Solar water heating company may leave state
Auguste Lemaire, president of Sunvelope, struck his interest with solar water heating in high school.
As a fifth-generation Nevadan and with the entrepreneur gene running in his family, Lemaire began his solar water heating business, Sunvelope, nine years ago.
“I believe in changing the way to heat water,” Lemaire said.
“Nevada has a world class sun potential and we wanted to access that market,” he said.
However, the future may not be so bright for Sunvelope as they find themselves one of the last remaining solar companies in northern Nevada.
As a result of decisions made by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUCN), business has become “really tough” Lemaire explained. PUCN adjusted their net metering rules for solar energy as well as rebate opportunities for solar thermal, which resulted in a drop off of customer interest in solar investments.
Lemaire outlined that an alternate energy source was needed to mitigate energy and, in Nevada, alternative energy needs to be more sophisticated because of the extreme weather. Their solar hot water collector is freeze tolerant, making it usable in Nevada’s freezing temperatures. The direct connection system allows direct heating of the water in the tank reducing cost up to 50 percent and boosting output 20 percent, he said.
Sunvelope has been the dominant product in northern Nevada for solar water heating.
“Solar hot water takes power off the grid on hot sunny days,” Lemaire highlighted as one of the features of solar hot water — it helps alleviate stress on the grid at peak times.
He estimated over 100 Sunvelope products are installed in northern Nevada.
Like many solar companies, the rebate system that was in place aided the successful installation of products like Sunvelope in homes.
The rebate for solar hot water was issued upfront so customers who have a Sunvelope system in their home are not facing as difficult a situation as some solar solutions like solar energy.
“The rebate was never intended to be forever,” Lemaire explained. “It is intended to build momentum but that momentum was never built.”
In addition to the momentum tapering off as a result of the rebate ruling in late 2015, job loss also followed. SolarCity’s website, for example, indicated the decision resulting in a loss of more than 550 jobs in Nevada.
Lemaire stressed Nevada’s need for a consistent stance on renewable energy.
“We haven’t had a consistent rebate program,” he said.
He noted the difficulty of doing business when it is unsure year-to-year what is going to happen.
For Sunvelope, their goal was to use the market in northern Nevada to build their manufacturing and build out into California and Oregon.
With the intention of having Nevada as their base, the PUC ruling was “damaging to us because we were going to launch into California and Oregon,” Lemaire explained.
The effect, instead, was Sunvelope’s investors backed out because they feared a similar outcome in the neighboring states after watching the result first hand in Nevada.
Sunvelope is down to a skeleton crew at their Sparks manufacturing facility.
Lemaire said they are looking to Montana as well as international opportunities, especially in developing countries, for prospective markets with their solar water heating.
“I am pretty pragmatic, there are things about Reno that are fantastic,” Lemaire said. “For manufacturing it is a good place to be in business.”
“The (northern Nevada) area has access to major markets with Oregon, California, Utah and Arizona, as well,” Lemaire added. “You can ship to any of those places in one or two days.”
“The hope was to anchor this location,” Lemaire said. The boom and bust of the solar industry in Nevada may push Sunvelope to look elsewhere.
“I hope to keep Sunvelope in Nevada, but I am a business man and I live within reality and that means I might need to go where the money is,” Lemaire said.
“I would love to see the state of Nevada have a predictable program for energy. “ he said. “We have the opportunity to export energy as well as products. We need a solid statewide policy that is consistent and dependable.”
“Among private sector industries, only the mining and logging and financial activities industries have seen increases in employment since last year,” says Nevada DETR Economist Dave Schmidt.