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Solar customers need project liaisons for happiest outcomes

Posted on 27 March 2018 by calvin

There are 22 solar panels on top of the Casey residence in Longfellow. (Photo submitted)

After working in the solar energy industry across the country, for companies both big and small, Michael Allen and his brother, Bryan, learned how not to do things in the solar industry.

Following years of experience, they returned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and in 2009 launched All Energy Solar, 1642 Carroll Ave. in St. Paul, a company that provides clean, green, solar energy solutions for residential, commercial, agricultural, and government clients.

“A common frustration we saw with customers was that at the end of a project, they would tell the company working with them ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were still around,’” Allen said.

The brothers knew early on they wanted to form their own company, with Allen writing the business plan for All Energy Solar while he was still in college. And after working in California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut gaining experience, they knew how they wanted to treat their customers.

“We poured our heart and soul into this company, and we still do,” Allen said. “And there is no better feeling than getting a really happy customer.”

He said All Energy Solar doesn’t just have salespeople and installers, but also someone in the middle. “We wanted to create a project manager, but we call them project liaisons,” Allen explained. “We have others set up to do things a project manager would do. But we wanted someone who just does the interconnection work with the utility. Our project liaison holds the customer’s hand and walks the customer through the process of getting solar energy.”

Allen said the customer should not need to talk to the electric company or the permit company; the project liaison should be able to get all the answers needed. “The way we have structured our company, if you have a happy customer you will have a happy business and happy employees,” Allen continued. “And so, we always have felt it important to make it easy and simple for our client.”

“We talk all the time about putting ourselves in their shoes. You get on the other end of the phone and not hear anything for two weeks. What would you want to be done?”
Allen said the Minnesota-made rebates ended in 2017. “The legislature did away with that program and took $100 million out of it,” he said. “But instead of that, there is the Solar Awards program through Xcel, and that is provided on a first-come, first-serve basis. That rebate program started on Jan. 8 and will be ending soon. So we are encouraging anyone who is interested to apply as soon as they can.”

Allen said the most important component for a home to qualify for solar energy use is the shade and types of trees in the customer’s yard. Second is orientation, whether the house is facing south or east or west. The third most important is the tilt angle of the roof.

“With potential barriers, you look at how you can get around that,” Allen said. “We utilize different technologies for different projects. We can isolate certain areas of the solar panel system.”

He said that in Minneapolis and St. Paul, traditionally home-owners need 16-32 panels. “It comes down to how much energy you use as a consumer and buy from Xcel. We have systems that are as low as eight panels.” Allen said a customer might want the biggest solar panel system money can buy but may not need that much.

Allen displays an app that shows the solar details on his own home. With the app, at any time, he can see how much energy he is using and how much he is producing. He can tell if something in his home has been turned off, or if an appliance such as a toaster is being used. “You become much more aware and conscious of the energy you are using,” he said.

Allen said the company can install solar panels on home and business roofs, garage roofs, or on the ground. “If your home or garage are covered by trees, but you have a nice area in the backyard where you like to go sit and have a beer in the evening, we can ground-mount the solar panels there,” he said. His company can also build a carport and mount panels on top of that. “We work all over the state, from Moorhead to Mankato, from Duluth to Marshall, in huge 40-acre fields to an eight-panel solar system.” The company also doles solar panels in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Connecticut.

The benefits of using solar energy are numerous, according to Allen. “First, there are the financial savings,” he said. “With the rebates Xcel has, along with federal tax credits, you can get more than half of the entire cost of the project paid for. That is money given to you. It’s pretty tremendous that you can make a home improvement and receive that type of incentive.”

The consumer is also benefiting the environment by using solar energy. “But let’s assume this is not your biggest concern,” Allen said. “Why do it?”

Allen said the rate of return on the investment is so important to consider. “What are you currently doing that gives you return on your investment with electrical usage? You are getting reliable electricity, but what return are you getting by paying Xcel every month?”

The other factor he said a customer should consider is the energy independence component. “It’s not about sticking it to the man, but more just about self-reliance, not having to rely on someone or something else.” Through solar, the customer is creating his or her own energy.

What might be the most challenging aspect of this for the homeowner? Allen said it is knowing that it is going to work and having confidence that it will. He said the homeowner has a 10-year contract with his company. The company has multiple warranties. “We warranted our work for five to ten years,” he said, “anything we have touched on the project. We have done this work long enough we know what, and what not, to be concerned about.” He noted that solar has now been around for about 70 years, and there is pretty phenomenal technology now that makes it a safe and reliant product.

“From our standpoint, the most challenging aspect is continuing to navigate the on-going red tape,” Allen said. “But we manage the red tape and deal with issues head-on.”

With its strong customer service, All Energy Solar has been able to get a foothold in an industry where there have been many entrants and exits, according to Allen. “I don’t say with any pleasure that our competitors have come and gone. At the end of the day, it is not good for the industry, especially an industry where people are still reluctant,” he said. He noted that a lot of companies can throw solar panels up on the roof with no problem. “The installation is probably the easiest part of it. But all the red tape on the front end of a project can be daunting to the customer.”

Allen relies on the staff at All Energy Solar to make the whole process as simple and easy for the homeowner or business owner as possible. “One big reason we are so successful with our liaisons is that they are not just looking for a good paying job, but the majority of our employees are also looking for more fulfillment. They are really into the solar thing and believe in what we are building for our clients,” Allen said.

The company has around 120 employees, and Allen said the majority live in St. Paul or Minneapolis.”I take a lot of pride in that; it’s a pretty cool thing,” he stated. He said his company also works with local providers, and he believes that helps the local economy and the community.

“I would like to also tell people to keep an eye open for some newer programs and some larger opportunities to buy in bulk,” he said. “Customers can be part of a program that allows them to get discounts on their solar project because of a bigger initiative that’s going on. This is very exciting.”


Solar panels plus phone app make saving energy easy and fun

Longfellow residents Mac-Layne Casey and his wife, Katy, have been advocates of solar energy for a long, long time.
“I have been a big fan of solar power since I was a kid,” Casey said. “And Katy’s dad actually built a solar panel for his neighbor back in the early 80s.” The couple had long thought solar panels were something they wanted to try, but Casey said they thought it was something they wouldn’t be able to afford.

But a little over a year ago, he said he saw some signs and heard some advertising on the radio about affordable solar energy. “I thought I would check it out and see what it was all about,” he recalled.

“It turned out to e a great option for us, and the whole process was very easy,” Casey said. The couple met with a representative from All Energy Solar, and they were able to take advantage of a Minnesota-made rebate.

“We started last year around February because the rebates were soon ending,” he explained. Their name was placed in a lottery, and they were among the 50 percent who qualified for the rebate.

“Our solar panels were made in Minnesota,” Casey said. “The company made the process very, very easy for us. They held our hand through pretty much everything, all the paperwork and the rebates. That was huge. It could have gone either way.”

Casey said they have 22 solar panels on their roof (photo right provided). They first met with All Solar Energy in late February and had the project completed by Aug. 10. “Our roof is a big flat canvas that faces the south, so basically we were the perfect home for solar panels,” Casey stated. The amount of shade and angle of the roof play a part in determining the success of the solar paneling, but adjustments can always be made.

“Throughout the year our energy usage is roughly 17-kilowatt hours a day,” Casey said. “In winter we are using less air conditioning, so our winter usage is roughly 13-14 kilowatt hours a day and in summer, 20-22.”

He said the company provides them with an app that shows how much energy you are using and how much you are making.

“I geek out on that app every single day,” Casey admitted. “When our contractor was redoing our basement, I could see when he was entering our house just by the use of energy. He’s a buddy of mine, and I would call him and say ‘Oh, you’re working on the house now.’ And he would say “How did you know?’ It’s pretty cool.”

Casey said in the last few days, they have averaged production of 35-kilowatt hours a day. “Winter is a little bit slow for production because we had a snow cover, but in summer it’s great, even on cloudy days. I feel so happy to see these 35-kilowatt-hour days. We have not paid Xcel for the last two months just because of the energy we are making.”

Casey said that using solar energy also changes the way he looks at energy. “I have always been one to turn off the lights, but now I am fine-tuning it even more. It will be interesting to see this summer when we use air conditioning. If we have it colder or warmer, it changes the amount of energy. It’s an experiment.” He continued to explain that he feels adding solar energy has been a great investment, and also fun. “I now charge my phone using solar power,” he said.

Casey said that probably the biggest con to the process is when it’s snowing and the solar panels are covered with snow. “The first snowfall we had this year, it was really icy,” he noted. “The rain and ice mix left a thick sheet of ice on the roof, and we had poor readings for a month. But now we are making up for it. These are really high-energy days.” He added that the solar panels save wear and tear on the roof and actually expand its life.

“I do have way more energy boxes in the back of the house than I used to, but we have decorative plants that cover those.”

“I have had solar energy for less than a year, but my long-term bet is that it will last and that All Solar Energy will be around for 25 years and the maker of solar panels will be around for 25 years,” Casey said. “It’s kind of a leap of faith, but I’m not the first one on the block to use solar energy.”

He said he and his wife feel they jumped in at the right time, with the new administration in place and not knowing what might happen.

He is also pleased with the significant rebates they will get over the next ten years. “Basically the state and federal government is paying for over two-thirds of the cost of our solar panels. We are paying for less than a third, which is great,” he said.

Looking at the use of solar energy for their home, Casey said he sees it as a kind of cycle.

“I look at Katy’s dad and where he was at in the early 80s, building these do-it-yourself solar panels. That was the first step. Now 40 years later we are using solar panels for energy. And we are educating our two-year-old, showing him the value of solar energy. Passing down that mentality is pretty great.”

There are 22 solar panels on top of the Casey residence in Longfellow. (Photo submitted)

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