Photovoltaics keep business buzzing at Lawrence Electric

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 7, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Joel Lawrence sat down with his four employees in January 2009. The construction industry that had been the bread and butter for electrical contractors like Lawrence Electric had nearly dried up.
“I know it doesn’t look good out there, but here’s the deal,” Lawrence told his workers. “My goal is to see us on Dec. 31 with the bills paid and all of us still employed.”
He told them the business on Calhoun Street in Salisbury was going to try something new.
Lawrence had signed up for a five-day workshop at N.C. State University to learn more about renewable energy. Lawrence Electric was about to venture into photovoltaics, or solar power systems designed to capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity.
“For the first time, I realized if I’m going to keep people employed, some of the work has to be independent of general contractors,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence and his crew have installed a photovoltaic system behind their shop with eight solar modules, the first pole-mounted array in the city of Salisbury.
The 13-foot-square array will generate electricity that Lawrence will sell back to the grid. But it also will serve as an example for curious, or skeptical, potential customers.
Lawrence said he expects photovoltaic to make up 30 percent of his business within five years.
His system is the smallest he would recommend for a home or business. It costs $10,000 and can be installed on a pole or a roof.
Many homes and businesses can accommodate a $25,000 system, he said.
“This is a long-term investment,” he said. “You’re not getting your money back in three years.”
Federal and state tax credits will cover about $6,500 of the cost of Lawrence’s system. He expects to recover the remaining $3,500 in five to seven years.
After that, he’s making money. He will earn about $400 a year now. That number will climb as the price of energy increases.
Lawrence will earn about five cents per kilowatt hour from Duke Energy and about 10 cents from N.C. Green Power, a nonprofit organization funded by contributions from residents and businesses to help offset the cost of producing green energy.
The cost of photovoltaic has decreased. In 2009, a system cost between $8 and $9 per watt, Lawrence said. That’s fallen to between $5 to $6 per watt, he said.
This fall, Lawrence will take the exam to earn certification by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, the gold standard for solar installation certification. The certification will allow him to bid on nearly any photovoltaic installation.
His system, built by Suniva, features nearly all components made in the U.S.
After final inspections by Rowan County and approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission, Lawrence expects to turn it on in May.
An inverter mounted on the wall inside the shop takes the DC voltage running from the array and converts it to AC voltage, which is exported to the power grid.
A duplex meter mounted to the outside of the shop will give two readings: the amount of electricityLawrence Electric is using, and the amount the shop is selling back to the grid.
Lawrence said he feels somewhat like a pioneer, clearing the way for those who will install photovoltaic systems in the coming years.
“We have our chain saw in hand,” he said. “Those who follow will find the trail got easier.”
Lawrence has installed large photovoltaic arrays at Thomas Built Buses in High Point and Alamance County Community College.
The college’s system will power a new greenhouse, likely the first in the state.
“I love it,” Grounds Manager Chad Huggins said. “I’m excited about being at the front end of this whole sustainability drive that everybody has going.”
The college was so pleased with Lawrence Electric, Huggins said they’ve asked the business to bid on four other electrical projects.
“They were wonderful to work with,” he said. “They’ve done everything we asked for and then some.”
The college’s $125,000 photovoltaic system, which will generate enough energy to power the greenhouse and sell surplus to the grid, is expected to pay for itself in 15 years.
“And everything from that point forward is a savings to the college,” Huggins said.
For a residence or business within the city of Salisbury, Lawrence said the general steps to installing a photovoltaic system include:
• Obtain a city zoning permit.
• Obtain a county electrical permit.
• Start construction. If lines run underground, obtain a county inspection.
• Final county inspection of construction.
• Submit documents to N.C. Utilities Commission for approval.
• Duke Energy sets meter.
• Turn on and test disconnects.
• Start using electricity or selling it back to the grid.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.