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Greta Carter of Brite Sky Solar sees a bright future for her company

By P. Douglas Filaroski     

Considering all the places she’s been, it wouldn’t be surprising if Greta Carter should find herself in the right place.gretanewsmall

The former Citibank executive traveled widely for 20 years, introducing new initiatives for the financial services giant. Now Carter is launching Brite Sky Solar at a time when government programs are making the renewable energy light bulb come on for many consumers.

“The interest in solar now is incredible,” Carter said. “We think northeast Florida is ready.”

Carter said she’s ready, too, as majority owner to achieve success with the Jacksonville-based company, having worked from 1984 to 2002 primarily starting up enterprises nationally and internationally for Citibank.

Her last assignment in Jacksonville, launching a PayPal-like online payment system for the financial services giant, ended with her retirement in 2002 to pursue her own entrepreneurial interests. 

She became a licensed realtor and opened 1 Zero C Realty, a full-service real estate firm in Jacksonville. Later, she created GretanJim Inc., to manage rental properties she and her husband Jim own. She also helps run Jim Carter Construction Inc.

She launched Brite Sky Solar in April to sell and install solar panels and other green energy systems in homes and businesses, just as relatively new state rebates and a recently expanded federal tax credit began to light up the market.

Three months later, in July, city-owned electric utility JEA announced it had revamped its program to supplement and buy solar power from its customers, thus improving and expanding a residential program that now includes small businesses.

JEA’s Net Metering program hooks customers using solar to the electric grid and installs a second meter that measures solar-generated electricity a customer sends back to JEA when there is excess or a customer is not using it. The customer receives a credit it can use to lower its JEA bill.

For companies like Brite Sky, these new or expanded government programs have the potential to spark business. “I see the market [for solar power] expanding,” said Jay Worley, JEA’s director of environmental programs.

Worley, who oversees the net metering program, said it’s only a matter of time before word spreads. “It’s really an educational process,” he commented.

In addition to selling and installing photovoltaic solar panels and tankless water heaters, Carter’s Brite Sky Solar company intends to operate a Solar Academy that will be open to the public to educate those interested in learning about solar power, its costs, and its benefits.

In its short life, Brite Sky has already landed contracts and installed solar systems on a handful of homes and businesses. Since April, more than 40 customers have asked for estimates, Carter said.

She said the company expects to exceed its sales projections of $1 million this year. It recently added 10 sales affiliates and expects to reach 20 sales affiliates by 2010.

Optimism about the market is not only due to a relatively new state tax rebate of $20,000 or an expanded federal tax credit of 30% over five years. A 40% drop in cost of solar panels themselves, due to improvements in technology and growth in the market, has fueled market expansion.

With these changes, the math now made sense for Ronan O’Donohoe, who is installing a 5 kilowatt solar system atop the 4,200-square-foot home at St. Johns Golf and Country Club he shares with his wife and three children.

“To me, it’s all about the dollars and cents,” O’Donohoe said. “I’m glad I get a good feeling about helping the environment, but I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make sense economically.”

Recent drops in the price of solar panels figure to decrease the average time in the United States it takes for them to pay for themselves through savings on electric bills. The average payback time nationally is expected to go from 22 years to 16 years, Glenn Harris of solar consulting firm SunCentric said in a recent New York Times article.

Florida’s $20,000 rebate program, in place since 2006, and the removal this year of a $2,000 cap on the federal tax credit program dramatically alter that equation for area customers such as O’Donohoe.

O’Donohoe said the state rebate and federal tax credits will eventually reduce his $40,000 capital expense in the solar system to $8,000, meaning the system will have paid for itself in energy savings in his home in about five years.

While an exact payback time would depend on a customer’s monthly energy use, there is wider agreement that more factors are working these days to make renewable energy systems make sense for more customers

In California, despite an economy as sluggish as Florida’s, residential installations in July increased by more than 50%.

Although California is much further ahead on the education curve than Florida, Brite Sky officials think the Sunshine State will catch up.

“If you turn on the news, all you hear is healthcare and renewable energy,” said Duke Sochalski who invested in Brite Sky as a partner after working as an executive superintendent with Jim Carter Construction.

“I think all Americans want to be green. It costs a little bit more up front, but in the long run it saves,” he said.

The spiraling residential and commercial real estate markets forced Carter and her partners to get creative in their business dealings. “It prompted us to reinvent ourselves,” Carter said.

They conducted research on possible enterprises related to real estate. They studied markets in four states, briefly considered wind power, but finally settled on solar power.

“You go to California and you see solar everywhere,” Carter said. “You come to Jacksonville—the Sunshine State— and you can’t understand why it’s not [everywhere].”

Carter capitalized the business through partnerships and recently signed on a fourth partner. The company soon will be announcing details of an expansion into Nevada.

The time seems to be right. Politically, renewable energy seems to have support from both sides of the aisle. The left feels it is the right thing to pursue environmentally and the right thinks it has the potential to provide jobs, she said.

Although it’s early, Carter said she is projecting excellent growth in Brite Sky’s revenue in 2010.

“When people start seeing all the solar panels going up in this state, it’s going to become the state’s new symbol,” she said. “I’ve never felt so right about anything in my life.”

 

SIDEBAR 1

Brite Sky Solar

Principal: Greta Carter

Headquarters: 8613 Old Kings Road South, Bldg. 500, Jacksonville, Fla.

Founded: April 2009

About Brite Sky Solar: The solar technology and installation firm specializes in photovoltaic panels and tankless water heaters for commercial and residential properties. CEO Greta Carter is a former Citibank vice president who spent nearly 20 years launching new products and programs for the company.

 

SIDEBAR 2

The birth of Brite Sky

Greta Carter and her husband’s livelihood and lifestyle revolved around real estate and construction. Then, the housing bubble burst. “We thought about what to do,” said Carter. “Where was the money? At some point in thinking out loud, Duke [Sochalski] said, ‘How about putting little windmills in backyards for wind power?’ We all laughed, but his remark led us to think about the solar industry. And here we are!”

SIDEBAR 3

Getting the word out

One of the most daunting tasks facing a new business is getting the word out to potential customers. Realizing that solar electric generation is new to northeast Florida, Carter decided her initial marketing efforts would focus largely on educating the public.

“We currently attend a lot of the trade shows,” she said. “They give us an opportunity to talk to people on their time. We also get a fair number of folks who visit our office looking for information, and we are opening up the Solar Academy, which will give folks another avenue to learn without feeling any pressure for a sale.”

In addition to education efforts, the company has invested in advertising, marketing, and Web development. Hiring a public relations specialist has also helped give the company additional media exposure—something that helps in the education process, said Carter. In the future, the company will engage an advertising and media company to help implement a comprehensive 12-month marketing strategy.

 

SIDEBAR 4

Solar by the numbers

Solar energy is a cost-effective investment that also adds resale value to a building or home. Here are examples that demonstrate the savings:

Commercial solar panel system: Assume the business spends $200,000 for a 25 kilowatt system. Florida currently has an energy rebate program, which will rebate up to $100,000 to a business that installs solar panels. Additionally, the federal government has a 30% tax credit for energy investment. The 30% tax credit on a $200,000 solar panel system would come to $60,000. Once the rebate is received and the tax credit is calculated on the business’ 2009 tax return, its net cost for the $200,000 commercial solar panel system comes to only $40,000.

A system of this size should be able to save and or earn the business approximately $700 a month in utility expenses and give a return-on-investment in approximately 4.7 years. 

Residential system: Assume a home owner installs a 5 kilowatt solar panel system for a gross cost of $40,000. The state will rebate up to $20,000. The federal tax credit is 30% of the cost ($12,000). After receiving the rebate and applying the tax credit to 2009 taxes, the net investment for a homeowner is $8,000.

A 5 kilowatt system should be able to save a homeowner approximately $140 a month in utility costs and give a full return-on-investment in approximately 4.7 years.  

 

 

 

SIDEBAR 5

How solar panels work

On a bright, sunny day, the sun shines about 1,000 watts of energy per square meter. If we could collect all that energy, most homeowners or businesses could power their buildings for free with the use of solar panels. Here’s how:

The most common type of solar panels contains photovoltaic, or PV, cells. They convert sunlight directly into energy. Photovoltaic cells are made of semiconductor materials, such as silicon, which absorb light, and hence energy. This energy knocks electrons loose and allows the electrons to flow freely.

PV cells use electric fields to force these electrons to flow in a certain direction, creating a current. By placing metal contacts at the top and bottom of PV cells, that current can be drawn off to use externally.

Not every home or building is ideal for solar panels. Non-tracking PV systems in the northern hemisphere need to point south and be inclined at an angle equal to the area’s latitude. They should never be shaded by trees or buildings. If just one of 36 cells is shaded, power production will be reduced by 50%.

Because PV systems do not produce energy when the sun is not shining, owners should store energy in batteries or to connect to an electric grid to receive electricity at night or on overcast days.

Jacksonville-based JEA offers a net metering program that provides electricity when solar power does not. Better yet, the program buys excess solar power from the customer and deducts the credit from the customers electric bill.

Source: HowStuffWorks.com

 

SIDEBAR 6

Net metering for energy savings

Net metering is for customers who choose to add renewable generation, such as solar power, to their businesses or homes. Customers offset the electricity they would have purchased from a utility, such as Jacksonville-based JEA.

Customer-owned renewable generation up to 100 kilowatts is allowed under JEA’s net metering policy and saves customers the cost of expensive batteries. Generation exceeding that amount requires a specific purchase power agreement with JEA.

Here’s how it works:

• Customers are charged for the metered electricity received from JEA each month.

• Customers are credited for the metered kilowatts they send to JEA each month from their own renewable generation systems.

• They accrue credit balances month to month through the end of calendar year. Like some cell-phone plans, they can roll over credits.

• At the end of the calendar year, JEA pays out any credit balance due to the customer. Customers can track credit balances onto their monthly billing statement.

• Net metering programs vary from utility to utility.

JEA customers interested in net metering must install solar systems within the guidelines of JEA’s engineering standard DPE-902. This standard requires equipment to protect JEA personnel working on circuits where solar systems may be grid-tied.

To apply, JEA requires customers to read, review, and sign several documents: Net Metering Policy 2009, JEA PV Application Form 2009, JEA Net Metering Standardized Interconnection Agreement 2009, W-9 Request for Taxpayer ID# and Cert. 2009

Jay Worley
JEA
Director, Environmental Programs, can provide additional information. He can be contacted at 904-665-8729 or worlja@jea.com.


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