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December 2008
Solar Powered
By Janet Kropinak

 Alternative energy is a hot ticket item and one that has either grabbed or been brought to the attention of every American. No one argues its importance, not just as an economic issue, but also because of the impact of traditional fuels on the environment, as well the  implications of energy dependence for nation security.

     Globally, people are increasingly integrating solar into their electricity and heating systems. Coupled with tax incentives and rebates to ease the initial costs, solar is quickly becoming the smart choice—both financially and environmentally—for home and business owners alike.

     Erik Lensch and Chris Salmon share a commitment to solar energy and ensuring a better quality of life for future generations through the deployment of clean, reliable, and sustainable energy solutions. As co-founders of Argand Energy Solutions, they are helping meet these growing demands.

 

Shifting to Solar

     Erik Lensch began his foray into solar energy with Innovative Solar Solutions (formerly known as SC Solar, Inc.), a Charlotte-based Internet retailer and supplier of solar equipment. As interest in solar energy grew, Lensch was getting calls for people looking for a local solar installer.

     “There weren’t a lot of companies who had the necessary training to take customers through the entire process, from design to installation,” recalls Lensch.

     Lensch, with a background in marketing and finance, approached Chris Salmon with the idea of launching a company to focus on solar installations.

     In early 2007, Lensch combined his business savvy with Salmon’s technical skills, electrical license, and their combined appreciation for solar energy to form Argand Energy, a full-service renewable energy company, focusing on solar system design and installation.

     Today, Lensch acts as president to both Innovative Solar Systems and Argand Energy. At Argand, his focus includes managing the sales people, business development activities, and the financial aspects of the company.

     Although both companies are in the solar industry, the challenges and opportunities facing each company and the resulting business model of each, vary considerably.

     “Innovative Solar is capitalizing on the growth of solar through a global, Internet-based retail model while Argand basically operates as a local solar electric and solar hot water contractor,” explains Lensch.

     Salmon, who has over 20 years of experience as an electrical contractor, heads up Argand’s installations. His electrical and plumbing background includes photovoltaic, solar hot water installations, and heavy industry including everything from 1,000-ton presses to nuclear fuel pellet burners, robotic welders, and powder coat paint systems.

     Lensch and Salmon both completed the Renewable Energy Technologies: Photovoltaic Track at North Carolina State University and are certified SMA-Sunny Boy installers.

     Salmon also holds distinction as South Carolina’s only North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP)-certified PV installer and North Carolina’s fourth. He also recently achieved his NABCEP certification for solar hot water installation, making him one of only 72 installers in the U.S. to achieve both designations.

     As awareness and demand of solar energy has grown, so has Argand. The company continually adds to its sales team and trains new installers. Because solar energy is still a relatively new industry, finding the right workers does come with certain educational challenges.

     At present, Argand has a team of trained professionals with over 75 years of combined experience in the field of photovoltaics, solar thermal, electricity generation, and construction.

    With offices in Charlotte and Columbia and a satellite office in Charleston, they are well-positioned through the Carolinas and accessible to growing markets such as Georgia and Florida.

    Argand has completed projects for a wide range of commercial and government customers including Norfolk Southern Railroad, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, Half Moon Outfitters, the Town of Bethune (S.C.), Charleston Battery Soccer Stadium, and Optima Engineering.

     From the beginning, Argand’s mission has been to educate people on the benefits of solar energy and in turn, help people make better decisions that ultimately help the environment.

 

Energy Solutions

     Argand’s business focuses on photovoltaic, solar thermal and wind power; they handle every aspect of the energy system’s installation and maintenance.

     This includes designing the right system, obtaining all necessary permits and approvals, inspecting the installation, applying for available renewable energy rebates and incentives, as well as providing instruction—teaching you how to optimize your energy system.

     Solar electricity, also called PV or photovoltaic power, offers an easy, cost effective way to be part of the solution to the energy crisis. This process involves the installation of attractive, maintenance-free solar panels on your roof or nearby area which turn sunlight into clean, valuable electricity. The energy can then be used in your home or business or sold back to the electric utility.

     Optima Engineering chose Argand for one of the first PV and solar thermal installations in the city of Charlotte. Located on the roof of their new LEED-certified office building in South End, phase I of the PV project is made up of 39 solar panels which feed DC power to two inverters. The solar thermal portion consists of a solar hot water heater mated to an 80-gallon storage tank.

     Optima President Keith Pehl weighs in on the benefits of the decision: “Our total energy due to LEED design will be about 30 percent less than normal. Our PV system should generate 11 percent of our total energy.”

     Pehl appreciated Argand’s strengths and services: “Argand impressed me with their no-nonsense approach to renewable energy. While every company wants to make money, it quickly became evident that they are in business because of their passion for the systems that they design and install.”

     Solar panels are also gaining in popularity for residential homes. Lensch breaks down an average project for a homeowner: “The typical system to meet about half of the total electricity bill would be about $40,000 before tax credits and incentives. This cost would drop to about $18,000 after tax credits, and they could generate about $1,100 a year from a system of this size if they opt to sell all the electricity their solar panels generate to the NC GreenPower program.”

     NC GreenPower is an independent, nonprofit organization established to improve North Carolina’s environment through voluntary contributions toward renewable energy.

      In addition to lowered electric bills, installing solar energy also adds value to your home. According to The Appraisal Institute, a solar electric system increases home value by $20,000 for each $1,000 in annual reduced operating costs.

     Argand also installs solar hot water systems. Using the sun’s energy to heat water is so efficient because they use solar energy in its most basic form—heat. Solar hot water can be used for swimming pools, domestic hot water tanks and commercial processes.

     “Solar hot water systems are a wise investment with a typical payback period of about five to six years,” explains Lensch.

     Argand’s other area of concentration is wind power, which is one of the fastest growing sources of power in the nation. Wind power energy systems in the U.S. produce enough electricity for almost 3 million homes. Argand installs wind turbines which are safe, quiet and attractive and can be installed on a rooftop or ground-mounted on a pole to meet local and neighborhood requirements.

     When asked about a favorite project, Salmon is quick to answer HRH Vineyards in Tennessee, noting that owner Peter Howard was a “great example of someone doing this for all the right reasons.”

    The project’s system, which was one of the largest private installations in Tennessee and the largest for a Tennessee winery, produces an estimated 22,543 kWh of electricity per year that will be sold back to the TVA through the TVA Green Switch Program to offset HRH Winery operation costs and eliminate 15.30 tons of CO2 emissions.

    Lensch notes Mecklenburg County’s Freedom Center completed in November 2007 as a notable project. Argand provided the installation services for a ballasted-type PV system for the county government office building. The installation is the largest municipal PV system in the Charlotte region.

 

Green is Trendy

    While Lensch and Salmon are both appreciative of being part of an industry which is seeing annual growth upwards of 30 percent, they are also cautious of others jumping on the green bandwagon in the hopes of making a quick buck.

    “Right now, with the current state of the economy, there are very few industries that are seeing this kind of growth,” says Lensch.

     However, both he and Salmon are fearful of businesses coming into the field without a real commitment to the environment or to solar energy.

     “There are a lot of people who come out and think they can do what we do without having a full understanding of solar power,” remarks Salmon. “This can end up being very costly and counterproductive for the consumer.”

     Getting consumers over the initial cost of a solar system is perhaps the hardest part of Argand’s business. “One of the only arguments you can make against going solar is the initial cost, but even that has seen dramatic decreases recently,” comments Lensch. “The benefits: a lower energy bill, added home value, energy independence—and that doesn’t even touch on the benefits to the environment.”

     “Furthermore,” Lensch continues, “After the initial investment has been recovered, the energy used from the sun is free and if your system produces more energy than you use, your utility company can buy it from you, creating a credit on your account.”

     Helping Argand in the fight for energy independence is heavyweight Duke Energy, who in 2007 supported the development of the new Renewable and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) in North Carolina which requires the utility to satisfy 12.5 percent of its customers’ power needs with renewables or energy efficiency by 2021.

     With an increasing number of government tax incentives and an energy crisis looming, interest in solar power is only likely to increase.

     Argand doubled its size over the past year and Lensch says he wouldn’t be surprised if they quadrupled in 2009.

    Today, Argand’s business model is divided 70/30 between commercial and residential but Lensch expects to see these numbers even out due to recently enacted tax incentives for residential customers.

    “We are offering people a low risk way to invest while increasing their home value,” says Lensch. “Right now people are scared to put their money into the stock market and not likely to see a return on real estate purchases, so solar energy is one of the safest ways to use your capital.”

     In five years, Argand hopes to be a major player in the southeast with an expansion into Florida.

     “Above all, we are looking to build brand recognition throughout the region and southeast as a quality full-service solar energy company,” states Lensch.

     “As the technology behind what we are doing becomes more mainstream, the practicality and economics will continue to improve,” Salmon says.

     For those of us who want to become part of the solution, Argand’s systems for renewable energy make the commitment to sustainability more affordable and economical, a great cost savings and investment, and a huge satisfaction and peace of mind.

     And the Argand principals promise their passion and commitment to renewable energy, combined with proven technology and an unparalleled understanding of solar and wind energy equipment and design.

 

 

 

 

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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