The residential and commercial solar market is a competitive space, with national players and local outfits each vying for a piece. While bigger companies may be able to offer lower prices with their economies of scale, smaller companies with established local reputations often boast the highest-quality jobs and post-install service.
One such regional business, Alternative Energy Southeast (AES) was founded in 2007 in Athens, Georgia, by Montana Busch, a master electrician and solar installer. Busch said starting the company with a foundation of electrical skills rather than purely business background has helped it grow into a solar + storage leader in the region that’s unafraid to test new technologies for its customer base.
An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on the mounting and inverter technology improving AES’s installs.
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Solar Power World: Let’s start by talking about how AES is different from competitors.
Montana Busch: I think a big defining piece of AES is that it was founded by a master electrician and NABCEP-certified solar professional rather than someone coming from the business world or an investor. I’ve got all my certifications, and then built the business up brick-by-brick without having any investors involved.
Our sales team is very knowledgeable about the different products and their capabilities, and they’re able to answer a lot more questions that a customer might ask. So, I think that plays a big role. It helps us get more sophisticated projects — really large residential battery-backup systems for various mansions and things like that, as well as simple PV on a regular two-story home.
AES has several true solar advocates on our team as well, where we put time and resources into supporting solar policy on the state and federal level. And we donate 10% of our profits to charitable efforts.
What has been your legislative priority in Georgia?
Busch: There are several items that would be really helpful. Net metering would be really helpful. We’re pushing for monthly netting rather than annual netting. And our system size limits are fairly small in Georgia as well. The law only allows us to do 10 kWAC on a residence or up to 100 kWAC for commercial. For some buildings, that’s just a drop in the bucket as far as what their energy needs call for.
We’d love to see virtual net metering to allow for off-site generation. We’re asking for that just for the nonprofit and non-taxable entities first to try to at least get a foot in the door, and then potentially try to get it for the whole customer base in the future.
Your company is doing residential, commercial and government work. Tell me about your Tesla Solar Roof installs.
Busch: Tesla approached us in 2020 to ask if we’d be interested in helping them deploy this product. This was shortly after the company announced this new Tesla Solar Roof product that everyone’s very excited about. So of course, we said yes. They did give us a forewarning that it’s early in the deployment of a product and there’s expected to be some bumps in the road along the way.
There was definitely a lot of changes and price increases that made some things very challenging with rolling out the product, but we’ve stuck with it. And now it’s definitely got a lot of interest. It’s a very beautiful product — you’ve never seen anything like it. And even some of the other building-integrated solar cells that replace the roof building material, they don’t compare.
But because of all the trial and error that we had to go through in rolling out this product, I decided to explore the R&D (research and development) tax credit. I hired a consulting firm that specializes in tax credits. They helped me determine whether or not the types of expenses we incurred would be eligible. And it turns out much of what we did was, in fact, eligible, and even some things unrelated to the Tesla Solar Roof just in the course of doing business, just trying new things.
Let’s talk a little bit about the IRA. How has this new legislation changed the way that AES does business?
Busch: When the IRA was signed into law last year, the solar tax credit was projected to continue declining its value. We were, as a company, greatly concerned about the future of solar without having a 30% tax credit. It was already going down to 22%, and we were seeing some of the effects from that.
So having that reinstated, we immediately saw a huge boost in leads and sales. We just feel more certain about all the effort we’re putting into growing this business. That was just right on time; it was much needed for the solar industry. As interest rates are climbing as well, it’s becoming harder to sell solar. It seems like more businesses are considering solar now, too. It’s really exciting to see solar leaving the early adopter stage and becoming more mainstream. Because there are so many rooftops out there that are just in the sun all day, and it kills me not to see solar panels deployed.
And, of course, the incentives in the IRA for domestic manufacturing too are amazing, just seeing how many factory announcements that are starting to pop up.
Are you hoping to source some more U.S. products if possible?
Busch: Definitely. Qcells had become unavailable to us during the period last year where there was a high demand for solar and kind of a shortage. I think Qcells had all of what they were producing claimed before it even left the factory. We’re able to get those now again, and that’s been part of our pitch — that we use Georgia-made solar panels.