Solar power installation, Iron Works Cycling in Big Stone Gap, Oct. 30, 2020

A crew from Sigora Solar installs racks and mounts for solar panels on the roof of Iron Works Cycling in Big Stone Gap on Friday.

BIG STONE GAP — Lorenzo Rodriguez and Robert Bloomer operate an outdoor adventure business in Big Stone Gap, but the two men are trying a new adventure: practical solar power.

Bloomer and Appalachian Voices New Economy Program manager Chelsea Barnes watched under cloudy skies Friday as a team of installers set mounting tracks, wiring and solar panels to convert the roof of Iron Works Cycling on Wood Avenue into a 16-kilowatt solar energy farm.

Bloomer said the rooftop arrangement is expected to cover Iron Works’ annual electricity use, including replacing a wood pellet-burning heater with electric heat, once final inspections by electric utility Old Dominion Power and the county building code inspector are done.

“Chelsea put us in touch with the group handling grant funding for the project, and that made this really affordable for us,” Bloomer said. “Lorenzo is really the mover behind us doing this, and after four years it’ll be a net-zero expense.”

Barnes said the Iron Works project got started through a $25,000 grant from Hammond Climate Solutions and its managed Solar Moonshot Program. Solar Moonshot has helped fund solar power installations at institutional and educational sites in several states, and the program granted $25,000 of the $37,000 total cost of the Iron Works project.

The project also ties in with Appalachian Voices’ Solar Workgroup, which came together in 2016 as a coalition of Southwest Virginia colleges, businesses, planning district commissions and development agencies to help develop renewable energy in far Southwest Virginia.

Part of Solar Workgroup’s efforts have included getting local and county governments to achieve SolSmart certification, Barnes said. That certification is based on localities adopting model building code and local ordinance provisions that ease solar power installations for commercial and residential use.

Installation of Iron Works’ solar panel array and wiring took about five hours, said Sabriel Serrano, foreman of the team from Sigora Solar. Serrano said that his three-man team can do two to three installations per day.

Rodriguez said he first got interested in solar power after a workshop at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise in 2016.

“I got an assessment for the cost of business and residential solar installations and it wasn’t really for the business then,” Rodriguez said. “But Solar Workgroup and Appalachian Voices came to us with information on the grant, and we were able to finance the difference.”

Rodriguez had already installed solar panels on his home to offset energy costs and realized the savings in monthly energy bills. The system is connected to an Old Dominion Power meter that tracks both power produced by the solar array and any power drawn from ODP’s connection, Rodriguez said, and the company can bill based on production versus usage.

In billing periods when his home system produces more power than the house actually uses, ODP tracks that in an account where either Rodriguez’s power bill is offset in months when solar production is lower than usage or he is paid at the end of a year cycle for the excess solar power.

“When you’re paying the financing for the installation, that’s a fixed monthly payment as opposed to power rates that may increase year by year,” Rodriguez said, “and that helps protect you from higher bills. Payment on solar panels is typically less than a monthly power bill too.”

Solar panels have also become more reliable and compact over the years, Rodriguez said. The 3 ½-by-5-foot panels have a 25-year useful life and can still produce 80% of designed power near that 25-year mark.

“If enough people and businesses in the area go with solar power, it can help the environment,” Rodriguez said. “It also means job opportunities for solar installations. I want this to be a conversation starter.”

Barnes said that building owners interested in working with Solar Workgroup their own solar installations can email chelsea@appvoices.org.