The scorching South Texas sun holds virtually unlimited potential to generate electricity, and consumer demand for solar power is on the rise. And while at one time about seven solar companies operated in the Rio Grande Valley, today there is only a handful, and only one of those is locally owned and operated.
American Made Solar and Wind Technologies, based in Weslaco, specializes in meeting the demand for both commercial and residential solar installations. “I believe we are the only one based in the Valley,” said Alex Pena, a renewable energy consultant and partner in the business. “We have been around for about 14 years, and in the solar industry that is very old.”
Other solar companies operate in the Valley with field sales offices for companies based out of other Texas cities. They include Alba Energy of Austin, South Texas Solar Systems of Laredo and Solergy of McAllen.
Since it was founded, American Made Solar and Wind Technologies has left a large footprint of commercial and residential solar installations from one end of the Valley to the other. “This is not the future,” Pena said. “It is the present for our company and has been for the last 14 years.”
Pena said solar is not an easy business as it is heavily regulated by the government, which also offers an array of incentives for people to move to renewable energy sources. “It is a tough business. During the past 10 years the licenses and the things that you need to have to install solar panels are very tough to get. And that by itself, plus the difficulty of running any kind of business, makes it a tough industry.”
American Made Solar and Wind Technologies has a track record of success, primarily with large installations on private commercial buildings and for local government entities like school districts, county agencies and cities, with much of that work funded through grants, Pena said. Currently about 10 percent of the company’s installations are residential, but that is a growing segment of the business.
At both the federal and state level, government is pushing the advancement of solar through incentives like tax credits, refunds and grants for solar installations. It’s a complex system that can be difficult to unravel, but can reduce the cost of making the transition from traditional energy sources to renewable ones.
“Everybody can go solar right now with zero dollars down,” Pena said. Using a simplified example, Pena said homeowners who spend $100 a month on electricity from a provider can have a solar system installed with no money down and monthly payments of $90. Once the payment plan is complete, the homeowner owes nothing and enjoys free electricity. And homeowners who qualify can take advantage of government incentives to reduce the initial outlay.
“Instead of being an expense, it becomes an investment,” Pena said about the payment plans. “And in five years or 10 years, depending on your case, you don’t pay for anything else. It makes total sense. And that’s how the solar industry is aggressively pursuing you and me and everybody else to switch to solar.”
The disparity between commercial and residential solar advancement in the Valley has a lot to do with business versus consumer approaches to spending, Pena said. For example, individuals may opt to buy an inexpensive incandescent light bulb instead of a pricier LED bulb. “You buy the cheapest because it’s an immediate savings but you don’t realize that that cheap bulb is going to use a lot more energy and burn out a lot sooner than the more expensive one.”
Businesses and large government institutions take more of a bottom-line approach. “Businesses don’t think like that,” Pena said. “They see it as an immediate benefit. They know that they are going to get their money back the first year.”
It is an issue for solar companies everywhere, despite plentiful examples of consumer savings. “It’s like it’s too good to be true,” Pena said. “People still don’t believe it. It sounds like a scam, right? But it’s backed up by the Department of Energy, the brokers, the IRS, everybody knows it works.”
American Made Solar and Wind Technologies sells and installs equipment made from components manufactured in the United States and other countries. “We follow the rules for the American made designation. A lot of components come from somewhere else, but it is considered American as long as it is assembled and inspected in the United States.”
Pena, who holds electrical and mechanical engineering degrees and who formerly taught the subjects at what is now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said his company is well staffed with the expertise for just about any project. “Everybody here is an electrical engineer so we are not afraid to go into big projects.”
American Made Solar and Wind Technologies works with customers to design solar systems tailored to individual needs and situations. Retrofits on existing structures tend to be more expensive because older buildings are less energy efficient and require more solar equipment.
The process starts with an analysis of a customer’s energy needs based on current usage. “Once you show me your bill, I am going to make an average and give you a proposal which is going to be, for sure, less than what you are paying and you are going to love it,” Pena said.
American Made Solar and Wind Technologies also offers wind power systems for businesses. “We go with industrial and commercial,” he said. “We used to do residential but that market is too tough. The equipment failure rate on residential was too high.”
The company also weatherizes homes to make them more energy efficient, and offers water treatment and water-saving technologies, which are becoming more important and factor in to a national push to increase solar and wind power generation.
Most people probably do not connect the dots between demand for water and increasing power output. “This is a water crisis that we are facing,” Pena said. Droughts in states like Texas and California, as well as the demand for water in more arid climes, requires a lot of energy just to deliver water, sometimes over long distances. “Sixty-five percent of the energy used in Texas right now is used to move water.”
The large-scale wind farms that have become a common sight in South Texas and elsewhere are part of the solution, as is the expansion of solar power generation, two industries experiencing considerable growth. “Right now there are more solar workers than farmers in Texas,” Pena said.