Powered by the Sun
Scott Marshall has his eyes set on the future.
The owner of Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has strategically positioned his shop to take on what’s to come—both in the kind of work it is doing and the way in which it's doing it.
Marshall estimates that within the next two years his shop will be working exclusively on electric cars—which makes sense, since the shop was one of the first four factory-trained Tesla repair facilities in the world.
Electric, he says, is the way of the future, so that’s the direction he and the shop are headed. He believes the same is true of solar power, which is why he made the switch to powering his shop exclusively with solar in 2014.
“Solar allows us to be a sustainable business,” says Marshall. “We are very clean and we try not to waste labor, materials, or resources … your profits increase when you don't waste things. So solar was part of that. And the biggest part, of course, is the environmental impact—we want to do our part in that regard most of all.”
Although the technology for solar power has been around since the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the last several decades that it reached the point of being accessible to the masses. Prior to that, it was used mainly in satellites and other government applications.
Now, however, Marshall Auto Body is one of over 3.5 million individual solar installations across the country, and that number is expanding rapidly. The solar industry has grown over 30% every year for the last decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
When you visit Marshall’s website, he proudly states that, “The energy we use to repair your vehicle comes from the sun!” And it’s true—his entire operation, which includes several electric vehicle charging stations, is powered by the 284 solar panels that cover the roof of his building. There’s even a widget on the shop website showing how much power the panels are generating in real time.
“Not only do our solar panels generate enough energy to power the entire shop, we often have excess that we sell or donate back to the power company,” says Marshall. “Even in the winter.”
The amount of electricity it takes to power a business can be costly, especially when that business is drawing large amounts of power for daily operations. Power tools, machinery, lifts, paint booths—they all require a good deal of electricity, and it adds up quickly when you’re paying a utility company. Marshall estimates that he was spending around $14,000 a year on his electric bill before switching to solar. That money now goes directly into his pocket.
An even bigger concern than the ongoing cost of traditional electricity, however, is the method by which it’s produced. Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are needed to generate the power that supplies traditional electricity, and not only are they finite resources with limited reserves but burning them to produce energy is harmful to the environment in many ways. And that’s something that will affect all of us, Marshall says, regardless of which side of the political spectrum a person falls on.
There’s also the issue of supply and demand—there’s not always enough electricity available through the grid to meet the demand of everyone who needs it, with some states implementing rolling blackouts to conserve energy. That can have a detrimental effect on business operations.
Solar power is a self-sustaining, renewable energy source, meaning the reserves are never depleted because they are constantly replenished—the sun will never stop shining, after all! It’s also one of the cleanest forms of energy currently available, and it allows its users to control where their energy is coming from.
Marshall readily acknowledges that making the switch to solar power is an investment, but it’s one that will pay for itself exponentially in the long run. And, to help offset the upfront cost, the government offers a 30% income tax credit to any business installing a solar energy system. Because of that, Marshall was able to recoup his installation cost within just five years—which means he’s already profited over $40,000 in the three years since. That savings will only continue to compound in the months and years to come.
More importantly, however, Marshall appreciates that solar power allows him to operate his business in a more sustainable way as he strives to reduce waste in every area of his operations.
“Solar energy is something anyone and everyone can benefit from, as long as they see their business as viable for years to come,” Marshall says. “It’s an investment in the future. It's good for business, and it's not a partisan thing at all. It just makes sense in every way from the economic sense to the environmental sense, and common sense, too, and from a profit standpoint as well.”
The average lifespan of solar panels is reported to be 25 to 30 years, although Marshall says he’s heard of many lasting up to 40 years.
In the eight years since installing his panels, he estimates that he’s spent $500 on maintenance, total.
“There’s practically zero maintenance,” says Marshall. “If you were in a dirty or dusty area, you might have to wash them, but we never have. And every maybe four or five years you're supposed to clean the filters on the inverters. We've had to have a couple of the inverters fixed over the years, but it was a minor thing. There really isn’t any maintenance to speak of.”
As the panels age, they may need more attention, concedes Marshall, but they’ll continue paying him dividends on his initial investment regardless.
While in the past solar energy was reserved for an elite few, it’s now an affordable, efficient, sustainable option for everyone, especially for business owners looking to lower their overhead costs and future-proof their operations.
There is still a good deal of confusion and misconception around the technology, however, due to the fact that many people remain unfamiliar with it.
Most of the myths circulating around about solar power are just that, though —you don’t have to live in an area that receives constant sun, the technology is reliable, and the cost isn’t insurmountable anymore.
There are certain factors unique to every shop that will need to be considered to determine if solar is the right choice for them, of course, but Marshall would encourage any owner who plans to stay in business long-term to consider researching the technology and talking to local installers about the feasibility for their shop.
Educating yourself is the first step in the process, he says, the same way you would if you were investing in a new piece of machinery.
“Widen your frame of reference and start reading and learning with an open mind…we all have certain news sources we default to on a regular basis, this is different,” he says. “Make an effort to find unbiased information from people that have been involved in the solar industry for a long time. Learn about the reality of it, and how it might fit into your business plans.”
Marshall even suggests finding a local business that’s already using solar to see the setup firsthand and talk to them about their experience with it directly.