2016 Penny Per Watt Champions

PPWBadgeNine businesses have pledged to donate one cent to MREA per watt of renewable energy capacity they install in 2016. Montana’s solar industry is strong and growing fast, and these businesses are committed to ensuring that MREA has the resources it needs to keep up with critical policy work, consumer education, industry trainings, and market development. Please join us in thanking our Penny Per Watt Champions!

MREA has been talking with owners of each Penny Per Watt Champion business about how they got into the solar industry and what it’s like to work as a solar installer in Montana. They have some fascinating stories to share! Click on the business name below to read all about it.

Onsite Energy
Sundance Solar Systems
Oasis Montana
Harvest Solar
Independent Power Systems
Baker Light Industries
Jordan Solar (profile coming soon!)
Kenworthy Electric
Bozeman Green Build (profile coming soon!)


Onsite Energy
A conversation with Orion Thornton

Orion Thornton and Conor Darby, owners of Onsite Energy

Orion Thornton and Conor Darby, owners of Onsite Energy

Orion Thornton, co-owner of Onsite Energy along with Conor Darby, talked to MREA in March 2016 about how he fulfilled his dream of building a career in solar in his home state of Montana.

How did you get into the solar business?
I grew up off the grid in Northwest Montana, which sparked my interest in alternative energy. In 2002, after taking a weeklong renewable energy workshop, I realized I could make a career of it. In 2006 I completed a two-year solar design and installation degree at San Juan College in New Mexico. After finishing the degree I came back to Montana to regroup, and was prepared to move out of state to find a job in the solar industry. But it turned out Independent Power Systems (in Bozeman) was hiring, and given the level of training I had received I was a good fit to comeon as a designer/installer. I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to build my career here in Montana.

An Onsite Energy project in Yellowstone National Park

An Onsite Energy project in Yellowstone National Park

Tell me about starting Onsite Energy.
Owning my own business had always been the goal, and I went for it in 2012. Conor joined as co-owner of the business soon after. We’ve grown fast since 2012 and have installed more than 750 kilowatts of solar. Combined with the projects we completed while at IPS, Conor and I have been directly involved in the installation of nearly 2 megawatts of solar capacity throughout the state. In addition to Conor and myself, we currently employ a full time installation manager and two full-time installers during the summer months, as well as a salesperson.

What’s your favorite thing about working in the solar industry in Montana?
Being a contributor to a strong job-creating industry while at the same time having a positive impacton the environmental health of our communities.

Why did you sign up as a Penny Per Watt Champion?
It was a no-brainer for us, having been directly involved with MREA for over a decade and knowing how vital MREA is to the future of Montana’s solar industry.


Sundance Solar Systems
A conversation with Henry Dykema

Henry Dykema, owner of Sundance Solar Systems

Henry Dykema, owner of Sundance Solar Systems

In April 2016, MREA talked with Henry Dykema, owner of Sundance Solar Systems, about how he’s seen Montana’s solar industry change over the past 25 years.

How did you get into solar?
It had always been an interest of mine. I grew up back East, and one of my neighbors was solar pioneer Jeffrey Fowler, author of “The Evolution of an Independent Home.” I ended up getting a master’s degree in wildlife biology, but took several solar courses on the side. When my wife Barbara and I decided to move to Montana in 1992, we jumped into solar with both feet. We built our own off-grid solar home in Luther (near Red Lodge), where we’ve lived for 25 year now and raised two children. In 1994, we put out our shingle, and that was the beginning of Sundance Solar Systems.

An 80 kilowatt solar parking structure installed by Sundance Solar Systems

An 80 kilowatt solar parking structure installed by Sundance Solar Systems

How has Montana’s solar industry changed since the 1990s?
In the ‘90s, there was no market yet for grid-tied solar, so we worked on a lot of off-grid projects. Since 1999, the year Montana’s net metering law was passed, the grid-tied market has grown year by year and now it dwarfs the off-grid market. The size of projects has increased too. At first, a 2 kilowatt project seemed big to me. Now I just finished installing an 80 kilowatt project in Fishtail, Montana. Altogether I’ve installed more than 1 megawatt (1,000 kilowatts) of solar over the years.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?
First of all, I love the technology. It’s pretty cool that we’ve reached a point in my lifetime where we can generate energy directly from the sun and not have to wait millions of years for the dinosaurs to decompose into carbon-based fuel.  Another thing I like is the opportunity to meet a wide range people that I would otherwise never meet. For instance, I’m working with a guy now who lives in a very remote part of Montana and has lived all his life without electricity.  A lot of people have told me I should write a book about all the characters I meet doing this work. Maybe I will someday.

Why did you sign up as a Penny Per Watt Champion?
Because MREA is critically important. Having a venue where all of us in the renewable energy field can gather and put our heads together on all the various topics from policy to technology is absolutely critical, especially in a state like Montana where we’re all so spread out. And as a side note, it’s such an awesome group of people. I really like and respect all of the individuals. [Aw shucks, Henry, we like you too.]


Oasis Montana
A conversation with Chris Daum

Chris Daum, owner of Oasis Montana

Chris Daum, owner of Oasis Montana

In April 2016, MREA talked with Chris Daum, owner of Oasis Montana, about her unique home office and long history in Montana‘s solar industry.

You have a very unique home office. Can you tell me about it?
The story goes back to 1980, when I first drove into the Bitterroot Valley on a road trip from Cincinnati with my then-husband. We never left. We bought 5 acres north of Stevensville and built an 8 by 8 foot tar paper shack. After several expansions over the years, my home office is now 1,400 square feet with 5.7 kilowatts of solar on the roof, plus a small wind turbine and more than 30 varieties of fruit trees. It’s been a long road to this point, and in fact we used an outhouse until 2004. I guess we were pioneers. It was a heck of a lot of fun, but now at the age of 60 I sure wouldn’t want to do it again.

Chris Daum's home office in Stevensville, Montana

Chris Daum’s home office in Stevensville, Montana

How did you get into solar?
I started working for [solar business] Sunelco in 1989 as their office manager. As their business grew I got into shipping and sales, and learned the technical side of it. I was ready to make the leap and start my own business based out of my home in 1999. For the first five years it was just me. Now I have one full-time employee and a local electrician that I call as needed.

What does Oasis Montana do?
We install a lot of battery-based solar systems for remote off-grid homes, as well as some grid-tied systems. We also have a line of high-efficiency appliances. And we do a lot of solar water pumping for homes, livestock, riparian areas, even fish farms. We’ve sold equipment for solar water pumping systems in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, as well as all over the U.S. Only about 30% of our businesses is in the state of Montana.

What’s your favorite thing about working in the solar industry?
The people who are into it are cool people, and they’re enthused. It’s the people that keep me going. To be able to get power from sunlight or from the wind…in a way it’s like magic, and you’re helping to connect people with magic.

Why are you supporting MREA as a Penny Per Watt Champion?
You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. MREA has been so good for renewable energy businesses in this state, and I want to support that in any way I can.


Harvest Solar
A conversation with Kyle MacVean

Kyle MacVean and Brad Van Wert, co-owners of Harvest Solar

Kyle MacVean and Brad Van Wert, co-owners of Harvest Solar

MREA talked in May 2016 with Kyle MacVean, co-owner of Harvest Solar (with Brad Van Wert) about his surprising introduction to the solar business and what it’s like to be a solar installer in Montana.

How did you get into the solar business?
I got into solar eating pancakes at four o’clock in the morning in Rapelje, Montana, in the middle of a 24 hour bike race. Seriously. It was 2007, and at that diner in Rapelje I met a guy, Rob Carlson, who at the time was working for [Bozeman solar firm] Independent Power Systems. I had never given much thought to solar, but the way he described it I was intrigued. I have a construction background, and I was drawn to the technical, hands-on aspect of solar installation. It really was like a lightbulb going off in my head, and it had a ripple effect in my life. Soon I managed to get a temporary job with Independent Power Systems, which turned into a full time job, and eventually I was their lead installer.

Tell me about starting Harvest Solar.
Brad and I had been colleagues at IPS, and we thought we’d make good business partners because I’m very technical and good at working with my hands, and Brad is great at marketing and designing projects. We launched Harvest Solar in January 2012, and four years later things are going great. In addition to Brad and me, we now have two full-time employees. We installed close to 300 kilowatts of solar last year, and it looks like we’re going to far surpass that this year. The future looks bright.

A Harvest Solar project in Montana's Paradise Valley

A Harvest Solar project in Montana’s Paradise Valley

What are your favorite things about working in the solar business in Montana?
First of all, my customers. I love being able to take a project from conception to completion. You start off sitting with someone at their kitchen table, not knowing each other, and by the end of the project you’re standing in front of the inverter ready to turn it on, as friends. That’s really cool. Another thing, installing in Montana, especially off grid, I get exposed to some wild, crazy, and beautiful places that I never would have the chance to see otherwise. And finally, installing in Montana keeps us on our toes because we see so many variables here that just don’t exist in other places, like the crazy swings in temperature. It’s always exciting doing installations in the fall, winter and spring, keeping our crew safe on a roof.

Why are you supporting MREA as a Penny Per Watt Champion?
I really appreciate that we have an organization here in the state that’s keeping its finger on the pulse of policy change, and sending us up-to-date information about policy developments and training opportunities.  That allows me to focus on growing my business, knowing that MREA has my back.


Independent Power Systems
A conversation with Tony Boniface

Tony Boniface, Owner and President of Independent Power Systems

Tony Boniface, Owner and President of Independent Power Systems

In July 2016 MREA talked with Tony Boniface, Owner and President of Independent Power Systems, about installing the first net metered system in Montana and how his small Bozeman business expanded to three states and several dozen employees.

How did you get in to solar?
I studied electrical engineering in college and worked at IBM after I graduated. It was a good job, but when I learned about solar in the late ‘80s, I knew it was what I wanted to do as a career. There wasn’t much literature on solar back then, or many training courses, but I learned about Solar Energy International and attended a two week training of theirs in 1992. I had the good fortune of having Richard Perez, founded of HomePower Magazine, as my instructor. After that I was so motivated to pursue solar as my career that I jumped ship [from IBM] without a job lined up.

So how did you end up starting Independent Power Systems?
At a solar conference in 1993 I met people from the solar distributor SunWize, and soon after I started working for them as their first engineer. That was in Newpaltz, New York. After two years at SunWize my entrepreneurial spirit was raging and I’d always wanted to move out west, so I picked up and moved to Bozeman in 1995, and started Independent Power Systems in 1996. I was solo for three years, then hired my first employee in 1999. Also in 1999 Montana’s net metering law was passed, and we had the honor of installing the first grid-connected solar system in Montana, in the little town of Amsterdam. The grid-connected solar market grew rapidly from there and by 2005 I had four or five employees. Also in 2005 I opened our Boulder, Colorado office.

What made you decide to expand to Colorado?
In 2004 Colorado passed a law that provided a substantial incentive for solar. I could see that the solar market was going to take off there, so I moved down to Boulder in 2005, keeping the Bozeman branch open, and started business all over again. As I had expected the market boomed in Colorado, and within three years I had almost 40 employees in that office. Today we have about 30. Then in 2010 I made the bold move to expand to Massachusetts and opened an office in Beverly, north of Boston. It’s been a really good market out there and we have six employees in that office.

Solar array installed by IPS at Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman (44.35 kW)

Solar array installed by IPS at Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman (44.35 kW)

How is Montana’s solar market different from the other states you work in?
Montana is great on a number of levels. It’s easy to get permitting, easy to move forward with projects, low hassles. That keeps our costs down which makes solar more affordable for customers, which is important given the low cost of electricity in Montana.

What made you decide to support MREA through the Penny Per Watt program?
I actually helped form MREA back in the day. In the late ‘90s there was no coordination among businesses in Montana’s fledgling solar industry until a meeting hosted by the National Center for Appropriate Technology in 1999. That meeting included solar installers and supporters from across the state, and that’s the group that eventually grew into MREA. We all recognized the value of having a coordinated effort, and I still think that’s so important.


Baker Light Industries
A conversation with Wayne Baker

Wayne Baker, owner of Baker Light Industries in Alder, Montana

Wayne Baker, owner of Baker Light Industries in Alder, Montana

In October 2016, MREA talked with Wayne Baker, owner of Baker Light Industries in Alder, Montana, about his background and how all the different renewable energy technologies he works with complement one another.

How did you get into renewable energy?
I took a job out of college down in Colorado working for a company that did automation and instrumentation for dams and waterways. In 1994 I installed my first solar panel charging a battery to monitor the water level in a reservoir. We did several projects like that where we had to build little off-grid power systems. In 1999 I came back to Montana and took a job with a company that specialized in off-grid homes. I worked with them for six years, and then in 2006 I took up wood fired boilers and went out on my own and formed Baker Light Industries.

Tell me more about Baker Light Industries.
I call myself a “renewable energy contractor.” I do solar electric, solar thermal, wood fired boilers, and ground source heat pumps. I do about twenty projects each year. I’m also half owner of a business in Sun Valley, Idaho called Ketchum Energy Company. It’s a venture that I started recently with a friend of mine because we saw an emerging solar market in Sun Valley. I’m actually one of only three people that hold the Idaho Solar Electrical Specialty contractors’ license.

A "solar wall" installed by Baker Light Industries at Wentzel Apiaries in Twin Bridges, Montana

A “solar wall” installed by Baker Light Industries at Wentzel Apiaries in Twin Bridges, Montana

I like working with a variety of renewable energy technologies because they all complement each other. For example, I’ve done a couple of projects called thermal battery systems, where we combine solar thermal and ground-source heat pumps for heating systems. That makes it possible to do a “net zero” home with about a third the number of solar electric panels it would take otherwise. As for wood boilers, I often install them for farmers or ranchers to offset propane. A farmer or rancher will have plenty of downed wood and waste wood and can save a lot of money on propane by installing a wood boiler.

What do you like best about your job?
I like being part of the solution for our energy problems in the world. And I like that my job keeps me doing different things every day. I never get bored.

Why are you supporting MREA as a Penny Per Watt Champion? 
I’m supporting MREA to help promote our agenda in the state legislature. Improving renewable energy policy and fending off attacks on it is critical to allow businesses like mine to grow and thrive.


Kenworthy Electric
A conversation with Dan Kenworthy

In November, MREA spoke with Dan Kenworthy, owner of Kenworthy Electric, about his family business and how MREA has weaved through his connection to the solar industry.

How did you get into the solar industry here in Montana?
I am a third-generation Montana electrician, following the footsteps of my father and grandfather, continuing to run the business since I bought it back in 1994. My first solar grid tie was actually with Henry Dykema, current President of the MREA Board of Directors. I worked on the grid tie for a solar system Henry installed on the Sheridan School as part of the “Solar for Schools” program. That got me pretty interested in solar installations. Then in 2002, a solar class came up in Butte that was actually put on by Chris Borton, another Board Member of MREA. That got me even more motivated, and I started to get into grid-tie projects here and there.

Dan Kenworthy and others at rooftop installation

Dan (center), son Colter (right), and fellow Kenworthy employee Bryan Dettman (left) next to a 34.2kW installation in Havre, MT.

How is your business connected to the renewable energy industry?
We are a full service electrical contractor, but about a third of our business is now related to the solar industry. Another third is related to generator systems, which relates heavily to the solar work. There are some off-grid projects that we work on that focus mostly on tying together solar panels with a generator on-site. We had a pretty big year for off-grid systems in 2016 especially. One interesting solar project we recently completed was setting up solar pond aerators, which are more typically done using a windmill.  

Dan et al at solar installation

Dan and owners of One World Sustainable Energy atop Ted Turner’s Snowcrest Ranch in Alder, MT.

What are your favorite things about working in the solar industry in Montana?
The excitement comes from the remarkable new products and ideas we are seeing. Solar, in particular, is being used for things like sign and street lighting, remote camera sites for wildlife studies, pond pumps and aerators, river cameras and for powering our homes, offices and ranches. For me personally, one of the greatest things is seeing the interest my youngest son has shown in these systems.

Why did you decide to support MREA through the Penny Per Watt program?
I want to give back because in a way, MREA and the people here are how I was originally connected to the industry. I feel like I am where I am in the solar industry because of MREA, and I’m grateful for that. The lobbying efforts are also a big motivator. As a small business owner, sometimes it’s hard to get that message out there. It’s great that MREA can do that for us.