Contributions by Aimée Christensen and Billy Mann
Wood River Inn & Suites is the first hotel in the Valley to adopt a large scale solar panel project — and environmental leadership isn’t the only force driving it!
There’s something about the name “Sun Valley” that makes you instantly think of, well…the Sun? Solar energy perhaps? Solar panels? 205 sunny days a year should be enough to give us a hint that solar is in our future. Yet discussing the topic with many individuals and businesses often brings up recollections of tree-hugging hippie slogans – not necessarily of sound business sense.
Yet business sense is exactly what brought Ryan Allison, owner of the Wood River Inn & Suites in Hailey, Idaho, and Billy Mann, manager of Altenergy Sun Valley (formerly known as Sagebrush Solar) together to execute the Wood River Valley’s largest commercial solar panel project in one of the Valley’s most energy-hungry industries: hospitality.
Hotels spend a substantial amount of their running costs each year on energy, and the number is only growing with the ever-increasing technological demands of modern life. This makes saving on energy costs, for anyone operating a hospitality business, a very big deal.
Having already invested in other energy-saving alternatives, such as switching all their lights to LEDs and installing energy-saving thermostats in all their rooms, it made sense that the next step would lead to investing in solar. Allison admits, however, that this was not an immediately obvious possibility due to the upfront costs involved in the installation of solar for a business with the level of energy demand the Wood River Inn has.
“It was when Billy introduced us to a financing partner that this project became feasible and a no-brainer in terms of a business investment”, Allison commented, “I looked at the math and it just made sense”.
That changed everything. Billy Mann further explained of the system, “With the low monthly payments and the commercial solar tax incentives, the project will be more than $25,000 cash-flow positive in the first year. This 55 kW project will start saving the Inn about $7000 per year (not including the tax incentives), and will increase from there as energy rates increase. Most years, when the roof is clear, savings will be about 15% better. Conservatively, assuming the former, the system will deliver a 12% internal rate of return over its lifetime – a solid investment.”
“This solar investment by the Inn competes directly with Wall Street returns, and in addition to the environmental and local job creation benefits, banks merely on the sun rising each day rather than the ‘crazy antics of wall street’. That makes it a pretty secure investment,” Mann jokes. It’s hard to argue with his logic.
Taking into account Allison’s net investment, and the predicted decrease in panel productivity over time, he is still effectively locking in his electricity rate at 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour for the next 25 years, compared to the rate he would otherwise be paying to Idaho Power over the course of this project, currently 9 cents per kilowatt hour and historically increasing 4% per year, potentially up to 18 cents per kilowatt hour by the end of the project.
Mann has determined that after the system pays for itself, Allison will end up saving a total of approximately $130,000 – money that would have otherwise gone to Idaho Power, not only out of the Wood River Valley but also in part to pay for out of state coal-fired electricity. Overall our Valley spends approximately $450 million dollars each year on electricity: that’s a lot of money that could be kept circulating locally to the benefit of the Wood River Valley community. When those resources are kept from leaving the Valley and spent within our community, the original project becomes an investment with ever increasing returns, circulating back around to sustain businesses such as Allison’s hotel over and over again.
So the question now becomes, if solar makes so much sense, why aren’t more businesses in our Valley doing it? Billy Mann was quick to point out that in order to create real change in any sector it needs to make economic sense to business owners and others.
The largest barrier for business owners, however, can be the up-front costs, which Mann believes he’s found an answer for: he’s made it his mission to make sure his clients have options to fund their projects, and in line with this goal a relatively new way of funding solar projects has emerged: program related investment, which involves matching foundations with projects that produce environmental or social benefits in alignment with the foundation’s goals.
The Wood River Inn’s project was possible because Mann introduced Allison to a foundation that was looking for investment opportunities to promote local economic development through renewable energy projects. With the Inn’s strong financial position, the foundation agreed to front the entire installation cost with a 2.5% loan.
Yet another option is to tap into Idaho’s state energy loan program, a low-interest loan available to homes and businesses, offered through local banks including D.L. Evans.
New funding options have allowed significant progress to be made with homeowners who already taking up solar in droves: the Sun Valley Institute’s Solarize Blaine campaign last year helped over 40 families to put solar on their homes, a 500% increase from the previous year!
“Blaine county homeowners are realizing that solar is not only affordable, but a great investment given our plentiful sunshine, a generous federal tax credit and low solar panel costs which have fallen over 80% in the past five years,” said Aimee Christensen, Executive Director of the Sun Valley Institute who has worked globally on energy and environmental matters for over two decades. “Through this one program, Blaine County homeowners invested roughly $1 million in our local community, a great start to what solar can do.”
The City of Ketchum has also began to take action by partnering with a private investor who owns the Ore Wagon Museum project, and leases the solar to the city at a 10% savings to the city on its power bills.
But there’s still much to be done, or more specifically, much information to be spread throughout both private and commercial sectors.
“There’s a lot of people in this Valley who can afford to do this, they just don’t know it”, said Allison, “We live in Sun Valley, lets put it on our rental homes, our businesses, lets convert 33% of our energy needs into savings and reduce the 450 million dollars that goes out of our economy each year! Can you imagine taking 33% of that number and putting that back into our community? The compounded impact is much bigger than just one solar panel project.”