Georgia SEIA Member Spotlight with United Renewable Energy CEO William Silva
Pete: First, congratulations on making Solar Power World’s Top Solar Contractors list. What is the story behind how United Renewable Energy was founded?
William: Thank you Pete, I am very proud of our team and the work we do to provide quality solar projects. United Renewable Energy, LLC was founded in January of 2008 in Georgia by myself and my future wife at the time, Shana [Haygood] Silva. We have four children and live in Cherokee County, GA. Shana is a graduate of Georgetown University Law School, and she is the daughter of an Air Force Academy graduate, and a first daughter of Texas. I graduated with engineering degrees from George Mason University and the University at Buffalo, and am a first-generation American, son of an American mother and my father is an immigrant from Colombia, South America. We started working from our dining room in Alpharetta, and eventually grew into our current 7,000 sq ft facility in Alpharetta, (Forsyth County), Georgia. Today, United Renewable Energy, LLC (URE) is a highly experienced development and construction firm specializing in industrial and utility solar and energy storage systems. URE is a licensed multi-state general and electrical contractor operating throughout the country. URE’s focus on key utility and industrial partners allows us to deliver solar projects with utility level safety, quality, and performance at the lowest possible cost in the Eastern United States. URE employs over 35 full-time employees, and with contract personnel, employ around 200 during full construction, which is typically more than half of the year.
Pete: Where are some of your projects in Georgia?
William: Our Georgia heritage meant we grew up in a market driven solar market, meaning we have always had to be sharp on our numbers to be competitive and win business. This has made us highly competitive in other markets, and allowed URE to succeed early on in regional markets, and now nationwide. We have been privileged to develop and build projects for some amazing Georgia companies and sites, including projects for Dalton Utilities (Whitfield and Murray Counties), Georgia Power (Madison, and Putnam Counties), Georgia EMC cooperatives (Newton County and others), Kimberly Clark Corporation/Nextera (Lagrange, Troup County), Owens Corning/Constellation (Fulton County), Nestle Purina (Fulton County), Mohawk Industries (Chattooga County), USFloors/Shaw (Dalton/Whitfield County), The Scotts Company (Butts County), IVC/Mohawk (Dalton/Whitfield County), Textile Rubber & Chemical Corp (Dalton/Whitfield County), Constellation Energy (Stephens, Tift, Jefferson, Early, Bartow, Emanuel, Floyd, and Glascock Counties), Ft. Benning (Chattahoochee County), and many more in over 40 Georgia Counties, and in 2012 we restored the largest rooftop solar PV System in the world when built for the 1996 Olympics, at the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center. Around the country we have built over 44 community solar gardens in Minnesota, New York and elsewhere, developed the largest solar + battery storage Project in the Southeast, 12 MW-hours of storage at Brunswick EMC (NC), and are currently building the largest microgrid in the southeast.
Pete: How do the economics work for solar companies and building owners wanting to do projects in Georgia?
William: In Georgia, we have relatively low, but rising energy costs. There are economic options for residential and commercial buyers who can take advantage of federal energy tax incentives, and given the precipitous decline in solar prices, to some who cannot. Caps on net metering limit the ability of the solar industry to provide economic solar to larger commercial and residential power users. Market restrictions on third-party ownership, and inability for developers to leverage large-scale project economics for Georgia’s citizens, prevents community solar from succeeding as it has in many unregulated markets. Georgia utilities and co-ops are driven to lower rates for all ratepayers, but often provide the benefits of low cost solar power to their largest industrial customers, so smaller businesses and homeowners who can’t invest in their own PV systems are left without options. If the market was more open to community-scale solar projects and third-party ownership of those assets, you would see significant adoption of solar by businesses, institutions, schools, non-profits, and homeowners at lower prices.
Pete: What are some of the impediments to the growth of solar in Georgia?
William: On the residential, commercial, and industrial side, net metering size caps – which sometimes get interpreted by utilities as maximum interconnection size limits – are an impediment. Also unclear and unfair property tax treatment is an issue. Ability to quickly and economically interconnect to the grid with a standard interconnection process is also a major challenge. And finally, inability to market energy without a regulated utility as the buyer, limits the amount of solar, and in particular rooftop/behind-the-meter solar and community solar, that gets done in Georgia – limiting our energy independence. On the federal side, we now pay tariff taxes on many items including inverters, solar cells, steel and other items in excess of the declining tax benefits the federal government offers – so despite the tax credit, the solar industry is likely a net payer of federal tax penalties. Also, unrealistic wholesale energy valuations and compensation for solar generation, and lack of a fair standard offer properly valuing the benefits of solar hinder a free market uplift to the market, and that prevents the associated benefits of solar being accessible to utility customers, businesses, institutions, rural landowners, and local governments in Georgia.