The Solar Power Veterans
Solar energy is by now an established field; however, installing panels still needs professional expertise that’s rare among building contractors. That’s why, across New England, ACE Solar installs top-quality solar networks for both residential and commercial properties.
The North Andover, Massachusetts company has been named the top residential solar contractor in Massachusetts for three consecutive years by Solar Power World magazine, and plans to expand its in-demand services further into New England.
Despite its short track record of five years in business, ACE Solar’s cumulative experience is impressive. It was reorganized in 2015 from a team of previously highly experienced solar professionals who had first come together three years before.
The company’s tagline of ‘Born from Experience’ reflects this prior work in the residential and commercial solar sectors. “The team that we assembled in 2015 was very experienced,” says Bob Kiley, Co-founder, Managing Partner and Director of Sales. Since then, this company of only 25 employees has enjoyed five years of uninterrupted growth, thanks to New England’s dynamic solar market.
Bringing solar energy home
ACE Solar’s contractors have installed solar arrays that range from 2 kilowatts to 20 megawatts. The company has assembled a wealth of experience of work in brownfield, greenfield, landfills, and roof mounted systems for schools, fire departments and large corporations, ensuring no project is beyond its reach.
But the company feels that its greatest strength remains residential solar installation. “On the residential side, we realize that we’re a home improvement contractor, at the end of the day,” says the co-founder and director of operations, Eric McLean. “A home is someone’s castle, and it’s the most important thing to them, so we try to treat it with respect and really make sure the client has a good experience all the way through.”
Recently, ACE Solar was selected to be the installer of solar arrays across Cape Cod’s ‘Outer Towns’ of Wellfleet, Eastham, Truro, and Provincetown. The project is under the umbrella of Massachusetts’ Clean Energy Center (CEC), a state-funded development agency dedicated to expanding renewables across the Bay State.
CEC’s ‘Solarize Mass’ program, now in its tenth year, is expanding from larger urban areas to more isolated coastal communities, ensuring residents are not left behind. Much of ACE Solar’s residential work on the project is largely completed, and the team is currently completing area municipal work in the form of seven projects totaling 948.39 kW.
“It’s done a lot of good for municipal buildings in the community at large,” Kiley remarks, adding that the company’s municipal contributions include three fire houses and a community center.
Solar goes big
On the commercial side, ACE Solar offers consultations, site and equipment maintenance, 24/7 monitoring, and full testing to ensure solar panels do not interfere with pre-installed equipment. The company’s projects have ranged from churches to large office buildings and warehouses. While the majority of its contracts are in the residential sector, ACE Solar is accelerating its expansion into commercial solar deployment.
This versatility again reflects the experience of ACE Solar’s employees. “Our lead engineer has been designing PV [photovoltaic] systems for more than twenty years,” says McLean, who himself has fifteen years of experience in the solar industry. By his estimate, 95 percent of all of ACE Solar’s employees have previous solar installation experience.
Looking at the state of the current market, McLean says that sales are not the problem. “In solar markets – Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire – solar will sell itself.” But the challenge facing ACE Solar and other solar installers is explaining the benefits to a largely uninformed public.
“It can be complex. We just need a very clear way to explain all of them, and give them as many facts as possible, then let our industry stand by itself.”
Argument and answers
As a solar energy contractor, ACE Solar constantly faces the same old argument – misplaced though it may be – that solar energy is a boondoggle too expensive for home installation. To combat this, to company’s leadership pursues a specific policy of low-price jobs.
“We operate at a competitive price, to bring good value to our customers,” Kiley explains. ACE Solar also partners with area capital investments to provide low-to-zero interest loans to entice potential customers.
Combined with Massachusetts’ extensive incentives for clean energy, Kiley notes that “the economics are compelling. Because of our knowledge and experience, we’re able to explain that quite quickly to potential customers.”
To convince skeptical business owners worrying about the uncertainty of solar, ACE Solar conducted a convincing case study (now available on its website).
A business owner in Lawrence, just across the Merrimack River from ACE Solar’s home in North Andover, reached out to the company to have a rooftop solar array installed. The company’s engineers installed a 30-kilowatt system, then tracked the cost savings over a five-year period. From an annual energy bill of around $23,000, this business owner saved over $200,000 with a 28.1 percent rate of return.
Persuasive tax credits
ACE Solar’s leadership team acknowledges that New England’s dynamic solar market is largely top-down, thanks to tax credits and other economic incentives. Massachusetts in particular provides very attractive tax credits on renewable and clean energy sources, through the Department of Energy Resources Solar Massachusetts Energy Renewable Target (SMART) program.
This initiative was launched in November 2018 to enhance Massachusetts’ status as the most energy-efficient state in the U.S. Supported by three major electric utilities, SMART intends to subsidize 1,600 megawatts worth of new solar-power generating capacity.
Unfortunately, these initiatives, noble as they may be, are subject to political whims. McLean notes that “Those incentives are put in place by politicians with political views,” and may dry up with new political leadership. Further, solar faces an uphill battle as it does not yet have the lobbying power of other energies such as oil and coal.
To help expand its industry, ACE Solar is engaging as much as possible in public education, particularly at a young level. Blog posts and e-books help produce the cadre of educated consumers ACE Solar needs as a strong base.
Its employees periodically visit schools throughout New England, educating students on the value of solar energy, effectively dispelling the myth that solar is an ineffective or uneconomic energy source.
“We advocate for our industry in everything that we do, and that helps the company,” McLean says. Kiley agrees, adding that ACE Solar is now also engaged in state-level lobbying. “You need to be an advocate for the industry at all times.”
Counting on experience
As with its expertise, the company’s comfort with this intensive advocacy comes with the long industry experience of its employees. As a smaller company, ACE Solar unabashedly looks for experienced hires, though occasionally taking in promising newcomers.
Kiley sees this practice as a pragmatic allocation of limited time and resources. “We know that if we don’t recruit the right people and put the right incentives in place for them, we’re just going to be spending more time recruiting more.”
He says that ACE Solar’s incentives, including profit-sharing, have contributed to the company’s enviably low staff turnover.
Further, Kiley notes how the high level of experience and skill among ACE Solar’s staff has allowed the company to adopt an unusually ‘hands-off’ policy towards them. This provides incentives, sure enough, but also expects results, encouraging the personal growth of employees.
“People appreciate being treated that way, and we’re fortunate to have a good group of employees.”
Oversight and accountability
In addition to this core workforce, ACE Solar uses subcontractors extensively, applying the same expectations of professionalism and precision when hiring them. “Even if we’re using a sub-contractor,” McLean says, “our construction managers have the knowledge and ability to ensure that those contractors are holding to our standard of work.”
The company maintains a stringent policy he refers to as “walk before you can run,” keeping contractors on tight leashes with strong oversight to ensure high product quality. “We partner with maybe a dozen different contractors that we have vetted, and that we have trained.”
Kiley adds that ACE Solar’s leadership runs regular meetings and safety briefings. A third-party firm inspects an estimated 10 percent of all projects, ensuring all work meets ACE Solar’s high standards. In contrast to what can happen with less professional companies, this multifaceted approach, with numerous separate contractors on projects, has contributed to ACE Solar’s expertise and high performance rating.
“I think, through that process, we probably deliver a superior product,” Kiley says. Unlike competitors where all aspects of projects are in-house, ACE Solar’s more complex approach ensures each company inspects the other’s work. Far from a ‘too many cooks’ situation, this leads to a system of accountability and ensures no corners are cut.
Choreographing the future
As ACE Solar looks to the future, its leadership team says, as one, that there is still much work to be done. The company knows full well its success has come from its experience and professionalism, and is not lured by the siren song of rapid expansion.
As McLean describes it, “We want to grow in a controlled, smart way where we can bring in the proper talent to deliver the outstanding product that we want. We can make that experience for the end user – the home or business owner – as seamless as possible.”
The company is currently examining the potential of expanding across New England and into strong solar markets in the Carolinas and the Midwest, though exact plans are still being formulated. As more home and business owners realize the environmental and economic benefits of solar power, and as more state governments subsidize clean solar power, ACE Solar is ready for a bold new future.