Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Jesse Wear and I am the Regional Sales Manager at Itek. I am primarily responsible for the Washington State market.
I do the day to day customer interface, finding new leads, and bringing new customers in. Most of our current customer base is in Washington based on the Renewable Cost Recovery Program.
So you are a growing company then?
Yes. We are growing. We have doubled our capacity year after year. We started in 2011. Our first full production year was in 2012. In 2014 we actually tripled our capacity. Last year—2015—we did twenty four megawatts, which is roughly 85,000 modules.
A module being a single family home?
No, a module is a single solar panel.
How many modules go on the average white picket fence style single-family home?
It depends on the energy needs of the customer. It’s also dependent on the potential roof space. You’re ideally looking for a southern-facing roof. So you are going to be limited by how much roof space is available. You can do east and west-facing as well. They are only slightly less efficient. But southern-facing with no shading is the ideal spot. Depending on how much space you are working with eight to twenty-four modules would be a typical size. We palletize in stacks of twenty. Twenty is pretty close to average. Eight would be a small size. But again it based on the energy needs of the house—what the home load is and how efficient everything in the house is.
The way that the program is set up does not incentivise overpowering—producing more power than you use. If you have a system that is larger that what your home’s load requires your return on investment is going to be pushed out because the credits you receive from the utility company might be beyond what your overall yearly bill is.
So most people are trying to match solar energy production identically to the amount of energy they would consume in their house?
Yeah. And there are a few rare birds who are just gung-ho about renewables and who are willing to put on as much solar as possible even at an extra cost and are totally comfortable pumping the additional energy into the grid with no direct benefit to themselves. But again that’s five percent—maybe. Cost is a large driver—the return on investment—when people are making that decision.
In an average installation when can a customer expect a return on investment?
It obviously depends on the equipment you use. Right now the return on investment for an Itek system is about six to eight years depending on what district you are in. Because the renewable cost recovery program has been so popular, there are some regions that have stopped taking applications for the program. In those areas customers are not able to get the additional fifty-four-cents-a-kilowatt-hour-adder up to $5,000 a year which is a driver for bringing down the time it takes to return the initial investment.
So is this home base?
Yep, this is headquarters. We have been here since 2011.
We did open a sister facility in Minneapolis. They have been going for a couple years now. I think this year they are going to do about four megawatts total but the large portion of that billed process occurs in this facility. So it is fair to say that between Minnesota and Washington state those modules are being produced primarily here in this factory.
We have experienced exponential growth since our founding. We are currently working with Port of Bellingham on a new building. The large facility down on Cornwall, near the beach.
The whole operation will move down there?
No, we’ll keep this facility and will transfer our staff over to the new facility.
It’s a little closer to downtown.
Yeah. I live three blocks up the street. I am pretty excited about that.
It looks like we will be in there in 2017 in early Q2.
We should be able to produce sixty-two megawatts right off the bat with the ability to expand to 100 megawatts. We are all extremely excited about that.
This current facility will be held onto for R&D and niche project application. Itek does have some partnerships currently in the works for unique module designs that we would produce out of this facility. Then we would do our bread and butter—sixty cell, high efficiency output modules—out at the new facility.
We have positioned ourselves as a high efficiency manufacturer from day one. Monocrystalline cells tend to have a higher efficiency than polycrystalline cells, which is what you see in a lot of Chinese manufacturing companies. That means we have a pretty significant power density which allows us to compete with the other large manufacturers both domestic and international who are all in the high efficiency range.
Another product that will be produced in the new facility is a seventy-two cell module that would be applicable for commercial application. But you do start to see those utilized recently in residential application install as well.
How much of the supply chain do you guys handle—from design to manufacture to installation? Do you do all three phases?
We don’t do installation. We are a manufacturer. We don’t sell directly to homeowners. So essentially you need to have a contractor’s license in order to do business directly with us.
We do do all of our own design work, and basically everything up to the installer’s shop. Then it is up to the installer to go out and sell the projects. Our installers are our sales force because we don’t have direct contact with the homeowner.
The other day I read that solar panels perform better at lower temperatures and because of that the Pacific Northwest is an ideal spot for solar. Do I have the facts right?
Yeah. The panels will still generate with UVV. Even diffused light will still generate energy. A cloudy day will not produce as much energy but it will continue to produce.
They are more efficient when they stay cool. If you are looking at a system that is in the Southwest—Arizona, California—you are going to see a drop in energy production as the day goes on. It is a little counterintuitive. The east side of the Cascades where it is really sunny but not nearly as hot as the Southwest is pretty good. You see a lot of solar farms out there as well.
But even on the west side of the Cascades we have pretty good resources. If you look at countries such as Germany they actually have less irradiance than we have but they have been able to accommodate their energy needs beyond 100%.
The big motivating factor for adoption on a national scale comes down to energy costs. Here in Washington state a large portion of our energy mix is hydro which keeps the costs fairly low. Down in California energy costs are significantly higher which is why you see a higher adoption rate for solar down there.
It is counterintuitive, but Washington state, and Oregon are good candidates for solar.
The other part of that is keeping the modules clean. We have rain that comes through and wipes off the dust every once in awhile. Down in the desert you don’t have that as often so you have to hire cleaning companies to clean modules so you are not losing any output to dust. Whereas in the Pacific Northwest you might not even need to clean your modules though it is a good idea to wash them off about once a year.
On the new ASB trail you can see a bunch of solar panels through the fence. Where does that power go?
That’s actually a really cool project. That’s our community solar project. It was developed in a partnership with the Port of Bellingham.
It’s beneficial three ways.
Itek management donated equipment a combination of outdated equipment and testing equipment—for obtaining data. Itek can use it as a testing site if we are looking at some new technology—some DC optimizers or microinverters. It gave us the ability to write off some equipment that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to use.
The Port of Bellingham receives the energy for free in exchange for letting us use the space.
Then the employees themselves who cleared the land and did the install became part shareholders in the system. At the end of the year the revenue is split part way between the employees.
Not only that but it is on a brown site. The abatement pond is heavily polluted and although there are plans to clean it up currently it’s not being used to any beneficial effect.
That’s why there’s that giant fence around it. It’s not safe, but it’s safe enough for solar panels.
It’s perfect. And you have the reflection off the pond—it is a great testing site.
Then they put the trail around it which allows folks who are walking to learn a little bit about solar.
What brought you to Bellingham? Did you grow up here?
I grew up in Vancouver Washington.
I came up here for Western. I was actually a Psychology major.
Psychology to Sales? I can see it.
It makes a little bit of sense, yeah. [laughs]
I actually got involved in sales through one of my professors who I was doing research with. Her husband Karl Unterschuetz is the Director of Business Development for Itek. I met him through lab dinners and he asked me what I was doing after graduation. He presented me with a unique opportunity, I joined the team and have been here for three years now.
What do you like about Bellingham? What’s your favorite thing to do here?
Ooh. Where do you start?
I love Bellingham for multiple reasons. I am a sailor and I like to hike. Those two on are enough on their own.
The community in general—I have met very few people here who I didn’t enjoy having a conversation with. Everyone seems to be pretty connected. You don’t get that feeling in a big city. I visited UW and didn’t even put in an application because of the disconnect—I felt like a little ant in a big anthill. But I came to Bellingham and saw the campus, the greenery and the water—it’s kind of hard to ignore the appeal of it.
But what has kept me here is well, being connected with Itek and what we’re doing. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity, especially being a smaller manufacturer based in a community that believes in renewables. We are able to exert effort in what feels like a community goal. I am sure you are familiar with the Energy Prize. We have some pretty strong proponents in town. Yeah Bellingham has been great for Itek and vice versa.
I have no plans to leave any time soon.
What’s the best kept secret? When you have family come up from Vancouver what is the one place that you have to show them?
I may be a little biased but I would have to say my boat out on the bay.
Or even just the music scene. It seems like we are able to bring in some great talent for how small we are.
There are also so many good restaurants in Bellingham. It’s a pretty well-rounded cultural experience. I do have quite a few visitors who come up just to enjoy it.
How would you direct a homeowner in Bellingham who says I want to check out this solar thing. What would you tell someone who wants to put an array on their house?
We do get phone calls from homeowners and we are happy to talk to them, but the first step is to talk to your local installers. We have three well established installers pretty close to us. I would say reach out to them and get a bid. I always advise getting competing bids and then taking it from there. The sales process, the bidding process, is pretty informative. Any of these installers are going to be able to walk a homeowner through, explaining the technology and the expected return on investments—what the offset is going to be for their energy needs.
And direct them as to how to take advantage of the subsidies and rebates available to them.
Yeah. And they can help the homeowner work through a financing process. Not everybody can afford to pay for a system outright but there are good financing resources here in the state to make it affordable. During the bidding process they may also find out that a particular home is not ideal for solar—if it has extremely large trees or there’s not a suitable roof surface. That is something that they can inform you about as well. We are always happy to take phone calls about our product or about solar in general but ultimately the installer is the first step.