Every solar project has its complexities, be it tricky layouts or challenging interconnections. Kirk Haffner, president of South Sound Solar (No. 327 on the 2023 Top Solar Contractors List), has made a name for his Olympia, Washington-based company as a problem solver.
“I’ve been involved with the community for many years. We have a very solid reputation that’s been hard earned, both with utilities and AHJs,” he said. “If there’s something that’s a bit of a puzzle, they’ll call Kirk. I like that.”
Some of the more puzzling projects South Sound Solar has taken on since forming in 2008 involve nonprofits and community-based organizations. From affordable housing to youth services and food banks, there’s no solar project that the company can’t take on, Haffner said.
“Merritt Manor and Camp Quixote — those were ones that our expertise came into play,” he said. “Other installers said it couldn’t be done, and I said yes.”
Merritt Manor is a low-income housing development with 82 apartments that now tap into a 126-kW solar array across the shared roof. In order to win a state grant for the project, South Sound Solar had to convince the building owner to remove individual tenant meters and instead use one building meter. Haffner worked out an algorithm using historical energy data, apartment occupancy and more to have the building owner appropriately charge each apartment for their energy usage, while still passing on the solar savings.
“It was about six, eight months of really hard work to come up with a solid plan,” Haffner said. “And we did it and got the solar installed. But also — utilities charge you each month for the privilege of having a meter. So we just eliminated [an additional cost] for low-income people because they don’t have to pay the basic meter fee.”
Quixote Village is a tiny home community at the site of a former tent city called Camp Quixote. Thirty tiny homes now shelter the previously homeless people, and South Sound Solar was able to install solar panels on each home and the site’s central community building. Another difficult “campus environment” solar project, the utility and AHJ wanted a shutoff on each building. Haffner was able to negotiate one full-service disconnect at the community building instead.
“It was a little bit complicated, a convoluted design, but I knew I could figure it out,” Haffner said. “I told them that you’ve got much more of a concern when you have these tiny houses with electric baseboard heaters and everything stacked in front. With solar, we’ve made it more safe.”
In addition to 86 panels installed on the community building, each tiny home has four 60-cell panels. The specific panel size was an important consideration Haffner made months before South Sound Solar even knew it would be working on the Quixote Village project.
“I took a risk. I was confident enough that we would win that project that I purchased the 60-cell panels a half-year in advance,” he said. “I assumed the cost because the industry is going into a 66-cell panel. I knew I could fit four 60-cell panels on the roofs. I couldn’t fit four 66-cell panels.”
A core tenet for South Sound Solar is to give back to the community, and many of these complicated projects are well worth it in the end, Haffner said.
“A big part of being a nonprofit or a community-based organization is chasing funding. They have to apply for hundreds of grants to win only a few in order to keep their operations going. They’re providing critical services,” he said. “I feel really strongly that this is something we can do in a very physical, practical way to support those organizations, not to just throw money at them. Give them something that helps lower their operation costs and give them something to feel good about — solar!”
This story was featured exclusively in our 2023 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.