After 30 years in the solar and remodeling business, Bob Chew has a unique perspective on the renewable energy market. Most of his solar installation clients in the 1970s were early adopters and passionate environmentalists. That changed in the early ’80s when the federal government offered a 40% tax credit for solar installations. “We were seeing accountants recommending solar to help higher-income people get credits. At that point, the market changed from environmentalists to everybody,” Chew says.

But in 1986, the Reagan administration cancelled the credit. “The market collapsed within a year,” Chew recalls, “and 90% of manufacturers and contractors went out of business.”

In 2000, Chew saw the tide turned again and started a solar division of his remodeling company. Called SolarWrights, he spun that division off into a separate company and last year merged it with Solar Works — a solar installation company in the area — to form Alteris.

Remodeler Bob Chew says the ideal location for photovoltaic panels is on a south-facing roof with at least 7 hours of sun exposure.
courtesy Alteris Remodeler Bob Chew says the ideal location for photovoltaic panels is on a south-facing roof with at least 7 hours of sun exposure.

Chew says the return on investment of solar is influenced by two factors: cost of fossil fuels and cost of photovoltaic (PV) products. “When we see barrels of oil go to $130, it has a positive impact on our ability to sell thermals.”

A thermal solar installation is an insulated box of glass or evacuated tubes that uses the sun to heat water for domestic hot water or radiant floors. These are best for houses with a partially shaded roof or a ground space. Alteris also offers PV panel installations for sunnier sites.

Since the onset of the recession, PVs have become more readily available, so prices are coming down. This lower pricing, along with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act tax credits, is helping to drive interest in solar.

Chew was working in Rhode Island, but when that state cut solar incentives, he expanded to several New England states, which fueled the company’s growth. Bill Kanzer, Director of Marketing at Alteris, says the company lists state residential and commercial solar incentives and programs on its website and is also tracking wind-power incentives for its new wind division. Kanzer says that current solar and wind programs are not tied to Recovery Act funds. But, he adds, “as the stimulus money comes forward, states are putting together programs. We’re not clear how that might unfold.”

—Nina Patel, senior editor, REMODELING.