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Serial solar entrepreneur

When Asani Development was looking to create the concept for a new residential development on Bainbridge Island several ySerial solar entrepeneurears ago — in the midst of a slow real estate market — the development team knew they would have to come up with something unique. As they were exploring ideas for sustainable living including energy efficiency, Washington state adopted a new program to incentivize use of solar energy.

“Solar incentives were adopted (by the state) so it made economic sense. We decided it would be a very interesting challenge,” said Marja Preston, president of Asani and the lead of the team that developed what is known as the Grow Community.

The goal was to make the entire neighborhood a net-zero energy community and follow the principles of the One Planet Living program.
There were multiple challenges but one in particular was a question of economics. “For solar, there was only one manufacturer in the state and it was expensive,” said Kelly Samson, one of the original Asani developers of Grow.

For Samson, who has founded various enterprises in the United States and in Europe, the answer was obvious. “We started looking at how to get more manufacturing in the state,” he said.

He met John Flanagan, who had extensive experience owning and operating manufacturing companies around the world. He had an idea that came after several years of research and planning — for a photovoltaic plant in Washington — but he needed a partner and he needed capital. Enter Samson.

“We became that second (solar panel) manufacturer in the state,” Samson said.

Kelly Samson stands next to an itek Energy solar panel array outside the APS America and Blue Frog Solar LLC headquarters in Poulsbo, holding a third-generation microinverter that connects to four solar modules and is currently being beta-tested. This solar array is the only installation in North America that has the new product. Photo by Rodika Tollefson That was about four years ago and today, itek Energy, based in Bellingham, has 35 full-time employees and is the largest solar manufacturer in the state, with the capacity to produce enough panels annually to produce more than 25 megawatts of solar energy per year.

For Samson, that economic question for the Grow project was the beginning of a new path. He eventually sold his interest in Asani, and is now focused on the opportunities presented by a growing solar industry.

The panels — usually placed on a rooftop — are the most visible part of a solar project. But for them to work, the installation needs a microinverter, a device that converts the DC power created by photovoltaics to AC power that a house needs. “And it needs to make that transition in harmony with the grid. The microinverter has to make changes constantly in real time,” Samson said.

Through itek’s third-party testing lab, Samson got introduced to APS Global, a manufacturer and distributor of microinverters. Its products were unique because they’re based on a chip, which means it can be easily reprogrammed. For example, if one microinverter can serve two solar modules, it is less expensive. “I liked the technology because it can be so nimble,” Samson said.

So what does Samson do? He forms an independently owned subsidiary of APS Global, called APS America. APS Global develops and owns the intellectual property, while APS America uses the “recipe” to manufacture and develop the devices. The major market for APS Global is in Australia and China, while APS America’s major market is in Hawaii. GTM Research ranked APS as No. 2 in global market share among the top microinverter suppliers in 2013, based on shipments.

Samson, who lives on Bainbridge Island, said he had no idea he would base his company in Kitsap County. “I didn’t see it coming. When we looked at employees in Kitsap County, the quality was amazing,” he said.
APS America is located in a nondescript building off Hostmark Street in Poulsbo, where the microinverters for the Washington market are manufactured (the ones distributed outside of Washington are made in China). A second company, Blue Frog Solar, was created as the marketing arm to distribute itek,  APS America and other products, including solar packages. The two businesses employ 13 full-timers and several part-timers in Poulsbo, and they’re in growth mode. The company works with several installers from around the state to offer its products.

Samson said APS America has outgrown its facility for manufacturing, so he’s looking for ways to expand both the space and employee base.

Quick to point out that the success of APS America is not about him but about his employees, Samson likes to stay under the radar. But his passion about the solar industry is obvious, as he talks about the challenges and the potential of the industry. He’s also extended his passion into charitable work, as the co-founder of Extend the Day. The nonprofit organization, based on Bainbridge Island, distributes worldwide an inexpensive, compact solar-powered light for free to children who don’t have electricity. The goal is to especially make an impact on education and to replace kerosene lighting, which is expensive and can pose danger.

Growth potential

The Washington State Legislature passed a bill in 2005 for residential and commercial solar-array owners to get paid for the power they produced. At the same time, the federal government offers tax credits and rebates. Over the past few years, as interest has grown, the cost of solar has also decreased.

“The number of users is growing exponentially because prices are going down,” Samson said. He said it cost $5.50 per watt to produce panels when itek first started, and it’s about half that now. Part of the growing interest is due to available financing — where solar projects in the past could not receive financing on their own, now many financial institutions offer solar package deals.

“The phrase in the industry is that solar is contagious,” Samson said. “The number of people using it is growing exponentially but it’s still nascent.”
APS America is poised to respond to the increased demand, according to Samson. Its most popular product, the second-generation YC-500A-MIW, is designed to handle two solar modules, but the company is beta-testing a third-generation microinverter that works with four modules — a product geared more toward the commercial market. The YC-1000 is about two to three months away from the market, and the APS headquarters in Poulsbo is the first place to have one installed.

According to Samson, APS is the only company that’s has been able to develop a two-module microinverter with success, and is now leading the way as the only manufacturer with a four-module micro-inverter.
Its performance is being watched from the Poulsbo location as well as from China, using an APS device that can monitor the solar production remotely via the Internet.

“Customers can see production daily and over time in watts, and it’s in real-time,” Samson said. The device, called ECU (energy communication unit), collects module performance data from the microinverter and adds it to an online database. A special web-based program allows the property owner to view the information, and APS America has additional controls to help with troubleshooting.

The monitoring capability was a crucial part in the Grow project, which is the largest solar neighborhood in the state. The goal is to show that the neighborhood is carbon-free for eight years.

“Not a lot of developers monitor performance, so that is unique,” Asani’s Preston said.

The Grow Community may be a good example of why solar is bound to become even more enticing with time. Asani considered other energy-efficient options but opted for PV panels because a large portion of the cost would be paid through incentives.

“Itek made the project viable because of pricing coming down,” Preston said.
Homeowners had the option of choosing or declining the solar package — and every home in the first phase, which has been completely sold out, includes the optional package.

“People moving into these houses will not have an energy bill,” Preston said. “The homes all sold very quickly, we didn’t even list them.”
The company plans to start presales of the second phase in a few months and Preston expects the solar package to continue to be in demand. She notes that not only the costs are decreasing but the efficiency of the technology is also improving.

One major problem in the industry is mass storage, the ability to efficiently capture solar energy when production is plentiful, and store it for use when production is down. Samson believes that when that problem is solved, solar use will become ubiquitous.

“Renewable energy is rapidly growing,” he said. “We’re at a tipping point. Solar is in the critical mass.”

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