The homegrown company SolarGeneration, which began installing solar panels in the Woodstock area in 2005, has been purchased by Paul McMenemy, a renewable energy entrepreneur who previously owned the Golden Notebook bookstore. One of his incentives for buying the company is the rapid advances in battery technology and the expectation that within two to three years, solar-plus-battery will be a viable alternative, especially relevant given the recent local power outages.
The SolarGeneration headquarters is located in the Design Tower complex on Route 28, a few miles west of Kingston. On a Monday morning, the ambiance is low-key in the spacious office, which has plenty of windows, light gray walls, and sunny yellow countertops. White boards on one wall outline the projects in progress or upcoming, with tasks noted for each of the firm’s seven employees. A large photograph depicts a solar array in front of a monastery in Tibet, where SolarGeneration founders Todd Koelmel and the late Jason Spiotta went to install solar panels in 2011 with the help of a nonprofit organization.
Koelmel and Spiotta built their business on both residential and commercial installations, notably at the Woodstock highway garage, the Zen Mountain Monastery, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, and Sunflower Natural Foods Market. “Our competitors were national companies,” noted Koelmel, “but we never traveled more than about an hour and a half to do work. When Paul expressed interest in the company, I thought it was a great fit. He wants to do bigger and better things but also keep it local.”
McMenemy’s inspiration to buy the company came when he had solar panels installed on his own home. “I had known Todd from the Woodstock Day School,” he explained. “My kids and his kids went to school there, his wife teaches there, and I knew he was the solar guy. I thought the crew and the job they did on my house were terrific. It was a first-class outfit.” McMenemy, weary of the relentless travel required by his previous job, was attracted to taking on a business that would allow him to stay put with his family in the Woodstock area, where he has lived since 1995. His experience includes working with renewable processes such as carbon capture, zero-emissions gas-to-liquids technology, and anaerobic digestion, which involves taking organic material and making energy out of it. “This company fit my profile as renewable person,” he said. The deal closed in December 2017.
Koelmel, who has been working part-time for the company during the transition period, said, “Thirteen years ago, our goal was to build a local business, to do something positive for the environment, and we did that. I have three young children, and I built my house by myself. I have also been making paintings for the last 20 years, but I haven’t had time to put into promoting my work. Now the next big goal is to focus on my art and try to launch that as a career.” Several of his landscapes hang in the firm’s office.
“Todd and Jason have delivered SolarGeneration 1.0, and I want to take it to 2.0,” said McMenemy. “People who can’t put solar on their roofs — for instance, if their building faces north — can participate through solar farms. I would like to develop those projects in New York State. I’d like to do larger commercial projects and enlarge existing installations, as well as the bread-and-butter of residential solar.” He is particularly drawn to doing projects for not-for-profits, which provide opportunities for investors to finance, shifting the tax credits to the investors as their return. Current and prospective clients include a dairy, a retreat center, a small goat farm, a yoga institute, an insurance company, a school, and a restaurant, as well as single-family homes.
McMenemy said he does not feel threatened by the import tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump, although they affect solar panels imported from Asia. “They’re disorganized,” he said, referring to the Trump administration. “Yes, there’s a solar tariff, but Congress also voted in generous tax incentives for solar.” U.S. solar panel production has never been large, amounting to an estimated 10,000 jobs, so McMenemy does not think the tariff will give a big boost to U.S. manufacturing. However, the country does have a substantial number of installers, so a rise in prices resulting from the tariff could jeopardize a quarter-million jobs. On the other hand, generous incentives in the tax bill are expected to offset the potential price increase, especially for commercial projects.
“We’re very high on batteries,” McMenemy said, given that battery technology has increased in efficiency and storage capacity while prices have steadily dropped. He’s already putting some batteries in, and within a few years, they will be within the price reach of many more customers. McMenemy’s wife, Cornelia Logan, pointed out the advantages of battery back-up during a power outage, noting, “It’s quiet too. Generators are so noisy. You can enjoy the power outage until the generators kick in, sometimes in the middle of the night.” People who put up solar panels now can ask for an installation that will be easily adaptable to the addition of batteries in the future. Already installed systems can also be adapted to battery storage, with some effort.
Koelmel feels he has handed his firm on to the right person. “Paul is very motivated and excited,” he said. “He’s bringing new energy to the business. We built it up and maintained it through a couple of economic downturns. Now it’s a good platform for someone to take it to next level. For 13 years, I was on the front lines fighting global warming, and the company is going to continue to do that.”