Aaron Hall: Bringing down solar's upfront costs
His fast-growing company is booming because it offers a solution to the greatest barrier to the adoption of solar energy — substantial upfront costs.
Wed, Apr 18 2012 at 1:35 AM
MAKING SOLAR CHEAPER: Drafting a business plan in 2001, Hall saw a way to lessen the burden of upfront costs of solar projects for schools, government facilities and commercial developments. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Hall)
Though barely 30, Aaron Hall is something of an old-timer, taking a struggling solar power company over the course of a decade from a basement office to a spot on Inc. magazine’s list of America's fastest-growing companies for four years running.
A business plan Hall drafted in 2001 while he was a senior at Northwestern University set the course for a company that in 2011 topped $100 million in sales. Borrego Solar Systems Inc. is booming because it offers a solution to the greatest barrier to the adoption of solar energy — substantial upfront costs.
Borrego Solar installs the solar technology and sells the power the system generates at a price 5 to 20 percent less than local utility rates. The price of power is also fixed for the length of the contract — and that hedge against rising costs is especially attractive to the commercial and public sector customers that make up most of Borrego’s portfolio.
Schools, government facilities and commercial developments “have the ability to look at the energy picture in the long term,” says Hall.
A Borrego Solar installation often delivers “found money” for a local government, “particularly when you’re putting solar on property without value, such as landfills and roof tops.”
The landfill in Easthampton, Mass., now has nearly 16 acres of solar panels generating 2.3 megawatts of electricity, roughly enough to power 2,000 homes. The system will supply electricity for 20 percent of the municipal buildings in Easthampton. The cheaper power will save the city more than $1.4 million in 10 years — without spending a dollar upfront.
The benefits extend beyond the bottom line. The solar power plant eliminates the 3.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide that a coal-fired power plant would expel generating the same amount of electricity. That's like taking more than 400 cars off the road or planting nearly 1,000 acres of trees.
While government — and particularly state government — subsidies for alternative energy are dwindling, Hall says he sees a bright future for solar energy. The panels that convert sunlight into electricity grow incrementally more efficient year after year, driving down the cost of solar energy. Meanwhile, fierce global competition among solar panel makers has led to improvements in manufacturing, further driving down the cost of electricity from the sun.
Hall, who in 2008 was named to the Inc. magazine list of 30 under 30 entrepreneurs, says the track record of Borrego Solar — which has installed more than 1,000 solar energy systems over three decades — has helped establish alternative energy as “a known quantity.”
People increasingly are switching to solar, not out of some warm and fuzzy notion to heal the Earth, but to cut costs and heal the bottom line.
“As long as there is money to be made in energy,” Hall says, “there is money to be made in solar energy.”
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