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Solar firms busier as demand increases

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The trees that cover Ruppert Cos.’ 600-acre nursery in Laytonsville now share a small parcel of land with 988 deep metallic blue solar panels that will supply power to the landscaper’s five-building headquarters.

The company began construction on a new, eco-conscious campus three years ago and the $1 million solar field, a third of which is financed by a federal tax credit, promises to erase its $35,000 annual electric bill.

The company exemplifies what industry observers have described as an increase in the number of business and homeowners who have embraced solar energy as the price of technology comes down and installers reform their business models to allay steep up-front costs.

President Craig Ruppert said the company has hung its shingle in several locations across Montgomery County since 1977, but for the first time the economics of building green offices proved favorable to its bottom line.

“Was it thought about [in the past]? Maybe a little bit. Was it seriously incorporated into plans? No,” Ruppert said. “The economics weren’t as compelling 10 years ago. The cost of electricity has gone up. The cost of gas has gone up. So I think economics is driving our gradual migration toward going green.”

The U.S. Solar Market Insight report, published quarterly by the Solar Energy Industry Association and GTM Research, found that 252 megawatts of solar power capacity were created nationwide during the first three months of the year. That’s a 66 percent increase over the same period in 2010.

The demand has kept companies like Rockville-based Standard Solar busy with installation projects around the Washington region, which has emerged along with the rest of the Mid-Atlantic as a hot market for solar power.

In 2004 “when we first started out doing projects . . . it was very much people who were doing it for a statement because it was good for the environment,” said President Scott Wiater. “Nowadays, it’s almost all strictly financial based.”

He said that incentives from federal and state lawmakers and cheaper technology costs combined with high energy prices and greater environmental awareness equate to an economic and social dynamic that favors solar power more than in years past.

Standard Solar is also one of many firms that have begun to offer financial plans that allow customers to lease the panel system, thus reducing or eliminating the initial costs in exchange for monthly payments. In July, the company partnered with San Francisco-based SunRun, a solar leasing company.

“It makes sense for those customers that don’t want to put down a lot of money up-front so it opened up the customer base to a whole new subset of people,” Wiater said. “In our view it’s going to accelerate our growth.”

But competitors aim to share in the rising demand as more energy providers enter the solar business and established shops expand their footprint.

SolarCity, a San Mateo, Calif.-based outfit, bought the solar division of Rockville’s Clean Currents in January as a way to establish its presence on the East Coast. It was responsible for the Ruppert Cos. project.

Regional Director Lee Keshishian said the company acts as a one-stop provider of design, installation and financing, an attribute that executives said helps simplify the process for customers and differentiate SolarCity from competitors.

“We’re seeing our sales increase every month and the numbers are growing quite quickly, and that’s why we have to hire on aggressively to keep pace on the installations,” Keshishian said.

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