For Geoff Stenrick, owner and president of the Saint Paul-based SimpleRay Solar
, sunshine is much more than a mood-lifting respite from winter’s bitter chill. It’s a way of life.
In 2006, Stenrick quit his job as a Saturn salesman and channeled his longtime fascination with renewable energy into a nascent solar panel business called SimpleRay Solar. He enrolled in a comprehensive training course in solar technology, installation techniques, and parts engineering, then signed on with three U.S. distributors and began selling their equipment through his website.
His timing couldn’t have been better. While SimpleRay’s early customers were often hard-core environmentalists committed to green living, the launch of California’s rebate program, in 2007, drew building contractors onto the site. Similar incentives followed shortly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other East Coast states. Still, Stenrick’s gig remained low-key through the late 2000s: After his daughter’s birth, in 2009, “I would have to send emails and work on the website while she napped,” he says.
Because of generous rebate programs, falling manufacturing costs, and end-users’ increasing demand for panels and accessories, things are much busier now. In 2011, Stenrick hired his first employee, a car-industry colleague. His company’s 2012 revenues were sufficient to earn a spot on the “Inc. 500” list for 2013. Last year, after several additional hires—SimpleRay now has seven employees—he moved into a permanent office on Raymond Avenue, in the Creative Enterprise Zone
on the Central Corridor’s Green Line.
Stenrick’s team doesn’t just sell solar panels out of this new space: As part of a transaction, SimpleRay’s in-house engineering and design professionals often help clients plan and optimize their arrays.
The most exciting development, though, may be Minnesota’s recently passed “Omnibus Energy Bill,”
an aggressive renewable-energy law that requires “all utilities in the state [to] procure 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar generation by 2020,” according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. By the end of the decade, predicts Stenrick, this requirement could boost in-state solar panel sales by a factor of 40.
Already, the law has dramatically increased the likelihood that the Aurora Solar Project, a planned cluster of about two dozen solar arrays in the state’s eastern half, will be built. SimpleRay doesn’t typically sell to utilities—it prefers small and medium-sized commercial and residential contractors, although it will soon contribute to a one-megawatt array in the area—but the increased demand that accompanies large-scale utility projects is sure to reduce panel costs and render the technology competitive with fossil fuels.
“A solar system works like a furnace,” says Stenrick. “You don’t need to replace it every five years. Instead, you’re basically prepaying for your power over the 20-plus-year lifespan of your system.” Thanks to industry-standard warranties that guarantee efficiencies of at least 80 percent over a 25-year span, this leads to dramatic long-term savings.
Even in Minnesota, with its short winter days and frequent cloud cover?
Yes, says Stenrick, noting that Minnesota gets more sun than many solar-friendly East Coast states—and far more than Germany, the world’s reigning solar energy leader. “On average, Germany gets about as much sunlight as Seattle,” he says, “and look at what they’re doing over there.”
Stenrick doesn’t minimize the obvious environmental benefits of solar power—“It’s better than blowing up a mountaintop for coal,” he half-jokes—but he’s more interested in touting the cost side of the equation. In California, solar power is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and the Omnibus Energy Bill suggests that Minnesota isn’t far behind. Eventually, Stenrick believes, the tax credits and rebates that currently support the U.S. solar industry will be obsolete.
“The whole idea of where you get your power from [will] totally change by 2030,” says Stenrick. “We hope to ride that wave.”
Source: Geoff Stenrick, SimpleRay Solar
Writer: Brian Martucci