Interview with Ralph Walters – SBS Solar

Updated on June 29, 2023

In today’s interview we have Ralph Walters, the owner of SBS Solar.

| Can you introduce yourself and maybe tell us a little bit about yourself and the company?

<span style="color: #0d64ba;">| </span><b>Can you introduce yourself and maybe tell us a little bit about yourself and the company?</b>My name is Ralph Walters. My wife and I own SBS Solar in Missoula, Montana. We’re a small solar installation company that focuses primarily on residential grid-tied systems. However, we also do battery backup and off-grid systems, as well as a fair amount of commercial solar installations.

| Is SBS your company?

There are four of us. Myself and my wife own 80% of the company; and then we have two business partners that own the rest.

| Were you a part of the solar world before entering this company, or is this something you just started out?

No, I got interested in solar way back in 2009 and decided to make it my future career. And I started working for SBS in 2014, working as an installer for two years. 

In 2020 the owners actually reached out to me, telling me they wanted to retire and asking if I wanted to take over. Which I did! 

So, you can say I’m new to owning a solar company, but I’m not new to solar in general.

| So that was around when Covid started?

Yeah. It was kind of right at the beginning. We began the process in January of 2020, so just when it was starting to really take effect. It was a strange time to start a business endeavor.

| Did you have any major problems when you took over, suppliers, demand etc., considering it was the beginning of a world-wide pandemic?

We kind of lucked out that first year and didn’t have any major problems. In 2021, however (and 2022) we had significant problems. I think that a lot of that was covid-based or covid-caused, if you will, leading to supply chain issues. But right at the beginning of Covid, everything flowed pretty smoothly. 

| Can you tell me more about the services you provide? I see on your website, you listed mounting structures for solar systems, battery backup, financing, and net metering. Can you maybe talk us through each of these services?

When a customer becomes interested in generating their own power, whether for environmental reasons or economic ones, and finds us, we have a fairly detailed conversation, talking about what net metering is and how solar works and what situations it makes sense in.

So, we do kind of a broad look with the customer via phone conversation, then we receive their power bill and do a basic desk analysis. We use our design software, Google Earth, and figure out if they have an appropriate solar real estate for their needs, and what we can accomplish in terms of offsetting their current consumption.

After we do that analysis, we give them a basic price breakdown. If that sounds appealing to them, if it’s within their budget and it’s what they were thinking, then we go ahead and do a lengthy site visit with the potential customer. We take pictures and measurements and really get down to the nitty gritty so that we can give them a very detailed proposal that is as accurate as we can possibly make it.

| What about your team? Do you have full time employees or work with contractors?

No, we don’t sub out any of our solar work. We do sub out licensed electrician work – we partner with two licensed electricians that do that part of the business, and the rest of the install, the design, the customer support, all of that is in-house.

| Do you have a lot of competition over there?

We do, actually. The thing with Montana is that it’s huge, and the population is somewhat scattered, so we only have like three or four “bigger” towns. And the two of the biggest ones, Missoula and Bozeman, are the current solar hotspots. Those are the communities and areas where solar is popular, successfully implemented, understood and installed.

Of course, we get a lot of calls from people outside of these areas, but in most cases, we are not able to take the job as it does not make sense for us, both economically and time-wise.

| WE can say you’ve been in the business for a long time, right?

I think I’ve been in the business for a fair amount of time. SBS Solar has been around for 13 years and gone through three sets of owners. It became exclusively solar probably 8 or 9 years ago, btw.

| Can you maybe tell us a little about the changes you’ve witnessed through these years? Changes that may have made your business (and the installation process) easier, harder, etc?

First of all, I think it’s pretty easy to say that solar is an innovation-driven business. There are lots of brand new, fresh, exciting ideas popping up all the time. Some of them don’t pan out, some of them don’t ever quite become economical or popular, and kind of fade away. 

But that level of experimentation and innovation makes the fundamental technologies better all the time. Your readers will probably know, or at least learn now, that every Solar system has three basic components to it: 

  • Solar panels that take light from the sun and convert it into DC electricity
  • Racking system that holds those solar panels 
  • And inverters that take that DC electricity and turn it into alternating current, which  you can use in your day-to-day life

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The technology just gets vastly better all the time. Even 13 years ago when SBS was starting out, solar panels were much less efficient. They were probably in the 14% efficiency range, and now they’re pushing past 20%. 

Inverters had much lower efficiency percentages, and now all proper inverters are 98% plus efficient, which is really exciting. The technology has changed such that shading is not the demon that it once was. It used to be that if your solar panels weren’t perfectly unshaded, it really didn’t make much sense to invest in solar. 

Another thing that has changed really dramatically in solar is monitoring. It used to be that you would put up a solar array, and unless you really carefully paid attention to it, you didn’t know if it was even working or not. I still have legacy customers who finally call me, and it turns out their system hasn’t been working for years and they didn’t even know it, which is tragic. 

But now every system that we install is connected to the internet, and you can see how well it’s performing.

Another huge advancement was made in the solar storage department. With the advent of lithium chemistry batteries, having battery backup is not only possible, but very efficient.

Of course, battery banks are still relatively expensive, but the advancements in battery technology are making them more and more affordable with each passing year. 

So, all of those technological breakthroughs help me do my business better. They don’t have to have the perfect roof to be able to make use of solar; they don’t have to be super rich or have a huge ranch to make their solar system worthwhile. These are exciting times for both solar installers as well as our customers!

| While we’re on the subject of money… do people still think they have to be super rich to be able to afford a solar system?

Yeah, I think that preconception still exists. Again, especially here in Montana, people are a little bit behind – there’s an education cliff to climb. We need to make people understand that solar is efficient, and it does work even though we have cold weather and snowy winters.

But, like I said, we live in a solar hotspot, Missoula is very solar savvy. People see these solar systems in their neighbor’s houses and get curious. They do a little bit of research and then give me a call. They may not be fully ready to go solar, but they understand the technology’s viability and start thinking about it. 

But really, the crux of it is net metering. The fact that the utility can take that excess day generation during the summertime in the high peak solar months, sell it to other customers, and then give solar customers those credits back in a fair way – that’s the only reason my business is even able to exist!

| We talked a lot about Montana, what are your thoughts on the rest of the United States, about solar energy in general? And also, what are some of its major challenges?

The current state of solar in this part of the United States, and in the United States in general, is that it is growing and becoming more popular. This is driven by heightened awareness of the viability of the technology, proof every day that climate change is real, and subsidies from local, state, and the federal government. Without the subsidies my industry would still be growing but only for the wealthiest of americans. The subsidies make solar achievable. 

The biggest challenges solar faces is keeping up with demand, quality control, policy consistency, and recyclability. Having a robust and steady supply chain will help solar become even more mainstream.

Demand and quality control – Making sure that the people that install solar are qualified and accredited is very important. Unfortunately the demand for solar has the potential to bring installers into the market looking to cash in who don’t have the training, experience or accreditation needed. This brings up the possibility of installs that are incorrect or worse, unsafe, and that has the potential of spoiling the reputation of the technology for new customers. This is especially true when it comes to the addition of storage for backup. In the coming years with EVs and new battery chemistries it is very exciting but it is also potentially dangerous if corners are cut.

Policy consistency – for years the available subsidies have come and gone and been available at the whim of our elected officials, Until the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal tax credits were set to go down and then expire. This caused both a rush of business and also, strangely, a pulling back. Some people got scared the tax credit would go away and that fear pushed them into making the decision. Other people who were very interested in solar for environmental and economic reasons were afraid to begin a project because the subsidies could get better or go away entirely and this group’s fears kept them from making the decision. The IRA is supposed to make the subsidy consistent for 10 years. That kind of stability makes me confident I can grow my business and invest in the future. New equipment, new hires, better wages for my team. Even if the subsidies were to go away, or remain permanent at a lower rate, that might be better than living under the threat of them, maybe, going away…maybe…it always helps to have incentive.

Recyclability –  There is an ocean of solar panels approaching their end of life, and the volume is only going to continue to grow. There is an enormous need and potential there for the recycling of panels and electronics. The lifespan of solar panels makes their impact on the waste side of the equation seem small, but the curve of growth will require us to solve this problem as soon as possible. 

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