Lifestyle Spotlight: Third Sun Solar is soaring
By CG Lifestyles & People Editor Neal Patten
As you wind along the mountain roads of Pennsylvania and cross into Ohio’s foothills, you might glimpse the sun beating down on a pumpkin orange billboard that reads, “When there’s a huge solar energy spill, it’s just called a ‘nice day.’” These billboards are distributed by an initiative out of California. While the Golden State seems like the ideal location for sun-powered energy, would you guess that one of the major up-and-coming solar companies in the nation is nestled in a cozy Appalachian town?
Third Sun Solar is one of the fastest-growing solar companies today. Based in Athens, Ohio the start up is a true American success story. Established in 2000 by the aptly named Geoff and Michelle Greenfield, the company now has 24 employees and earned $14.7 million in revenue in 2010. Inc. magazine releases an annual list of the 5000 fastest growing, privately held and independent companies in the United States. In its 2011 rankings, Third Sun placed at number 543 overall and at number 16 among energy-specific companies. Over the past three years, Third Sun has enjoyed a 619 percent jump in sales.
The Greenfields met 200 miles west of Athens in the early 1990s at Miami University. The couple moved to Oregon where they had hoped to build an off-the-grid home but land costs were prohibitive. The pair decided to continue their education by studying International Development at Ohio University. They fell in love with the tight-knit, progressive community of Athens and re-located there to begin a family. They built their dream house in 1997, outfitting it with solar and wind energy. Neighbors and friends began consulting the Greenfields for advice on how to retrofit solar power into their homes. It was then that Geoff and Michelle realized their calling and thus Third Sun was formed.
While in the early stages of planning the business, the couple were busy raising their two sons. “We found the creation, nurturing and development of the business to be very much like our shared life with our children, and since both children were boys, our fledgling company was like raising a third son,” Michelle explains. The double entendre stuck.
Not all solar panels are created equal. There are various processes by which solar radiation could be converted into electrical power but the most common, and the one employed by Third Sun, is the Photovoltaic method. While it may look intimidating, the word simply means light (photo) electricity (volt). This conversion method is already widely in use today in small devices such as calculators. How does it work? On the most basic level, the sun emits its energy as photons – or a single unit of light. The photon is absorbed by a solar panel. Solar panels contain a semiconducting material, typically silicon. When atoms within the semiconductor absorb the photons, excess electrons are shed. As the electrons move from a sub-layer of the panel to the top layer, a small current is produced that can be captured for energy use.
If you would classify a middle-class two parent, two child household as ‘average’ and such a family uses 1000 kilowatt hours of power a month, they would need a 10kw sized system to equal that consumption over the year. This is roughly 36 panels or about 600 to 800 square feet of space. However, panels can be installed to fit any space and budget allotment. With a 6kw system, the family would produce 60 percent of their yearly power.
One of the biggest innovations in the Greenfield’s 15-year experience with solar is net metering. Net metering is a law that requires traditional energy companies to allow families using renewable energy systems to connect to ‘the grid.’ Before the law, families had to store excess energy in battery form, which spiked costs and incurred routine maintenance. Now solar is more accessible and families can even sell back excess energy for a 30 percent return of their energy costs. Or if a family overproduces one month, they earn an energy credit that can be redeemed in a less productive month.
All of Third Sun’s online systems in 2011 combined saved 52 metric tons of carbon from being leaked into the atmosphere over traditional energy methods. What is the holdup preventing more widespread adoption? Government subsidies. Of all energy subsidies, only 5 percent go towards alternative means (solar, wind) while the remaining 95 percent supports oil, coal, hydroelectric, ethanol and natural gas. “We are not playing on a level field with traditional energy sources. All those subsidies to fossil fuel enable them to have lower prices, but it’s not reflective of the real cost of that power or the cost of the pollution and environmental degradation that goes along with those industries,” Michelle states. This has led to high upfront costs for potential consumers. If a family retrofits to solar, it could be upwards of 15 years before they begin making a return on the investment and that has kept many from getting on board.
Among over 300 installations to date, some of Third Sun’s more notable projects have included a Kentucky National Guard training center, the Columbus Zoo, Akron’s Metro Transit Center and the Ohio governor’s residence. Michelle’s favorite commission, however, was the Cincinnati Parks system. “We installed 15 systems at various parks all over the city. I like them because they are in the public eye and the general public can see that solar works.”
When you think about the atrocity of BP oil spill two years ago and how it dumped 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the pumpkin orange billboard might be more amusing if it did not reflect the current hopelessness. “When there’s a huge solar energy spill, it’s just called a ‘nice day.’” The Greenfields have helped to show the viability of the sun’s energy on a wide scale. Now, if only the government would take notice the future might be brighter.