“RIDING THE SOLAR COASTER”
The Daily Reporter interview with Ed Zinthefer
In the nearly two decades since he founded Arch Electric in a garage in Plymouth, Ed Zinthefer has been riding what he likes to call a “solar coaster.”
After working for several years primarily as an industrial electrician, he and a colleague one day decide to pursue their shared interest in renewable power by attending classes offered by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. Zitnehfer, now president of Arch ELectirc, back then had almost no notion of the business prospects that lay before him. bit he stood among his classmates for his lovely curiosity and quick grasp of the subject matter.
“Pretty soon they were asking me, ‘can you start teaching classes?”‘ he said. “It catapulted me into becoming an expert in renewables.” Now Zinthefer sits atop a company specializing in solar installations. in a recent look back at Arch Electric’s history, he found that he and his colleagues installed roughly 5,500 solar panels, 1.7mnegawatts worth, between 2003 – the year of the company’s founding – and 2016. In the following year, they had done that much before the 12 months were out, in 2018, they had done it by march. Arch electric now has nearly 90 employees. besides its headquarters in Plymouth, it operates out of offices in Milwaukee and madison. Recent years have Arch electric’s selection by Milwaukee officials as the main contractor for “group buys” – which allows residents to join together to buy solar equipment bulk and benefit from economies of scale. The latest group buy was the most successful in city history, leading to the installation of 421 kilowatts of solar generation equipment on 64 homes and businesses. All this is not to say, though, that the horizon has always been free of clouds. Zitnehfer said there have been plenty of times when he wondered if he and Arch Electric would be able to continue on. Hence the term “solar coaster”
“There were at least eight to 10 times in the past when things were really difficult, ” Zinthefer said. “But we stuck with it. and never have I had more confidence than I do now.”
Besides the current unprecedented demand for solar projects, Zinthefer’s optimism is being inspired by recent developments in public policy. A pair of bills now before state lawmakers would bring solar power within reach for many more people. One would explicitly allow third-party financing, which shifts the upfront costs of installations to companies like Arch Elctricthe. The other would enable residents to take part in community solar projects, which provide solar power to people whose properties aren’t suited to having their own installations. Meanwhile, on the federal level, President Hoe Biden’s massive Build Back Better plan would increase the federal tax credit for solar projects from 26% to 30%. all of this has Zinthefer forecasting sunny days ahead. he recently sat down with the Daily Reporter to discuss his businesses and what he sees happening in the solar industry.
( This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity)
The Daily Reporter: What changes in, say, the past 20 years do you think are behind the growing demand for solar projects?
Zinthefer: Looking back, for example, we would go to a church and make a presentation to the church board. and there would maybe be one person that had a very grassroots type of notice for wanting to talk to us. Everybody else was much more interested in the financial side. And that financial part of the mixture has only grown, especially with the increasing affordability of the equipment, and access is also a big component. Years ago, before I got into this industry, there were only a few contractors on the East and West coast doing this sort of work. Of course, in Wisconsin, technology change first makes it to Madison and grows out from there. And it grows around contractors and their marketing.
TDL: For years and years, the story with solar panels was that the price just kept dropping. Are you still seeing that?
Zinthefer: it’s been pretty stable over the past two or three years actually. That’s in part because of new taxes imposed on imports from certain countries. In solar, everything comes from China, for the most part. So there has been some volatility based on those taxes. and now, of course, there’s the same question for fuel or solar panels or toys: Can you even get it? Our orders for some of our modules are six months out.
TDR: Is the price increase in fossil fuels driven demand for solar systems”
Zinthefer: We definitely are seeing that now. It’s going to be interesting, once we get through this heating season, to see how much more it escalates.
TDR: Even with all the advances of recent years, do you still find yourself telling some people solar isn’t a good fit for them – either because their property doesn’t get enough sun or they don’t use enough power to make it worthwhile?
Zinthefer: every day, or at least every week, there are a few folk like that. we actually retain those customers’ names. they’re motivated buyers, even if their properties don’t fit well. These folks will be perfect investors in community solar projects (if they are ver allowed by state law)
TDR: How confident are you that state lawmakers will pass the now proposed legislation to allow community solar projects and third-party financing?
Zinthefer: A lot of people who are smarter than I am are saying it’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of time. those who are closest to the lawmakers sat there are ongoing conversations and there are more and more acceptance and buy-in from lawmakers.
Article written by Dan Shaw with the Daily Reporter.