Slowly but surely, the solar energy industry is growing in the area.
According to the nonprofit solar advocacy group Solar Foundation, jobs in the solar industry increased in Fairfield County from 510 in 2015 to 562 in 2016, a 10.2 percent increase, and in Westchester Country from 613 to 785 over the same one-year period, a 28 percent increase,.
The growth is reflective of what’s going on around the nation, the group said. The U.S. solar industry employed 260,077 workers last year, a nearly 25 percent increase from 2015 that was largely driven by an increase in solar panel installations, itself fueled by a continued decrease in the cost of solar panels.
The solar industry produced about $154 billion in total economic activity for the U.S. in 2016, according to the Solar Foundation.
While installing solar panels on roofs is the most familiar option for building owners, interest is growing in solar shingles, said Oliver Koehler, founder and CEO of SunTegra in Port Chester. The company offers solar shingles and tile roofs to homeowners and businesses that it claims are more aesthetically pleasing and financially viable alternatives to standard, rack-mounted solar panels.
“Probably 99 percent of the residential solar market is still solar panels,” Koehler said. “But with products like ours, you don’t have the same bulky appearance. Our solution is more low-profile.”
SunTegra’s shingles and tiles typically take up about 25 percent of a given roof area, Koehler said, with effort made to blend in with the traditional asphalt shingles covering the rest of the roof. A typical house installation costs from $15,000 to $20,000, he said.
SunTegra recently made its first installation in Fairfield County on a waterfront home in Stamford. Consisting of 55 SunTegra shingles, the solar roof is sized to provide an estimated 6,543 kWh per year and replaced more than 400 square feet of asphalt shingle roofing.
That project was done in partnership with Murphy Brothers Contracting, the high-end custom home builder in Mamaroneck that serves Fairfield and Westchester counties .
“Our company has the philosophy that building green is building smart,” said Michael Murphy, director of new project development. “We’re always looking for something that can be more environmentally responsible and energy-efficient.”
About four years ago, the Murphy Brothers began using Dow Chemical Co.’s Powerhouse Solar System shingles. Despite claims that it would revolutionize the solar-system installation industry, the business was folded by Dow in 2016, with its products having been installed in about 1,000 homes.
Murphy said the Stamford project was initially using the Dow solar product — “The homeowner drives a Tesla, so that told us where his interests lay” — but that the transition to SunTegra was relatively seamless.
Murphy said the SunTegra Shingles produce 30 percent more solar energy per square inch at 30 percent less cost than Dow’s previous solar shingle version. The Port Chester product, he noted, recently won the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut’s 2017 Home Building Industry Award for Best Exterior Green Feature. In August, SunTegra won $500,000 in New York state’s 76West Clean Energy Competition.
In addition to improved energy efficiency, Koehler noted that solar roofs typically last up to 40 years. According to the National Association of Home Builders, fiber cement shingles last about 25 years and asphalt-shingle composition roofs last about 20 years.
Koehler said while the firm continues to explore opportunities with builders in Fairfield and Westchester counties, most of its installations are in New Jersey, Colorado, California, Texas and South Carolina.
Looming over the sector is Tesla, which in May announced that it had begun to take orders for its solar roof tiles nationwide, including in the Nutmeg State. However, to date only two houses have reportedly had the Tesla Solar Roof tiles installed – both of which are owned by Tesla executives, including co-founder and CEO Elon Musk.
During the company’s third-quarter conference call with investors, Musk indicated that Solar Roof was unlikely to post decent volumes in 2018. “I have no doubt that this will be a very significant part of the business down the road,” Musk said. “It just takes a little while to get these behemoths rolling. But once it gets rolling, it’s going to be a behemoth.”
Koehler said the publicity generated by Tesla’s May announcement has been a net positive for SunTegra. “It’s been a great benefit for us because of the huge amount of awareness he’s generated with the public. If anything, we wish they were doing more and moving faster than they are.”
Koehler said Tesla installs uniform tiles on the entire roof, though only 40 percent of the tiles are operational. He estimated the cost of a typical installation would total about $100,000 per building. “They’re going for the high-end customer, like they are with their cars.”
The Dow Powerhouse Shingle could also return to compete in the market. In September, RGS Energy signed a domestic and international licensing agreement for the product, with plans to reintroduce the brand in the second quarter of next year.
The industry could face an obstacle to growth in the federal government’s proposed tightening of trade measures with China, where factories account for more than two-thirds of the world’s solar panel production. Koehler said that while some SunTegra materials are manufactured in China, the majority is made in Mexico, “which is a little closer to home and allows for better quality control.”