Public tours of a new, large-scale example of West Virginia’s energy-source present and future will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, May 7, at Nitro Construction Services’ solar power conversion project.
During next week’s open house event at 4300 First Ave. in Nitro, visitors can walk through the site of a 487-kilowatt solar array system employing approximately 1,200 solar panels soon to power the construction and mechanical services provider’s facilities.
Funded by NCS, development on the solar panel installation began in January, with the first phase of construction getting underway in March. The system is expected to be fully operational by June 1.
“We were awarded two different solar projects with a customer, Toyota in Alabama and the local site here in Buffalo. That got our owner interested,” NCS estimator Mickey Mullins said earlier this week. “We brought in Solar Holler and Revolt Energy to prepare bids for putting up a full-scale solar system here in Nitro to meet our utility needs.”
Mickey Mullins said that along with the cost savings it foretokens, “one of the main reasons behind us going solar is that it moves us forward in business. We just see tremendous business opportunities available for us as an electrical contractor.”
The Revolt Energy revolution
The solar panel project is operated under the aegis of Nitro Construction Services’ new subsidiary, residential, commercial and industrial solar contractor Revolt Energy, which submitted the winning construction bid.
Leading the Revolt Energy solar revolution at NCS (and other properties throughout the state) are its president, Zach Drennen, and its chief business officer, Keena Mullins. Their professional paths crossed initially while Drennen worked with Rewire Appalachia, a program affiliated with the Coalfield Development Corporation, and Keena Mullins worked at Huntington-based solar installation firm Solar Holler. When Rewire Appalachia became a partner with Solar Holler, Drennen and Keena Mullins became partners as well. In August 2019, they left their respective positions to establish Revolt Energy in tandem.
“One thing that really sparked Zach’s and my transition to founding Revolt was that I always admired Zach’s work with the Coalfield Development Corporation around workforce development,” Keena Mullins said. “We both have backgrounds in economic transition work, and we really wanted to create an organization that would be able to install larger-scale solar [projects] than residential, which is what we had been experienced with.”
“We really wanted Revolt to focus more on the commercial and industrial-scale solar, which there was really no one doing at all in the state,” Drennen added. “There were an increasing number of installers that were getting involved in the residential market, but we sort of had our eyes set a little higher on these larger systems.
“That dovetailed nicely when we encountered Nitro Construction Services; that also fit with what Nitro Construction wants to do — larger-scale industrial and commercial solar installations and solar development. There was sort of a ‘meeting of the minds’ there, in regard to what we hoped to accomplish in the industry,” he said.
Drennen said the solar panel installation at NCS is designed to offset the facility’s electrical use, including its warehouses and machine shops. “The whole system is aggregated and interconnected with itself so that it offsets all of the use going on throughout the campus. It doesn’t offset 100% of the electrical use, but it offsets a lot of it.”
And the ensuing financial savings will be substantial, he said. “It does so in a very cost-effective way. It ends up paying for itself in eight years for Nitro Construction and over the 25-year life span of the panels, that saves them hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility bills.”
“Commercial solar power costs about six cents a kilowatt,” Keena Mullins said.
Drennen said NCS also pursued the solar panel installation project to show — and showcase — its commercial viability to other entities.
Solar rising on the horizon
Keena Mullins said West Virginia is one of the only states without state-based incentives for renewable energy sources. “Even so, we were able to make this project work, without state-based incentives, without qualifying for USDA REAP [Rural Energy for America Program] funding; most of the commercial entities in the state would qualify for a 25% grant,” she said.
“The fact remains that every year, solar gets cheaper,” Drennen said. “You can’t say that about any other extractable resource.
“The residential market is really just starting to take off here in West Virginia,” he added. “There are a number of existing companies — ours, Solar Holler, Mountain View Solar and some others — that are doing well. I know all of the solar installers are actually growing, both in their business and in their size.”
Drennen said, however, that West Virginia’s commercial sector for solar remains virtually untouched. “There’s very, very little commercial solar here, but it makes such economic sense, as this project here in Nitro proves. It just makes tremendous economic sense to do that now.
“It’s a no-brainer, and I think that’s the undeniable trend, whereas 20 and 10 and maybe even five years ago, the economics weren’t great. Now it’s undeniable that it’s an affordable way to produce electricity.”
To punctuate Drennen’s statement, Keena Mullins cited a 2020 International Energy Association world energy report’s findings. “It announced that, for the first time, solar was the cheapest form of energy in history,” she said.
Job growth potential
Drennen also said the solar industry can be a boon for job growth throughout the Mountain State. He said Revolt Energy and Nitro Construction Services are union shops. “All of our installers are union electricians, so you know they’re getting a very good living wage, the benefits and all that,” he said. “These are good jobs and we’re growing. We’ll double — if not triple — our numbers this year. And we’ll probably do that again next year, and that’s true of a lot of solar installers in the state. There are a lot of career opportunities. I don’t know that there are other industries in West Virginia that are adding as many jobs as the solar industry is right now.”
Keena Mullins predicts federal regulations may also tilt further toward advancing more solar power options in the future. “Even if there’s no action at the state level,” she said, “I think we’ll see something at the federal level. The amount of power on the grid from solar as of fall of last year in West Virginia was 0.03%. There’s actually a cap in this state, a maximum, compared to where other states have mandatory minimums. The cap is 3%. If there was any kind of federally mandated legislation requiring utilities to source a percentage of their power from zero emission sources, then the need to install solar would grow exponentially, overnight.”
Solar power’s gentler impact on the environment is also a key selling point. “The use of solar, obviously, greatly reduces carbon emissions. That’s a fact. We keep records of how much carbon emissions are not being put into the atmosphere even as a result of the installations we’ve done, much less what the solar industry at large across the state and country has done,” Drennen said.
“There’s no doubt about it: The use of solar reduces carbon emissions, which is very good for this planet.”
He said the new NCS installation may open more eyes — and homes and businesses — to going solar.
“I think this is the prime example right here, the fact that Nitro Construction Services, which has been rooted in and involved heavily in the John Amos Power Plant and the coal industry as long as it has, took a good, hard look at solar and said, ‘Wow! We’re going to save a lot of money. This is a very good investment for us.’
“I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Drennen said. “I think the dominoes are going to start to fall. I think this was the first domino, to be honest.
“I think we’re going to see other large-scale commercial and industrial enterprises take hard looks at solar. Particularly if any of them are part of a Fortune 500 company, all of the larger national and multinational firms that have facilities here, they are going to be under some pressure from their boards to have green energy or carbon neutral impacts. They’re already looking for ways to do that, and solar’s an obvious choice in that regard.
“Across the nation there’s a lot of this going on, but I think in West Virginia, it’s just getting started,” Drennen said.