Solar installer leans on community generosity to make nonprofit dream come true

Carlson Electric operates in one of the more frigid markets in the country, installing solar in northwest Wisconsin and just across the border from northeast Minnesota. The heavily rural community is not a fast-growing market and requires some creativity when working with certain clients.

Carlson Electric

“I believe it’s more relationship-oriented here,” said Tim Dilley, director of business development for Carlson Electric (No. 366 on the list of the best solar contractors of 2021). ‘Who you know, what you know, how well you take care of people. It’s kind of a salt of the earth market – you give a handshake; you do what you say.”

Come winter, solar installations slow down. This allows contractors to spend more time on each project, which is especially useful for projects that cannot be financed by traditional methods. That extra time was vital in bringing a 120 kW solar system to the affordable residential buildings managed by Nancy Mercer at the Sawyer County Nonprofit Housing Development.

Mercer previously worked for the county housing authority for 15 years, during which time solar energy was often discussed as a way to reduce electricity costs for tenants in affordable housing. These older tenants often live on a steady income, so cutting costs for them is part of the job, Mercer explains. She carried that solar installation ambition with her to Sawyer County Nonprofit.

Coincidentally, the complex Mercer previously managed was across the street from one of its current properties, and the housing authority eventually added solar power to that building’s roof. Carlson Electric took care of that project, and during installation, Dilley and Mercer connected and began planning PV on Sawyer County Nonprofit properties.

The first step was to find funding for a project like this. The physical installations were no challenge, barring bad weather, but complications often arise when installing solar for nonprofits like Mercer’s. Not to mention the different interconnection requirements for the three properties where she hoped to have solar installed.

To handle the complex financing, Carlson Electric partnered with: Legacy Solar Co-op, a Wisconsin-based organization that was founded in 2014 when there was no institutional loan program to fund solar energy in the state. One of the services Legacy Solar Co-op offers is peer-to-peer loans for solar projects with non-profit organizations.

“We are engaged in matchmaking,” said Kurt Reinhold, president and CEO of Legacy Solar Co-op. “We match community institutions that want to do solar and connect them with community members who are not Wall Street investors, but who want to support solar, or in this case seniors, and help them lower their electric bills.”

Carlson Electric

With the help of Legacy Solar Co-op’s consultants, Carlson Electric has earned a solar module endowment from Renew Wisconsin’s Solar energy for good program and received financial incentives from Focus on energy, a group that works with state-owned companies to promote energy-efficient developments. Together, that covered about $55,000 of the project. Next, Legacy Solar Co-op members bought bonds to raise a $65,000 loan, and another individual member covered the remaining costs.

Solar was built in six multi-family homes on three separate properties in Hayward, Winter and Radisson. The total project cost $255,000, with Sawyer County Nonprofit only owed $250 upfront. The system came online in May 2020, and Sawyer County Nonprofit has the option to purchase the array after six years. The residents immediately expressed their enthusiasm.

“They might be older people and they might not understand everything, but they were super excited to move forward,” Mercer said. “When the panels went up and they turned on, some tenants came into my office and showed me their electric bills and some tenants just had to pay their meter fee.”

Although Wisconsin does not lead the United States in solar development, it is a state where groups and contractors work together to make solar energy a reality, despite a lack of state support and institutional loans.

“Without all these different resources and putting them together, there would have been no way for this project to succeed,” Dilley said.


This story was featured exclusively in our Top Solar Contractors 2021 issue. Check out the issue and full list of the best solar installers in the US here.

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