When SunVest Solar contracted Current Electric (No. 284 on the 2017 Top Solar Contractors list) in October 2016 to install a large project for the Sokaogon Chippewa Community by the end of the year for tax credit purposes, Current Electric CEO Chuck Smith knew the project would be a challenge.
The team was to add solar to about 50 homes and 19 commercial sites, including two large ground-mount arrays. SunVest secured a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Energy Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to install just over 600 kW of solar to power 15 governmental buildings on the reservation, and also provide training and job opportunities for tribal members along the way. And all of this had to happen during winter in Wisconsin.
Smith approached the challenge with the measured process he uses for all projects.
“One of my philosophies is everybody needs to wear three hats at any moment of the day,” said Smith. Those hats are: The preparer, the doer and the inspector. Preparation was exceedingly important on this job, where slick roofs challenged workers on some mornings.
“We really had to watch the weather,” Smith said. “The key was to set it up so that we had a crew that knew how to really organize the jobs as far as rails and material, and get that all dialed in so that when we can get on the roof, we have absolutely everything we need to get off that roof in short order.” One morning, they went up on a roof when it was -9° F because the sun was out and the frosty roof dried fast, despite the bitter cold.
Even though Smith was prepared for many elements of this unusual project, he admits that his team was surprised by how slick the metal roofs became with morning dew or evening dampness. Two workers almost got stuck on a roof when it started to mist one morning and they didn’t yet have the rails set. Luckily, they were able to get off safely.
For the remainder of the project, Smith and his team made sure to spend the last part of each day “making sure you had every fastener and splice and bolt and rail and whatever it took to get us on and off that roof.” As the days went on, Smith said the process became more cookie-cutter.
Smith viewed this large project as a mission rather than a job. That mission was to help the tribe achieve more energy independence.
“Anytime you can reduce expense for people, long-term continued expense, I think it’s more important than increasing profit,” Smith said. “You’re making that building more viable to be a resource that they can use instead of just a resource that’s draining them.”
Part of the mission included hiring members of the tribe to help work on the installation. Current Electric approached the tribal council looking for people who could work on roofs and weren’t afraid of heights. The council helped find people willing and able to help with the job, and Smith was impressed with their work.
Not all members of the community bought into the project right away though. Some people did not understand or believe in solar. One non-believer was a tribe councilman, up for reelection the following year.
“We heard him out. We wanted to make sure that he understood what we were doing and [we] listened to him,” Smith said. “Eventually, he was one of the big proponents of it and supported it all the way.”
Convincing the community of the benefits of solar was tougher because of the time of year the installation was completed. It was still wintertime in Wisconsin, so the panels were often covered with snow and not producing much power at first.
Smith said the tribe probably wondered, “’Why did we have these people crawling all over our community, putting solar on all our roofs, if it’s not going to do anything?’ Well, now they’re reaping the rewards of overproduction and long days.”
Smith considers this mission a success: The tribe now has a few hundred kilowatts of solar and some tribe members have learned how to install it.