Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden & courtesy of Sundance Power Systems
Solar, sustainability, efficiency, green living & building, are a few buzz words heard often throughout this area. New construction is looking for alternative methods to utilize renewable resources, cutting costs and environmental impact both for residential and business properties. Sundance Power Systems is a family run business steeped in a history of engineering, activism, and hope for the future. These components have mixed together to create a perfect cocktail of business success, offering solar energy solutions to individuals and businesses seeking to integrate these technologies.
Dave and Sierra Hollister opened the doors to Sundance Power Systems in 1995. After travelling around the country for months, they were visiting Dave’s brother in Colorado when one morning, visibly shaken, his brother told him he had a vision, and, according to Dave, he really wasn’t the vision having type. He told them that they needed to move to Asheville and buy a farm. So the couple took it as a sign and loaded up their camper, made the trek to Western North Carolina, and did exactly what his sibling predicted: bought a farm and started their company. But their story starts years earlier.
Growing up Activist
Dave grew up in Cincinnati. His father was a civil engineer and avid environmentalist. Dave proudly lists his father’s accolades, which include construction of the Lincoln Center and downtown Cincinnati. It is obvious that Dave comes by his engineer minded social activist life honestly. His interest in environmental issues was officially sparked when he started college at Fort Lewis in Colorado. At that time an environmental studies degree really didn’t exist yet, and Dave pursued an ecology degree.
“It was during this time that I recognized that energy was the foundation of life and of our economy, and it is the driving force of our existence,” Dave says.
He also became acutely aware that this energy was a finite resource and felt the pull to Washington D.C. to do something about it. He began by applying to environmental consulting firms, but the more companies he met with, the more he felt that they were corporations that were operating under pretenses he was not fully in line with.
[quote float=”right”]“I recognized that energy was the foundation of life and of our economy, and it is the driving force of our existence,” Dave says. [/quote]One day he answered an advertisement in the newspaper to canvas for Greenpeace, which would launch his first career in the industry. Within the first year he was hired onto the action team where he set up and organized equipment to be used for non-violent direct action demonstrations and was involved in numerous campaigns, such as the fight against toxins, the anti-nuclear protests, and the save the whales campaign, issues that were prevalent and hot topics in the headlines.
Dave points to two framed pictures on the wall of his office that is also decorated with a Costa Rica tapestry, inspirational quotes, and various memorabilia from his colorful life experiences. One of the pictures shows a 360-square-foot banner hanging from the Sears Tower in Chicago. The banner was hung on the 50th anniversary of the Manhattan Project in remembrance and in protest of the atomic bombs created. The significance of this picture that spread around the world, before the existence of viral content, is the man behind getting that banner to its spot flapping in the wind, a good ways up a very tall skyscraper. Dave nonchalantly alludes to his experience in rock climbing.
The other picture is similar in style, only this banner was hung on the Time-Life building in New York City and was inciting a change in the ways paper companies were bleaching their products and polluting the environment. Dave explains his role with Greenpeace as confrontational non-violence, with which he spent ten years as the direct action coordinator with a specialty in training activists.
He recalls many great successes during this time, such as taking the poison out of paper, stopping ocean dumping in New York City, and stopping toxic waste incinerators. He built on his foundation that if you stand for your beliefs, you will be empowered, and this empowerment will spread. It was during this experience that he met his wife, Sierra, and they discovered their mutual passion for energy and the economics of the planet.
“It’s great to be on the front lines of social change. This is a very important component of evolution, but we got drawn into creating a right livelihood for ourselves that provided a solution.”
This livelihood would lead them down the road to Asheville, and to a project they feel was meant to be, a solar company called Sundance.
The Humble Beginning
Dave and Sierra had a path, a project, and vision for the business, but how do you start a business such as this with no real frame of reference? Dave explains that there were no real go to experts in the field at that time and they literally started from scratch in their laundry room, eventually moving into an old tobacco barn.
“Back then it was a passion. You didn’t do solar because of the economics, which is a big component now. Back then it was about a value system that people had. This area was strong in the back to the land movement and living off-grid.”
They got their start repairing a lot of old solar energy systems that were installed in the 1970s when there was a boom in solar technology, but had since been abandoned and yielded a lack of resources for repair. Their real footing came from solar hot water systems which tended to be more affordable, and then the company ventured into more intricate off-grid systems.
“It was all forming right then. We were on the cutting edge of figuring it out. Like the Wild West or New Frontier of solar.”
Soon radiant floor heating systems propelled them into a new realm of diversifying the business and they were now competing in the new home market. But the real break for them would come when Y2K hit, a phenomenon in which suddenly people were installing battery back-up systems and thought processes were changing. Suddenly there was a lot of guerilla solar happening.
Guerilla solar was a means of installing solar systems without the power companies knowing. These systems were hooked right into the local utility system equipment and were affecting the usage. In a 2001 article from Mother Earth News, a publication that covered the changing atmosphere in the area, this movement’s manifesto was quoted: “We, the Solar Guerrillas of this planet, therefore resolve to place energy made from sunshine, wind, and falling water on this planet’s utility grids with or without permission from utilities or governments. We resolve to share this energy with our neighbors without regard for financial compensation. We further resolve that our renewable energy systems will be safe and will not harm utility workers, our neighbors, or our environment.”
During this same time period, the practice of net metering began. Net metering allows solar energy customers to return energy not used back to the grid, causing the meter to actually run backwards, creating a credit with the power company. Sundance was instrumental in working with organizations to bring this practice to the region. After negotiating with the local utility companies, Dave and Sierra’s home was the first officially net metered house in North Carolina.
This was a milestone for the company and led to a new era of solar energy systems. Legislation actually requires that a certain amount of renewable energy and net metering is allowed. This gave way to larger scale solar systems and ultimately reduced the cost, really creating a momentum for solar and leading to the tax incentives that we see today.
A Growing Company
From experimenting in the laundry room, Sundance has now expanded to almost 33 employees. They now have satellite offices and have just completed a new production building on site at the home office in Weaverville. While the new building is not 100% sustainable just yet, construction is under way to make it so in the near future.
As Dave leads the way through the newly remodeled offices, pointing to interesting pictures and industry slogans displayed throughout the space, he is trailed by the office dog, Mocha, who darts out the opened door to catch a Frisbee thrown by a few employees taking a break on a late Friday afternoon.
Past the driveway there are sheds full of wood used for heating, and looking back at the main building the many solar panels are catching the afternoon light. The trucks parked in the lot show the company logo designed by Sierra, and Dave’s son unlocks the door for a peek inside. Their mantra is “Powering the Future Today with Sun, Wind and Water.”
Dave’s son, Brian, has just graduated from Appalachian State University, one of many schools in the area that is adapting a sustainability plan and has contracted Sundance to install 42 solar panels, or collectors, for a hot water system.
Mellow Mushroom in downtown Asheville has utilized their services for a six panel collector in order to supply 20% of the hot water that they use. And more recently and on a much larger scale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company enlisted Sundance in their construction of their new brewery in Mills River. The rooftop panels cover almost two acres on the packing and warehouse facilities, and provide canopies for the parking lot.
Dave speaks fondly when referring to the Sierra Nevada project, a company that holds many of the same ideals on renewable energy. He considers these ideals the core of Sundance.
“We want to serve the broader community, businesses, and individuals, who want to lighten their footprint and recognize that there is an economic and environmental reason for adopting this technology. And it works!”
These large scale projects are certainly a hefty source of revenue for companies such as Sundance, but Dave expresses that the residential projects are incredibly fulfilling to him and he has enjoyed seeing the progress in this area over the years. Where a solar energy system once may have detracted from the value of a house upon selling, new appraisal values have been created to support an increase in the worth of the property. These systems have become more affordable with more financing options, tax incentives, and quicker return on investments.
“Many of the obstacles with solar have been reduced or disappeared over time. They are much more ubiquitous now with a wider band of people who can do solar and our business has thrived because of it,” says Dave.
An Evolving Business Model
As Sundance has grown and evolved, Dave feels that the office structure has as well. He believes that old world business models do not work in his modern day business. He has developed a model of accountability and relationships within the company and strives to shed any form of totalitarianism.
[quote float=”right”]Dave has developed what he calls an “administration council” that boasts open communication, and some employees have been there close to 14 years, almost from the beginning. [/quote]He has developed what he calls an “administration council” that boasts open communication, and some employees have been there close to 14 years, almost from the beginning. There is certainly an emphasis on shared values and a belief in the importance of interaction with customers and employees alike.
“I don’t want to compromise honesty for profit, even though profit is important. Final value at the end is the deal breaker, and that is the difference between managing and operating a conscious business and one that is just out for blood. That is fundamentally the way that we have developed this company.”
The core values of Sundance are sustainability, honesty, and integrity. Dave is not afraid to throw “the customer is always right” philosophy out of the window if need be. They apply a five step design process with every customer that analyzes their realistic needs, goals, and expectations. Whether for residential or commercial projects, the bottom line is always community enhancement and future consciousness for Dave, his family, and his employees.
“Collective creativity is what makes us a special company,” a few more of those key words that make this a distinguishing business.
MAKING SENSE OF SOLAR
Photovoltaic technology (PV) = Solar energy systems
DC = Direct current / AC = Alternating current
Inverter = converts DC to AC for grid and load compatibility
Electricity as we use it in our homes and businesses is measured in units of watts, and we are billed by our electrical utility per kilowatt consumed per hour, or for every kWh.
PV systems are described by their DC rating—the amount of DC current they are capable of producing in ideal conditions. For example, an average residential system is 5 kilowatts, or 5 kW. The amount of electricity produced by the system depends on several factors: efficiency ratings of the solar modules and the inverter and the amount of sunlight the modules receive (shading factors, orientation, and tilt angle of the collectors) all come into consideration.
In this region, a typical 5 kW system will produce an approximate average of 21 kWh of electricity a day, with an energy value of $62 a month, based on current electrical rates.
Each kilowatt of PV generated electricity offsets up to 217,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. The average SHW (Solar Hot Water) system displaces up to 71 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime.
According to the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the price of PV systems continues to decline at a rapid pace. In 1977 the price was at $76.67/watt and dropped down to $0.74/watt by 2013.
PVWatts (pvwatts.nrel.gov) is a widely used tool to estimate the performance of PV systems, and was used for the calculations below.
TYPES OF SOLAR ENERGY SYSTEMS:
Grid-tied: System is tied to the utility company and provides backup for power outages. It can be tied through net-metered or sell-all system.
Net-metered: The energy your system collects is used by you. If you produce more than you consume, you sell it back to the utility company.
Sell-all: All of the energy your system produces is sold to the utility company and you use their services.
Off-grid: No connection between your energy system and the utility company equipment. All energy produced is used by you.
LINKS & RESOURCES
NC Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) – www.energync.org
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) – www.cleanenergy.org
Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) – www.dsireusa.org
Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) – www.solarelectricpower.org
US Department of Energy – www.energy.gov