Some people enjoy the easy life, taking the road most traveled. Not the case for Paul Risberg and the other 40 employees of Altenergy, based in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“We’re not very competitive, nor do we want to be, with the SolarCitys who are doing massive numbers of cookie-cutter systems,” said Risberg, president of the solar installation company. “We are typically looking for the whole-house energy picture we can be a part of.”
Altenergy’s target market is high-end residential and small-scale commercial, and the company (with branches also in Maryland/DC and Idaho) often works on complicated, custom-designed options. Risberg started Altenergy in 2005 working on any grid-tied system available, but he quickly found his calling.
“The path forward has been steady growth with the realization that complicated systems are more fun,” he said. “To do complicated systems, we needed more reliable assets like design and engineering and acquisition, payroll and accounting. The only way I was going to be able to build a company to do the most fun projects would be to continue to grow, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years.”
By project count, Altenergy is 90% residential, but commercial revenue accounts for 60% of the business. Altenergy ranked No. 320 on the Solar Power World 2017 Top Solar Contractors list.
“We work with a lot of architects and general contractors and owners for new construction in residential,” Risberg said. “Our commercial division is essentially 25 to 500 kW. That would typically be for us a niche market that is difficult for small solar companies to have the design/engineering expertise to get those projects done, but they’re smaller than what the utility companies are interested in going after.”
Risberg said working on unique projects in the vastly different markets of both the Southeast and Northwest has made understanding the different permitting processes challenging. He said there is a “dramatic difference in what AHJs are demanding” in each region. That hasn’t stopped Altenergy from wanting to expand into new areas of the country to become more geographically diverse.
“Our focus is on developing those small commercial applications that really have the potential to have a significantly larger impact on the national energy picture,” Risberg said. “Everywhere we work, they’re very convinced that solar is not the sole solution, but it’s an outstanding piece of policy to improve our environmental impact. Solar is a significant part of the total solution.”
Altenergy’s aim is to make its branch offices become integral parts of each community. The company is involved with local schools, encouraging young students to pursue areas of study that lead to solar jobs. Risberg and his team talk to groups about energy, not as a sales pitch, but instead in an educational way. And if a solar sale comes out of it, it’s an added bonus.
“We think our niche market is a pretty sound strategy. That doesn’t mean we can’t change, but we haven’t changed in 10 years,” Risberg said. “We’re not looking to become a utility-scale provider. Those systems require a huge amount of repetitive labor that our employees find less than interesting. We’re looking to continue to develop these medium-sized projects.”