Light shines on DIY solar startup

It’s Mark Smith’s time to bask in the sunshine. Smith, a Boston native, left his job as an engineer at Qimonda in 2004. In 2006, he started Sun Smith Solar, a Richmond-based company that builds and sells photovoltaic solar panels.

The first two years were dedicated to research and design; last year, the company started manufacturing and selling the panels at its facility near Willow Lawn. Smith said he has fewer than 10 employees.

Smith said he has sold 300 panels, but none of the customers are in Virginia. He said he has sold panels to customers from New York to California, as well as to customers in Jamaica and the former Czechoslovakia. Most of the panels are purchased by residential consumers. He also sells kits for people to install them on their own.

Panels range from $435 to $1,180 dollars. The solar panels are built by hand, and the company can produce about two a day.

Although President Obama talks about funding alternative energy, the decrease in gas prices and the overall economic slump has slowed orders, Smith said.

“When gasoline was $4 a gallon, I had more orders than I could fill,” Smith said. “When gasoline is $1.75, people are not as forward-looking.”

One bright side to the economic decline, he said, was that prices for raw materials had softened, making the panels less expensive to produce.

The company builds some of the largest panels in the world, Smith said. The electrical output goes up to 300 watts, and the largest panel measures 40 inches by 82 inches.

Smith supports the proposed state incentives, which he believes will encourage local business and individuals to consider solar.

Three bills that would have created incentives for solar energy and other renewable sources such as wind have been defeated by the General Assembly. Two bills creating incentives remain. Senate Bill 1141, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), would grant a tax credit of up to $8,000 for businesses and individuals installing solar systems. The bill passed the Senate, 38 to 1, and has been referred to the House finance committee. A similar house bill failed to pass the same committee.

Another bill, Senate Bill 1216 introduced by Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), would eliminate retail sales and use tax for the purchase of residential alternative energy systems. The bill passed without a no vote in the Senate, and passed the House finance committee. Last week, the House approved a motion (54-43) to send the bill to the House appropriations committee. If that committee approves the bill, then the bill will receive a final vote in the House.

An identical House bill failed to pass the finance committee.

Smith said the incentives will help, but even without them he said the solar industry will grow because of federal incentives and an eventual return to high gas and electric prices.

“I think when the price of energy, specifically gasoline and electricity, goes higher than today, the industry can stand on its own,” Smith said.

BizSense previously wrote about the local solar industry here.

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