Sunelco: The Sun Electric Company

article image
Sunelco showed such early promise, In Business magazine made Dan and Becky Brandborg's company its cover story.

Montana’s Dan Brandborg was paying attention when experts said that, to improve the health of the economy, one should focus on the production of “value-added” products. This typically involves taking a plentiful inexpensive local resource and converting it into something more useful and, hence, more valuable.

Historically, in Montana “resource” meant timber or minerals, but Brandborg had his eye on something more environmentally benign than the blockish clearcuts near his cabin in southwestern Montana. His research told him that the most valuable and abundant resource in the “Big Sky Country” is–well, sky.

Today, Brandborg’s business, Sunelco Inc. (the Sun Electric Company), sells solar electricity systems that enable hundreds of people around the country to take a plentiful resource–sunlight–and transform it into a highly useful product: electricity.

What’s more, by selling solar panels, those slabs of silicon that convert sunshine into electricity, Sunelco has quickly become a prosperous example of the new wave of “green,” or environmentally conscious, low-impact businesses that communities are seeking.

The principles of solar electricity, or photovoltaics (“PV” in industry shorthand) have been known for decades, but because of high costs and relatively low efficiency they didn’t come into their own until the U.S. space program put them to work. The same qualities that made solar electricity attractive to NASA in the ’60s–chiefly its flexibility and its reliability in extreme conditions–make it an attractive choice for people seeking self-sufficiency.

Sunelco’s founder grew up in an environmentally aware family. Fascinated by the potential of solar energy, Brandborg worked two years in Maryland for Solarex, the nation’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. Then he saw an opportunity to bring that experience out west.

“When I worked for Solarex all their sales were to the western United States, ” he recalls, “so I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we do this from Montana?”‘ Soon he and his wife Becky were trying just that.

Setting out in the fall of 1985 with just $4,000 in start-up money, he put together a mail-order catalog and started designing and shipping PV systems to customers throughout the West.

Since then Sunelco’s gross sales have doubled every year. Working at first from his small cabin up Tin Cup Creek, Brandborg soon expanded to a tiny office in nearby Darby, Montana. Now Sunelco has six full-time employees, kept busy answering the constantly ringing phones and designing, shipping, and sometimes aiding in erecting PV systems.

Their growth is due in part to the PV industry finally coming into its own and achieving a new level of sophistication. When Brandborg first began learning about solar panels there was a limited pool of people to talk to. “I read two good books on photovoltaics,” Brandborg says of his education, “and in two years I knew more about it than most people in the industry, mostly because I played with it.”

He still plays with it and his home on a tree-lined residential street in Hamilton is a model of what PV has become today. A fixed array of roof-mounted PV modules, invisible from the street, keep the batteries topped up. A heavily insulated refrigerator/freezer with a high-efficiency compressor shares kitchen space with the gas cooking range. Hot water is provided by a “Copper Cricket” solar hot water system, supplemented as necessary by a tankless gas water heater.

Brandborg, a “learn-it-by-living-it” solar junkie, monitors several more meters than are absolutely necessary in a normal house setup so that he can keep meticulous records of energy production and use. It’s that hands-on knowledge that Brandborg finds valuable when helping customers.

Brandborg designs systems that will meet a customer’s realistic demands, rather than trying to change or limit that demand. New installations are more complex but much more versatile. The standard components of a system include the solar panels, a bank of batteries, and an inverter which converts the 12/24-volt DC current from the batteries into the 110-volt AC on which most household appliances run.

Running a house on solar electric power involves a few compromises, most of which relate to energy storage. “I have to check the batteries periodically,” homeowner Dick Fichtler reports, “and it doesn’t have unlimited power. When we designed the system, we didn’t anticipate some loads, like running the vacuum cleaner so often.” Keeping track of the state of the charge in the batteries and topping them off with an alternative power source if necessary helps him avoid any problems with the PV system.

The key is to shift high-demand uses away from electricity to other resources whenever possible. Space heating, cooking, and even refrigeration can usually be accomplished with propane. All other electrical demands need to be as efficient as possible.

Although Sunelco is fielding an increasing number of inquiries from customers with access to power lines, PV systems aren’t generally competitive with utility rates–yet. For now, the typical customer for a solar electric system is someone with a remote cabin or vacation home.

Home systems aren’t the only use for solar electricity, though. Sunelco has helped ranchers take advantage of PV systems to pump water to their livestock in remote pastures and to provide the juice for electric fencing. Recreational vehicle owners are buying PV systems to run their lights and TVs, without the annoyance of a noisy generator or the cost of a hookup. Brandborg and his design team have even put together a PV package that was mounted on an oceangoing yacht.

While the demand for PV systems is increasing, it’s still a relatively small market, and Brandborg doesn’t foresee any dramatic price drops soon. Awareness, not price, is what he counts on to bring new customers to Sunelco. As evidence, he cites one study of Portland residents in which solar power was chosen by 86% of the respondents as their first choice for providing additional power in the future. Another recent nationwide poll showed that energy efficiency was more important to move-up home buyers than location or schools.

“People love solar,” Brandborg smiles.

Because of that, the Brandborg’s continue to cope with the surprising growth of their company. Photovoltaics were not a sure thing back in 1985, and since then the field has become crowded with other start-ups. But a “sure thing” isn’t what drew Dan Brandborg into the business. It’s simply what he wanted to do.

“We just got on a different road, and hoped it would bring people to us,” he said, surrounded by solar panels awaiting shipment. “I had no idea it would end up like this.”