Making Solar Real in Alabama
Birmingham lawyer Rob Ozols left a sure thing at a big law firm to become the state’s premier solar energy contractor. Flagship contracts include installation of the largest solar system in the state’s largest city.
“Sunny states surrounding Alabama have developed solar industries, and so can we,” says Vulcan Solar Power CEO Rob Ozols.
Just a few years ago Rob Ozols, founder and chief executive officer of Vulcan Solar Power in Birmingham, had attained a coveted shareholder position at the prominent Birmingham law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale PC.
Although Ozols was successful in his legal career, he had long dreamed of working with solar power and began considering ways to pursue it. Because Birmingham did not have a solar power industry, the corporate and bankruptcy law attorney realized he would have to start his own solar power business if he wanted to work in the field. “I’ve always been entrepreneurial in nature,” Ozols says.
Although creating a company that designed and installed turnkey commercial, not-for-profit and residential solar power systems was a risk, Ozols believed the timing was right as he laid the groundwork for Vulcan Solar Power in 2015. “I knew it would take time to educate potential clients, because solar power isn’t commonly used here, but on the other hand, we would have the advantage of being on the ground floor of an emerging industry with tremendous growth potential,” he says.
Ozols has a vision that Alabama can become a leader in the use of solar power. Like other Sunbelt states, Alabama has more than its fair share of sunshine. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has designated Alabama “rooftop rich” in solar potential. “Sunny states surrounding Alabama have developed solar industries, and so can we,” Ozols says.
The business case for solar power has greatly improved in recent years. The price of components for creating solar power has steadily decreased — by more than 30 percent within the last year alone — and interest in alternative energy is growing, Ozols says. Plus the federal government is offering tax incentives to those who purchase solar power systems. “Tax incentives can reduce the effective cost of a solar installation by almost 50 percent,” he says.
Extra power generated by solar systems can be fed into the energy grid, helping defray the capital cost of installing a system over time. “A solar system can pay for itself in as little as five to seven years,” Ozols says.
Because of the technical expertise needed to design and supervise the installation of solar energy systems, Ozols brought solar power veteran Steve Furze into his company as senior operations manager. Furze, who is nationally certified, had led the installation of hundreds of residential, commercial and nonprofit solar energy systems on the Gulf Coast.
Only a matter of months after getting his new company up and running, Ozols learned the University of Alabama at Birmingham was planning to add solar power to the UAB Campus Recreation Center. The university was pleased to receive a bid on its project from a qualified, Alabama-based company. “The timing of the project couldn’t have been any better for us,” Ozols says.
UAB’s 50-kw system, which includes a 100-panel array on the top of the rec center, is now the largest solar energy system in the greater Birmingham area. The project is being used to help educate students and the public in general. A kiosk at the rec center tracks and displays the system’s energy production and energy data is generated for use in college classes.
“The UAB project brought Vulcan Solar Power an abundance of media attention, creating both increased awareness and credibility,” Ozols says.
ABOVE Life may be a daily grind for O’Henry’s Coffee owner Randy Adamy, left, but he still found time to add solar power to his roasting facility in West Homewood.
Soon after hearing about the UAB project’s success, O’Henry’s Coffee owner Randy Adamy approached Vulcan Solar Power about installing a solar power system at O’Henry’s roasting facility in West Homewood. Adamy, who had built his own solar water heating system as a college student in Michigan, was interested to learn Alabama had a new company devoted to the alternative energy source.
“O’Henry’s is interested in sustainability, and the economics of using solar power makes sense,” Adamy says.
Businesses like O’Henry’s that adopt solar power and other resource sustainability measures create good will for themselves, Adamy says, tending to be favorably viewed both by customers and employees. “We have gotten a tremendous amount of positive attention and praise for our choice to go solar,” Adamy says.
O’Henry’s was pleased to learn that the roasting facility’s roof was at the right angle and facing the perfect direction for solar panels. Had it not, Vulcan Solar Power potentially could have accommodated the system with other mounting alternatives. “We are always happy to evaluate a commercial or residential site to let the owner know what the options are,” Ozols says. “Solar power generally is a good option for commercial buildings and can be for residences if there is not too much tree coverage on the property.”
In December, Vulcan Solar Power installed O’Henry’s 15-kilowatt solar energy system. The system will not fulfill all of O’Henry’s power needs, but it is expected to save the company about $2,000 the first year. “During the weekend, when our power needs are minimal, the system will feed energy back into the grid,” Adamy says. “We believe the system could pay for itself in less than five years.”
O’Henry’s opted not to install a larger system, because it would have been a much greater capital outlay. “We appreciated Rob and Steve working with us to design a system that was affordable and fit our needs,” Adamy says. “They did an excellent job with the installation, which was on time and on budget.”
Ozols says he’s pleased with his relatively new company’s progress. Vulcan Solar Power is already operating with positive cash flow. “I tried to be conservative with my expectations, and prepared my family, but I did believe we would do well,” Ozols says.
The company founder believes his law experience was invaluable in helping him get Vulcan Solar Power started and will continue to be of service in his growing the company. “My mentor at Maynard, Cooper & Gale told me he wasn’t worried about me starting a company because he knew I was ‘paranoid.’ He said he knew I would think of anything that possibly could go wrong and would avoid or manage challenges,” Ozols says.
His legal experience has also helped Ozols investigate and address regulatory requirements. He has developed a good working relationship with Alabama Power, he says, and hopes state and local governments will institute incentives for solar power.
“As Alabama’s solar industry grows and creates more jobs and opportunities, I think we will see our state support the industry with incentives as have the states surrounding us,” Ozols says.
Kathy Hagood and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Hagood is based in Homewood and Norton in Birmingham.