By: David Robinson
Daniel T. Montante is a big believer in solar power.
Montante is the president of Montante Solar, an affiliate of Buffalo-based developer Montante Development that started out installing solar energy systems on the company’s Riverview Solar Technology Park in the Town of Tonawanda and has since branched out to installing solar systems for other customers.
With an expanded solar array at the FedEx Trade Networks office and distribution facility in the Riverview Solar complex opening last week, nearly doubling the generating capacity of the building’s solar power system, Montante discussed that project and the outlook for the commercial solar industry.
Q: What does the latest FedEx solar expansion involve?
A: This is the second project we’ve built for FedEx. This project is a 100-kilowatt project that’s entirely rooftop based.
Montante Solar focuses almost exclusively on commercial-scale projects. This is our bread and butter. This is what we focus on every day. This is a very efficient project that will deliver great savings to FedEx.
Every building (in the technology park) has a solar element to it. The most recent building we built here was for FedEx. This is the second solar array we’ve built for FedEx.
The first one was associated with the actual building construction. That’s the advanced solar architecture that was incorporated into the design of the building from the ground up.
That array is remarkable in a number of ways. Everything from the siting of the building to the orientation of the building as well as the impact it would have on the employees inside the building was taken into account.
You can actually see through those panels, so for the folks working in that building, they can look out through those panels and it allows about 12 percent light transmission through those panels.
Q: What will FedEx’s total solar capacity be?
A: It’s 250 kilowatts.
Q: Was the expansion planned when you built the building or did it come out of the blue?
A: It wasn’t out of the blue. What was planned before we broke ground was the curtain wall (the original ground-mounted array on the side of the FedEx building) and everything else was negotiable.
If you look at FedEx and what their sustainability objectives are, it clearly was a good place for solar. To the extent we could provide them with a solution that ticked the box on sustainability and made the numbers work right for them, we have a home run of a project.
Q: How much of FedEx’s consumption will be met by the solar arrays?
A: We believe it will reduce their power consumption in the neighborhood of 35 percent.
Q: The original FedEx array is a lot steeper than many of the arrays you see around here. Why is that?
A: The slope of it is about 35 degrees. That’s pretty much optimal for this part of the country. Further south, you want them more flat because they’re at a lower latitude (and the sun is higher in the sky).
Q: When you look to put solar on a building like FedEx’s, what do you look for?
A: You start with the physical attributes of the site. Do you have the physical space? Do you have any shading that can impact the production of solar electricity? Once you cross those two things off the list, you start looking at the numbers more carefully.
Q: How big does a commercial project have to be to be viable?
A: Sometimes the customers have a goal. They want to do something meaningful or nothing at all. But from a return-on-investment point of view, big projects work as well as smaller projects do. We like the bigger projects. I do think the financial returns tend to be better on commercial-scale projects.
Q: How does adding the solar capacity set this park apart from conventional office parks?
A: This was a combination of real estate and solar product development, where the solar project was integral to the negotiation of the entire lease, not just for FedEx but for their neighbors at Unifrax. Solar was a big element for them coming into the park.
Most of Montante Solar’s work is unrelated to Montante Group properties. The projects have to stand on their own.
Q: Is there more awareness and acceptance in solar projects among companies?
A: I think there’s definitely more awareness than there was a few years ago. It’s projects like we have here with FedEx that give other people comfort that the technology works and that it pays financial dividends. We need more of this.
New York State is investing in the SolarCity expansion in South Buffalo. I think that bodes well, at the state level, that we need to support more than just the manufacturing operations, that we need to support the end market, as well.
Q: How has the technology and efficiency changed over the years?
A: This is a 305-watt panel. What we’re installing today, at the same exact size, would be a 315-watt panel. What you have is incremental improvements in conversion efficiency that allow you to get more watts from a smaller space.
It means you can fit more watts on a rooftop, but it also means you’re using less racking, less ballast, less wires. That’s what’s driving down costs in the industry now.
Q: How important are incentives?
A: A big part of what we do in developing solar projects is structuring them in a way that is optimized not just from the solar-production perspective but from a tax perspective. The U.S. tax code does accommodate solar installations with respect to depreciation, as well as how a company can utilize the 30 percent investment tax credit.
Q: What kind of state incentives are available?
A: The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority administers the NY-Sun program. Typically, they’re providing incentives that offset 20 percent to 25 percent of the project costs, depending on the project type, so they’re very helpful.
Q: Is most of your work on buildings that Montante owns?
A: What we’ve been successful at doing is parlaying solar projects that we’ve built on our own buildings into projects that we’ve built for third parties. We’ve done three projects for Reid Petroleum and Crosby Stores. We’ve done multiple projects for Ceiling Devices. We’re about to embark on a Buffalo School District (project), doing 20 buildings of theirs. The school district project is about 3 megawatts.
We’ve been named by the New York Power Authority as one of two contractors for NYPA solar projects across the state. Montante Solar and one other company will do all of the NYPA projects outside of Long Island and New York City.
We’ve been successful at turning the corner from doing our own projects for our own buildings to doing third-party projects.
Q: If you were to add up all the projects that Montante Solar has done, what’s the total capacity you’ve installed?
A: If you include the Buffalo Schools project coming up, we’re in the neighborhood of 5 megawatts. We’re looking to grow geographically in 2016. It’s going to be an interesting year.
I’m pretty bullish on the outlook, regardless of what happens with the ITC (investment tax credit). There are so many people who are working in solar today and the costs are moving in the right direction. I think it’s a good time to be in the industry.
Originally published in The Buffalo News on November 22, 2015