified installer credentials are essential for all those reasons.  And experience in installing the exact system type you’re considering is just as important.  As I’ve posted here many times, an electrician license alone does not qualify one to design and install solar systems.  West Virginia is one of the few states that continues to think that an electrician’s van and a few extension ladders makes you a qualified solar installer/contractor.

Even with tax credits and assorted subsidies, and even though they pay for themselves over time, solar installations aren’t cheap. That’s why I harp on checking out installers you’re considering before making that commitment.

A recommended first step in doing this is to ask these 12 questions. Then, use the answer to Question 12 (names and contact information for reference customers) to check the answers you got for Questions 1 through 11.

Of course, no installer’s going to refer you to unhappy customers, so it also makes sense to Google “[installer name] reviews.”

I do this from time to time, to see how Milestone’s doing and look for ways we can do even better. In this process, I came across this great 5-star review on angi.com, which is what Angie’s List is called now.

It’s not signed, but if you check it out here (It’s the fifth one down.), you’ll see the only changes we made were to correct some punctuation:

Bill Anderson, engineer and company owner, personally came to our home to answer questions and do a free site survey. He returned the next week with a detailed, written plan and cost estimate for a Grid-tied, battery back-up PV solar system for our home. I really appreciate the fact that he listened carefully to what we wanted from a solar system and then designed a plan that met our needs. He kept us informed about schedules and was always available to answer any questions we had. Bill took care of all the building permits, inspection appointments, and worked with the local power company to get our net-meter installed. The construction crew was always on time and did an excellent job of constructing the framework for our ground mount system with minimal damage to the rest of the yard. Phil, the electrical engineer who wired the system, did an excellent job. His wiring is practically a work of art! It took a little while for the parts to our system to arrive, but once everything was here the process was relatively quick. I should note here that Milestone Solar evaluates each customer’s needs and puts together a personalized system. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mentality at Milestone. The components for each system are specific to the job. I am more than satisfied that Bill chose some of the industry’s best and most reliable components for our system. These components have 15 to 25-year warranties, depending on the specific piece of equipment. And even though our system has been up and running for a month now, I know that the Milestone Solar team provides after-sale follow-up and they are just a phone call away if I ever have a question or problem. I should also note that Bill Anderson is one of the first engineers in the country to pass the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) Photovoltaic (PV) Technical Sales Exam. Milestone Solar is licensed and insured, and Bill was happy to provide references that I could contact. In fact, I did speak with several individuals and one municipal official who had contracted with Milestone Solar in the past. Every person was very happy with their experience with Milestone. If you are interested in having a PV solar system installed, you cannot go wrong with Milestone Solar. We were very impressed with the professionalism and craftsmanship of the entire Milestone team.

DESCRIPTION OF WORK
No-cost site survey and evaluation –A written estimate including components to be used and cost estimates – Obtained all the needed permits and scheduled all necessary inspections – Ordered and delivered all the necessary components to our home – Constructed the ground mount framework that holds the photovoltaic panels – Installed all the components and completed all the wiring – Fine-tuned the system to optimize output – Coordinated with local power company to install net-meter – Continues to be available to answer any questions or concerns

This review is for a ground mount installation.    Ground mounts offer two important advantages:  Few if any roofs are perfect azimuth for solar, but with ground mounts you can precisely orient the array to the sun path and maximize production.   And it’s easier to clear off snow from the array, so you’ll still have power after a snowstorm creates a power outage.  Particularly important when talking about battery (emergency) power systems.

Ground mounts call for precise, custom design, electrical engineering (due to voltage drop), and some special equipment. Installing them also involves dealing with trenching to the interconnect point and rocks and stuff.  This is why many plug-and-play solar installers just don’t choose to do them. For many of the plug-and-play guys, the business model is quick-in-and-quick-out roof-mount systems only.

We do a lot of ground mounts.

Installation of the Month – May, 2021

Big Timber Brewery, Elkins, WV

The beer may not be green (except maybe on St. Patrick’s Day), but the electricity for brewing it certainly is. Milestone’s solar professionals designed, installed and commissioned a system comprising 196 REC 380-watt solar modules, SolarEdge inverter and optimizer technology for 3-phase interconnection, and module level monitoring for real-time performance numbers.

On a good day, the system can easily crank out more than 500 kWh of clean, renewable energy. Do the math … and pass the pretzels!

All lithium-ion batteries aren’t alike

Most of our solar installations include backup storage these days, so batteries are a major component.  You may not know this, but there are different types of lithium-ion batteries, based on a wide range pf different chemistries. Tesla and LG chose lithium-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) chemistry. This the same chemistry that led to an LG recall in 2020. We use batteries with lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) chemistry. Their pricing’s gone down, they’ve become more compact, and they have an established safety record

How government money can help you go solar

Going solar saves you significant money in the long run.

But did you know that in the short run, all kinds of federal, state and local cash incentives can pay for an even more significant share of your purchase cost?

That just two federal programs combined can give you back as much as half of your solar installation’s purchase price?

That a few – for commercial installations – pay as much as $5 million?

And that there are even more cash incentives where those came from? Not only from the federal government, but also from the four states we serve – Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – plus many of their counties and electric utilities?

Take a few minutes to look over the list below. If any of the incentives there interest you, please contact us for more information. And if they motivate you to go solar sooner rather than later, we’ll be more than happy to help you with the qualifying paperwork.

Federal Solar Credits and Incentives

IRS Residential Energy Efficient Property Tax Credit – Your federal tax credit will be 26% of your installation price. You’ll need to include form 5695 with your Federal Tax return. This credit can be rolled over. On January 1, 2021, it drops to 20%.

USDA REAP program – Grants up to $20,000 for farms or small businesses located outside cities of 50,000+ population

USDA High Energy Cost Federal Grant Program – Grants of up to $5 million.

IRS Residential Energy Conservation Subsidy Exclusion – 100% subsidy for energy efficient improvements, including solar, to single- and multi-family residences

Residential Energy Efficient Tax Credit – Federal Energy Incentive – Up to $1500 for residential energy efficiency improvements including solar.

State and Local Solar Credits and Incentives

Maryland

The Maryland Energy Administration’s Energy Storage Tax Credit Program has $266,370 to give away to homeowners and $437,373 to businesses. It reimburses 30% of the cost of installing battery backup storage to a new or existing solar system, up to $5,000 for a residential project and $75,000 for commercial. We can help you with the required paperwork and inspections. Then, between the state tax credit and the 26% federal energy-saving tax credit, you can save about half the cost of of your home’s battery storage system.

Maryland Clean Energy Grant – $1,000 per solar (photovoltaic) project for Maryland homes and businesses.

The state’s Clean Energy Grant Program Residential Solar Rebate Program rebates $500 per kilowatt-hour of electricity saved by solar, to a $10,000 maximum.

Anne Arundel, Baltimore,  CarrollHarfordHowardMontgomery, and Prince George’s Counties all offer property tax credits. These range from 50% to 80% of assessed property taxes with maximums of $5,000 to $5 million. 

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar Rebate Program – Available only through state- approved contractors. (Milestone Solar is a Pennsylvania approved solar energy installer.) Your installer will complete and submit the rebate paperwork for you. Your rebate will be $750 per kilowatt your system can generate, up to $7500 or 35% of the installation cost.

High Performance Building Incentives Program – Up to $2 million for energy efficient building improvements, including solar

Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority Grants – Up to $1 million per project to nonprofits, schools, local governments, and industrial businesses for energy efficiency improvements including solar

Metropolitan Edison Company (FirstEnergy Territory) – Up to $25,000 for businesses, nonprofits and schools that go solar

Penelec SET of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies Grant Program (FirstEnergy Territory) – Up to $25,000 for businesses, nonprofits and schools that go solar

 Virginia

Virginia has some incentives to help residents become energy independent by converting to solar or other renewables. These include property tax incentives, property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing, a performance-based incentive offered by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and net metering

 Arlington County Green Building Incentive Program – For single- and multi-family homes and commercial buildings

West Virginia Tax Credit

The state has enacted a $2,000 tax credit for residential solar.

Here’s what we’re changing during the pandemic – and what we aren’t.

The coronavirus outbreak hasn’t hit West Virginia as hard as other states. Only four counties – Kanawha, Berkeley, Jackson and Monongalia – have had more than 100 reported cases. Thirty-three have had fewer than ten. And, as I’m writing this, 41 have had no COVID-19 deaths whatever. And more than half of the state’s 1,224 reported cases (630 = 51%) have recovered.

Even so, we’re not taking chances with families’ and businesses’ health and safety. At the same time, we won’t be compromising the standards of integrity, quality, and professionalism that have made Milestone West Virginia’s leading solar installer.

So when we give you facts and straight answers instead of high-pressure sales pitches, it’ll be by phone or email instead of face to face.

When we conduct a free on-site survey of your property to make sure your building’s right for solar, we’ll wear face masks, stay out doors, and keep six feet social distancing from you.

When we give you complete detailed custom plans, itemized lists of materials, and delivery schedules that we stick to, we’ll send them to you by email or snail mail instead of handing them to you in person.

We’ll still concentrate on the quality of our installations, not the quantity. So when our crews install your solar system, they’ll still take the time and effort to follow best practices, under the direction of one of only 93 solar installers nationwide to have earned the North American Board of Energy Practitioners’ Technical Sales and PV Installation Professional certifications. They’ll just be doing it wearing face masks, staying outdoors, and maintaining safe social distancing.

All of us at Milestone Solar hope you’re staying safe and healthy. Please be assured that we’ll be doing everything we know how to keep you that way.

 

Maryland wants to give you thousands of dollars

The state of Maryland wants to give away $750,000 in tax credits to homeowners ($300,000) and businesses ($450,000) that add battery backup storage to new or existing solar installations. 

Under the terms of the state’s Energy Storage Income Tax Credit Program, tax credits are to be distributed on a first come, first served basis – and so far not  many households or businesses have come to be served. As of April 15, 2020, 94% of the tax credits – $266,370.00 for households and  $437,372.70 for businesses – have yet to be applied for.

Which is a shame when you consider that between the Maryland income tax credit and the federal 26% energy saving income tax credit, you can save half the cost of adding an emergency electricity generator that has no toxic exhaust fumes and “refuels” itself with each morning’s sunrise.

You can apply online anytime up to January 15, 2021, and we can help you with the documentation and inspections.

Of course, you’ll need to have a solar system with battery backup storage, and we’re one of a very few installers serving Maryland who can help with that too.

 

New Solar Regional Co-Op: Do Your Due Diligence

There’s a new co-op in the Western Maryland/Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia region.  This one’s a little unusual in that it covers parts of two states, so one would assume the awardee would be properly licensed in both states.  It is highly recommend you personally  confirm this is the fact before signing a contract.

Also, if you’re involved in the co-op, I strongly urge you to get quotes from installers other than the one selected by committee. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Particularly if you live in West Virginia, I would also urge you to check out the credentials and licenses of any installer before you sign a contract.  Both Maryland and West Virginia have online portals where it‘s very easy to confirm the license type and effective date before signing a contract.  Milestone’s state license numbers are on all contract documents, and we welcome your research.

Several residents of the area have contacted us to find out if we were bidding. We did not bid, and I have no interest in the co-op process, which in many ways is a flawed model that adds no value to the consumer, in my opinion.

A TRULY AMAZING YEAR!

Nearly everyone involved in the solar industry expected 2019 to be a great year.  It was, and then some. 

Cutting the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) from 30 percent to 26 percent in 2020 got lots of fence-sitters to decide now was the time to go solar. As a result, nearly every segment of the solar industry –manufacturing, distribution sales, and installation – is reporting outstanding results – some are even using the term historic.

For Milestone, 2019 was a truly amazing year. By total jobs sold, watts of solar installed, gross sales, or just about any other measure, it was easily our best year.  And other installers that we’re in touch with are making the same report.

Of the nearly 10 years we’ve been doing solar installations, 2019 was our biggest in several sub-categories:

Storage is a very hot-ticket item

We continue to do the standard DC-Coupled battery backup systems, but we’re also retrofitting more and more legacy systems with AC-Coupled configurations to add storage to older solar plants.

Both configurations work well, but both require professional design and implementation.  When it comes to highly customized battery systems, those plug-and-play installers are in way over their depth.

This was also the first year that we installed several Lithium-Ion battery banks.  No, not the Tesla product or LG system. While most of the plug-and-play guys like them, all Lithium-Ion battery chemistries are not the same. There are much better battery chemistries out there. The really good Lithium-Ion systems are spectacularly good – but pricey at initial purchase. For a 25 to 30-year battery system, some find it worth it.

We also did multiple completely off-the-grid systems this year,  mostly in vacation or weekend properties.  Off-grid works well for this.  One exception was a 200-acre organic produce farm in Virginia featuring a 1700 AH battery bank, multiple inverters and charge controllers, and a robust solar array.  That’s about as green as it gets.

More Ground Mount Systems Than Ever

A lot of our customers are in rural areas and have enough land to accommodate a ground mount array, so we’ve always installed a lot of them.

This year the percentage was the highest ever.  I’m not sure if there’s any one reason for this, but it did work out that way.

Ground mounts actually offer several hard-to-dispute advantages over roof systems:

  1. The array can be precisely oriented to the sun path for the very best annual production and the pitch (angle) can be controlled.  Roofs are never as perfect.
  2.  A ground mount lets you easily clear snow from your array and gets you back into the business of turning sunlight into electricity after a snowstorm.  This is particularly important for battery backup or off-grid systems.

Life After the 30 Percent ITC Expires

Many people were really stressing over what would happen if the 30 percent ITC weren’t extended.  The most common assumption was that the sales would drop substantially in 2020.

I thought the same for a while.  But lately industry folks have been telling me that 2020 might even be better than 2019, based on current delivery orders and pipeline data from throughout the industry.

Hard to believe, I know.   But what I do know is that we already have more work booked for 2020 than we’ve ever had in any preceding December. I do believe that there are more factors in play than just the ITC (which will decrease another four percent, from 26 to 22 percent, come 2021). For many, the overall economy is pretty good, interest rates are low, and the overall cost per watt for solar systems continues to slowly go down.

If 2020 is anywhere near as good as 2019, I’ll certainly take it.

Our Most Sincere Thank You

When I started this company 10 years ago, I never dreamed that we would ever have a year like 2019.  It would be a tremendous understatement to say that it’s very humbling, and tell you how grateful we are.

Buying a solar system is a big purchase decision for every family.  People take money out of savings, or retirement accounts, or borrow considerable amounts, and trust us to deliver a professionally designed and installed solar system that will last for decades and perform as advertised.  We do not take this responsibility lightly.

To everyone who trusted us to deliver a solar system this year and all previous years, our most sincere thanks.

And if you’re still looking at and evaluating solar systems and installers – I know a guy 😊
 
Happy Holidays from the Milestone Solar Consultants Crew!