BYRON CENTER — After selling off his telecommunications firm in the mid-2000s, Adam Harris ventured into another emerging technology field poised for rapid growth: renewable energy.
“When I opened my business, I looked like the town idiot,” said Harris, managing director for Brighton-based The Green Panel Inc. “This was 2006 to 2007. It was not a very vogue time to open a business and it was a climate where solar was nonexistent.”
Since then, The Green Panel has taken its EF&I (engineer, furnish and install) approach to dozens of corporate, municipal, higher education and residential customers looking to install solar either for environmental or cost-saving purposes.
On July 10, the company will hold a grand opening for a Byron Center showroom that features the products it sells, including three leading solar panel brands, Tesla Powerwall home battery storage units and electric vehicle charging ports.
Harris says the showroom — a roughly 1,300-square-foot space at 325 84th St. — sets The Green Panel apart from other installers by allowing customers to examine products in buffet-like fashion. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated plans for a showroom that had been in the works for years, and Harris thinks the retail model is more customer-friendly and less intrusive than installers coming to properties.
“When COVID came, you didn’t want anyone in your house,” he said. “The showroom is set up and designed with several different types of system offerings that illustrate and show the customer the basic electric elements in their home.”
The showroom includes products from Tesla, Panasonic and SunPower. Harris compared the experience to picking out a car at a dealership.
“The customer gets to pick and choose what they want with their system,” he said. “Then we’re able to design a system that meets their needs down the road.”
The Green Panel’s customer base is 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. Past clients include Dow Chemical Co., Hemlock Semiconductor Corp., Michigan State University and Western Michigan University.
Harris said The Green Panel, which has about 50 employees, is “hiring more people every week,” and business continues to grow after avoiding supply chain challenges during the pandemic.
Since Harris launched The Green Panel 15 years ago, the U.S. solar market has ebbed and flowed with favorable tax policies and early government support that never materialized into widespread development. In recent years, though, the cost of producing solar power has come down significantly. U.S. solar installations grew 46 percent in the first quarter this year, and year-over-year growth is expected to reach nearly 24 percent compared to last year, according to a recent report by Wood Mackenzie.
Corporate purchasers are helping to drive utility-scale projects while the return on investment for onsite installations is growing shorter for commercial and residential customers. Harris said the improving economics are coupled with growing uncertainty among utility customers about the future of electricity rates which, in Michigan, have steadily climbed in recent years.
“As people get older, they’re living on a fixed income,” Harris said. “Electricity becomes an unknown variable for them, they’re at the mercy of the utility company. Solar allows this flatlined variable for them.”
The Grand Rapids-area showroom also opens after shifts in Michigan’s solar regulatory environment that changes the way utilities compensate rooftop solar owners for the excess power they send back to the grid. The state’s new distributed generation program credits customers at a lower rate than the previous net metering program.
While solar advocates have battled utilities for years over a fair compensation rate, Harris believes the emerging battery storage sector will be equally beneficial for customers.
“People say, ‘I won’t send any power back, then I won’t have to worry about what you charge for sending it to the grid,’” Harris said. “Those systems in the future are going to be an island. You won’t even have to go to the utility because you’ll feed nothing back to the grid. The net metering elimination opened the door for storage in a huge way.”