Michigan is a bit of a sleeper in the solar market. It’s not posting spectacular numbers (it was ranked 32nd nationally, based on 2014 installed solar capacity), but it is starting to grow. Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids broke ground in October on the state’s largest community solar project at 3 MW. Utilities Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have announced additional large arrays. And opportunity in the residential market is increasing, as noted by family-run CBS Solar, based in Copemish.
“There used to be a misconception that solar doesn’t work in Michigan because we’re a northern state,” said Tyson O’Shea, vice president of operations. “We have a higher average [of solar irradiation] than the whole country of Germany. It does work, and people are realizing it’s a wise investment.”
The O’Shea family has a long history with renewable energy, engineering and manufacturing. President (and father) Allan O’Shea has been involved with renewable energy for 40 years and was the first president and founding member of the national wind power organization AWEA in the ’70s. Sons Devon, Tyson and Aaron have all been involved with engineering, manufacturing or electrician work and bring different areas of expertise to the family business. Office manager (and mother) Lynda has been a key leader since the company started 23 years ago selling windows. Contractors Building Supply (CBS) still sells windows today and recently started manufacturing its own 300-W and 250-W UL-approved solar panels.
“We’ve always been in manufacturing, starting with a window company years ago,” Allan said. “When manufacturing gets in your blood, it’s a lot easier. In Northern Michigan, there is not enough solar companies to really satisfy the demand, so we thought it was best that we put together an integrated approach.”
As a Michigan manufacturer, CBS Solar is able to offer additional tax credits with the Michigan Renewable Energy Certification System (MIRECS). System owners get portions of energy credits because their systems use Michigan-made materials. This really helps drive business for CBS Solar.
“When we started, we had four or five [solar] manufacturers in Michigan, and they all kind of fell by the wayside,” Allan said. “We’re really the only stand-alone Michigan manufacturer here.”
Tyson said there is a strong residential market in the 5 to 20 kW range, but CBS Solar is still going after smaller commercial projects but with more realistic expectations than 20 years ago.
“You go into these biddings of large projects and think you’ve found your pot of gold, and then you’re a year down the road and still don’t have final plans drawn up,” he said. “You have to be prepared, if you’re going to bid on these larger projects. They do take a lot of time.”
Allan said CBS Solar attracts customers because of its straight forward approach to selling solar.
“You’ve got a lot of good companies out there, but you have to weed out the difference between the scientific efficiency and the marketing efficacy that they’re pushing out, the fluff,” he said. “Solar is getting very marketing intensive, so you have to weed that out. We give customers straight talk.”
And CBS Solar will be there every step of the way.
“Not only do we know how to install, but we know how to use all the systems,” Tyson said. “We don’t install anything and then walk away from it. We do have that family touch.”