Solar energy hasn’t made a lot of progress in the Treasure Valley, despite the fact that the region is one of the sunnier places in North America. Buying and installing solar equipment that can turn the sun’s energy into electricity is just too expensive to be worthwhile for most residential and commercial building owners.
But a locally owned windshield repair company has found a way to make solar work for its mobile units. Summit Auto Glass in March installed a 12-volt solar panel on the roof of one of its three windshield repair vans. Now, instead of idling outside jobs to generate the power needed to run the technician’s tools, the van draws its energy from the 35-by-42-inch panel. When it’s sunny out, the panel keeps the battery inside charged enough to be under constant use for up to 20 hours.
Casey Eells, a managing partner at Summit Auto Glass, said his company paid about $1,000 to buy and install the panel.
This small-scale solar technology is fairly unusual for a business like Summit, says Bob Browen, who works for Battery Systems, a battery wholesaler. But it is becoming more mainstream on recreational vehicles, says Browen, who sells most of his panels to RV dealerships that install the panels. Browen estimated that about 10 percent of RVs now use solar panels. Browen said the panels work well on food trucks as well, and are worthwhile if the trucks are going to be parked somewhere without access to a power outlet.
Summit Auto Glass chose solar energy for one of its vans to cut its fuel costs and to reduce its contribution to smog in the Treasure Valley.
“We’re always looking for better ways to make our company more efficient and more green,” said Eells. “I’m a parent. And I feel like as stewards of the Earth, we have an obligation to limit our impact while we’re here, and on a small scale this is one thing we can do as a business to help that.”
By switching to solar, Summit is also doing a favor for anyone who uses the air around its van for activities such as breathing while its technicians are at work. It has been a smoggy summer. It helps when businesses cut down on the smoke from idling vehicles.
Browen, who has been in the battery business for 10 years, sells the panels for a company in Bend, Ore., called Zamp Solar. Zamp specializes in 12-volt mobile panels, and Browen said the panels also work well for companies that use battery-powered research equipment.
Summit uses the power to run equipment that cuts out old windshields, trims up the glue, grinds down rust and vacuums debris, along with an air compressor.
“With $4-a-gallon gas, our vehicle isn’t idling all day,” Eells said.
Solar technology is still a long way from being affordable for buildings, which draw much more power than a Summit Auto Glass truck and have less expensive options for power than running a truck engine on fuel from the gas station.
But “there’s a lot more solar taking place” these days than in the past, Browen said. And some of it is driving down the road, unseen by most.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.