I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bill Stillinger, an energy industry veteran, lifetime member of Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and General Manager of the solar installer cooperative Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics. Bill offered his unique point of view on solar ownership.
I am General Manager and President of the Board of Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics Cooperative, otherwise known as PV2. It is a unique organization because it is organized under Massachusetts law as a worker-owned cooperative. We install PV for residential, commercial, and municipal entities. Personally, my job is to help ensure that the management of the company is done well. Although PV2 may be socially advanced for a small business because we put our employees and customers first, rather than our financial interests, we are concerned about financial responsibilities. I believe all of these areas feed each other.
Q: How are you involved in solar? Why did you choose a career in solar?
I got interested in solar when I was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I took a job out of graduate school at Northeast Utilities, where I worked for nearly 30 years in different capacities for research and development for various departments and for the corporation overall. That’s where I took serious attention to solar energy because part of the research we were doing to alternative forms involved wind turbines, fuel cells, and PV. When I retired in 2001, the opportunity arose to help advise PV2. I’ve been with them almost since the very beginning.
Q: Generally speaking, what does ownership mean to you?
I am a homeowner and proud of it. It’s a fabulous question. I just finished reading a book “Owning Our Future” by Marjorie Kelly. She lays out the argument for ownership in simple terms. She also talks about what an integral role ownership plays in maintaining control of your destiny, and how ownership confers upon you a responsibility not only to yourself, but also to your community. These are just basic truths that we don’t hear often enough, so I recommend that book to anyone who’s interested.
Q: Do you believe that solar ownership is important?
I do very much. All the value that can be realized, all the benefits will be accrued to the person who owns the system, if they can just get over the first cost hurdle. The solar leasing companies extract a large value of the system, and give a little rate back to the person who is hosting the system. And solar offers a very respectable rate of return. It’s not just an ecologically important thing. Financially, it is a very important thing to be an owner of solar.
A bit of responsibility and maintenance comes with solar ownership, but it’s small by comparison to the routine tasks of homeownership. What you gain is a new awareness of how this system is producing energy day after day. You can monitor it on the internet. That kind of consciousness is so important. For the past few decades, there has been so much waste. Having solar means a new awareness to say “we don’t need to have those floodlights on in the backyard all night long.” We come from an era of cheap energy and we are not in that era any longer.
Q: Why is solar ownership important for installers?
When you say “installers” if all we did was show up at the house with our trucks and put them up on the roof, then the financial aspects are not relevant to us. However, at PV2 we are interested in two things: 1) if the homeowner owns the system, then we know the homeowner will care for the system. It will last for decades. It’s critical that the homeowner takes responsibility for this. Not some California company that I send a check to from time to time. This belongs to our family, we get a lot of benefit from it and we are going to care for it. 2) Its part of our mission as a business to encourage this behavior. We don’t want to make a bunch of money, swoop in and swoop out. We are located in Greenfield, MA and we are not going anywhere.
Q: Do you think that solar can be a smart investment for a homeowner?
It’s a good financial investment. I won’t get pinned down in numbers but if you look out 10-15 years, then it’s a no brainer, if you have that kind of long view. The environmental benefits are huge compared to conventional generation. It’s not totally free of any lifecycle costs to the environment, but nothing is. This is as close as anything I’ve come across.
There’s the social aspect. You may have a town or a village that puts up a lot of solar energy. The community has the sense that it’s taking care of itself in terms of its energy profile. That moves things ever so slightly. It moves the region away from other politically or environmentally-unstable energy resources. Even natural gas has a huge environmental cost. So there’s a political and social benefit to investing in solar.
Q: What does Solar Wealth mean to you?
What is wealth? Let’s say that wealth has to do with the personal and collective well-being of an individual or family or community. Solar energy is a wealth producer and it comes in the form of being a positive form of energy with respect to social and economic and environmental factors. It is a wealth producer when we do not have to spend $40, $50 or $60 at the gas station, and those $60 stay in our wallets. Solar is a wealth producer when we don’t have to pay health care costs for our kids to have normal respiratory health because of coal and other junk in the air. And when we are able to talk with our neighbors about the benefits that we are getting from solar energy and have them join in, have our neighbors participate in that transformation into a solar energy future. This is about accumulating wealth in all of its forms.
You could define Solar Wealth in terms of dollars, but I maintain that there are a lot of non-dollar considerations. The non-monetary effects are every bit as important once you have solar installed. But the decision to take the plunge has got to be a financial decision.
Q: What does Solar Wealth mean for installers like PV2?
Well, the obvious answer is that we can provide employee benefits and jobs for people working in the field that they’re happy to work in, that they feel is important. These are jobs that are meaningful for our employees’ principally because the technology is a good fit all around. The values that are driving our business and driving our employees are the same values that they hold with their families. They don’t have to put down their ethics to go to work. That means a lot for general satisfaction and happiness.