Doug Kiesewetter, president of BrightLeaf Solar, said recent advances in efficiency and design of solar technology is bringing the cost down and making it affordable to the average homeowner.
“Solar has been a rich man’s toy,” he said. “It costs from $50,000 to $100,000 for (enough) solar to get off the grid.”
But BrightLeaf has developed 200-watt, self-contained solar collectors, costing from $1,000 to $3,000 each, that can be installed over a period of time for eventual energy independence.
Solar was a $50 billion business last year and is growing, but according to Kiesewetter, the bulk of that business has been directed toward utility companies and driven by government mandates and subsidies. He believes it’s better to produce solar systems without government help and that energy from residential solar will become cheaper than energy from utility companies.
“Any business that needs subsidies is not a real business,” he said.
Keisewetter believes "solar is the right technology for a residence," so it's a shame the solar industry has been so focused on building huge solar facilities for utility companies.
When it comes to BrightLeaf's focus on residential homes, Keisewetter is not worried about the schism between Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the federal government over whether energy improvements like solar collectors can be considered part of the value of the home.
The New York Times recently reported that the Obama administration is spending $150 million in stimulus money on programs that help homeowners install solar panels and make other energy improvements, which they would pay for over time on their property tax bills.
But Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government chartered agencies that buy and resell most home mortgages are “threatening to derail the effort” by stating they might not accept loans for homes that take advantage of the special financing.
Keisewetter said that’s not a problem for his systems, because the homeowner retains possession – and the value – of the solar components
“You can dismantle them and take them with you,” he said.
But before a homeowner opts for solar, they should practice energy conservation first so they won’t waste energy and spend more than they need to on solar systems, he said.
His own 3,500-square-foot house is completely off the grid, Keisewetter said, and he and his wife practiced conservation before they installed solar systems, as well as investing in geothermal energy.
“The smart thing to do is start with conservation,” he said. “You don’t want to over-buy solar.”
BrightLeaf solar systems have no moving parts and aren’t subject to wind damage because they don’t use as much glass as traditional panels.
“We only put glass over the cell,” he said. “Other systems use a big sheet of glass that can be effected by the wind, but with ours the wind just flows right through it.”
Another thing that makes BrightLeaf Solar systems better is the unique geometry of their solar collectors. Most solar collectors are parabola-shaped or use a Fresnel lens that employs mirrors, but both lose a significant amount of energy, Kiesewetter said, because of shadows and gaps in efficiency.
“The parabola focuses down to a point while ours focuses down to a plane,” he said. “It disperses more effectively from a small point to just one reflector, it has no secondary mirrors, and it’s one-fourth the cost.”
Another advantage of BrightLeaf solar systems is a tiny photovoltaic chip made of gallium arsenide, while most solar chips are made of silicon, which tend to lose a lot more heat.
“With our production model, 93 percent of energy goes to the cell, and with the competitors it’s 60 percent,” he said.
When BrightLeaf goes into full production, Kiesewetter said hiring locals will be a priority. He said about 25 percent of hires will be management, and 75 percent hourly workers.
“We hope to hire 100 percent locally,” he said.
BrightLeaf’s large plant at 121 Apollo Road employs 15 people right now. But vast corners of the building are empty, waiting to be filled by equipment and workers. The company plans to hire 10 new employees in about a month and to create 400 new jobs in the next five years.
“We want to go into full production and will start hiring in 30 days,” Kiesewetter said. “And we plan to start shipping by late summer.”
The new “concentrated photovoltaic manufacturing facility” was recently featured in Montrose Economic Development Corporation’s spring newsletter, which states that the company “will be an incredible addition to our existing pool of higher tech manufacturers here in Montrose.”
Once things get going, Kiesewetter said he plans to build satellite plants all over the Western Slope, adding he is very pleased with the local workforce and is already working with local entities including the City of Montrose, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Mesa State College, Delta-Montrose Technical College, Montrose Economic Development Corporation, and the Colorado Workforce Center.
Kiesewetter thinks his company will change the solar industry and help homeowners become energy independent, and he believes it will become widespread, even sold in stores.
“Home Depot could stock it, and the homeowner could install it,” he said.