Solmentum Gathers Momentum

charlie_mixsonBay Area company comes to Santa Cruz with affordable way to go solar
With as much as 60,000 barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf per day, local economies on the brink of ruin and fragile ecosystems likely tarnished for years, there is no better time to really start thinking about what our dependency on fossil fuels is costing us. Sure BP is the evil company that may have skirted regulators and operated the unsafe rig that has caused the greatest environmental disaster in American history, but could it have been avoided if our demand for oil weren’t so insatiable?

The shift toward renewable and clean sources of energy seems to be as much a matter of culture and education as it is economic feasibility. Fossil fuels and cheap electricity are as ingrained in our national psyche as baseball and apple pie. Making the effort toward cleaner living has traditionally seemed daunting, however a new generation of renewable energy businesses are making the change easier than ever.

The latest pioneer to hit the Santa Cruz solar scene is Bay Area-based Solmentum, which opened its Santa Cruz office in March. The company is unlike their local competitors, offering a unique operation very much like a utility company: they lease space on their customers’ roofs, owning and maintaining the solar panels, then sell the electricity generated back. In exchange, the consumer agrees to buy electricity from Solmentum at a fixed rate for 18 years.

The company works with homeowners who have high electricity bills (averaging at least $100 per month), installing a system that requires no out of pocket expenses from the owners, and then insuring, maintaining and monitoring the system—all the customer does is pay for the electricity generated from the panels at a low flat rate.

“For homeowners that qualify, we get them out of these high rates and on to a low flat rate,” says Charlie Mixson, the company’s general manager for Santa Cruz County. “[We] build a system specific to their home based on their last 12 months of electricity usage.”

This idea of leasing space to solar companies and then buying electricity from the panels they operate isn’t a new one—giant retailers like Costco, Target and Wal-Mart have been doing it for years—but it is only recently that companies like Solmentum began providing the service to residential households.

Mixson says that the arrangement allows people who want to go solar, but either don’t have or don’t want to spend the high start-up cost (usually $35,000 to $50,000 for the panels and installation) to get a system on their home.

“Many homeowners want to go solar but are bothered by the up-front cost and the return on their investment,” says Mixson. “At Solmentum we allow homeowners to lower their electric bill with a flat rate, [and] save money immediately with no upfront cost.”

Jason Brown, CEO of Solmentum, which is partnered with San Francisco-based company Sun Run, says that demand for solar has been rising about 20 percent per year, and that all of their new contracts are currently backlogged three to four months.

This spike in demand is due in large part to the falling rebates from the California Solar Initiative of 2007 that have allowed companies like Solmentum to offer their services for much cheaper than they would be otherwise.

While these falling rebates may represent a current boom for the solar industry (and perhaps a slight bust once they end), they also represent the success of the California Solar Initiative to have 1,800 megawatts of California electricity be produced by solar panels—the closer that goal is to being reached, the lower the rebates.

As the time for these rebates is running out, however, other aspects of the initiative are taking effect increasing California’s solar infrastructure. Beginning Jan. 1, 2011 all developers of 50 single family homes or more will be required to offer the option of a solar energy system. Also, as of 2010 California utility companies are expected to produce 20 percent of their energy used within the state from renewable resources. An executive order signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requires that figure to be 33 percent by 2020.

Energy consultant companies have also begun cropping up to help homeowners reduce their use of energy through increased insulation, sealing drafts, and installing more efficient heating and cooling systems.

All of this combines to make the future of California’s electricity production and use a little brighter and cleaner.

Arnold Wilson, a customer of Solmentum who’s been using his energy system for close to a year now, says that apart from the money he’s saving, he feels good knowing that his home is part of the solution instead of the problem. “We’re perfectly pleased, I think it’s going really well,” he says. “I hope other people try going solar, too.”

Visit solmentum.com to learn more about Solmentum and their solar systems.

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