Thanks to the generosity and progressive approach of a local business owner, the Texas County Food Pantry recently took a step in the direction of renewable energy.

Houston resident Caleb Arthur started Missouri Sun Solar in May of 2012 with two other employees. The business has since grown to the point that it now employs 35 people and has an office in Ellisville. In that short time span, Arthur’s firm has installed residential and commercial systems producing more than three megawatts of electricity (the equivalent of powering about 300 homes).

In his quest to expand the reach and influence of solar energy and educate people on how it works and its benefits, Arthur decided to start donating systems to charitable organizations. One of the first of those donations recently took place in Houston, as a solar power system was installed at the Texas County Food Pantry. It’s the first solar system at a commercial location in the community.

“We’re proud to partner with the Food Pantry to try and help the residents of Houston and Texas County,” Arthur said. “We hope this project will introduce more people in the area to the potential of solar power and allow more people to access the food that they need during these tough times.

“It’s not a big system, but it’s something I wanted to give back to the community. I was raised here, I live here and I started my company here, so I want to bring solar to the community.”

During its lifetime, the 5.1 kilowatt system is expected save the Food Pantry more than $40,000. All labor and material required to install it were donated by Missouri Sun Solar (including American-made solar panels from SolarWorld).

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” pantry director Bennie Cook said. “Obviously it will save us money on our electric bill, and with energy costs going up, that’s definitely not going to hurt us. And what we save will be put back into food, helping with somebody’s rent or utilities and other things we’re all about.”

Solar power systems Arthur’s company installs are guaranteed for 25 years, but he said they’re likely to continue performing well far longer than that.

“They usually lose a very small amount of efficiency over time, so after 30 or 40 years you could have a panel putting out maybe half of what it’s rated at,” Arthur said, “but they don’t just shut off like when a battery dies.”

Operations manager Adam Stipanovich was one of Arthur’s original employees. He said solar panels can actually last decades.

“I recently saw an interesting statistic that more than 98 percent of all solar panels commissioned since 1972 are still operating today,” Stipanovich said.

Not only is the Food Pantry solar project designed to save the organization money, it’s also intended to be an educational tool for students of all county school districts, who will be invited to view the project and learn first-hand how solar energy works. A kiosk with a TV screen will be placed inside the pantry building that will show the system’s real-time production and other statistics related to energy conservation.

“With a massive need for renewable energy in the United States in the coming years, this will make it possible for students and anyone else interested in the field to learn the basics about the various components of the system and see how electricity is created and fed back into the grid,” Arthur said. “I want to have the system monitored such that people can go on our website and see what it’s producing, how many trees it has saved and things like that. I want students, church groups and whoever else to come by and look at the panels on the roof and see the TV screen. I want to make it so people can call our main office and set up an appointment, and I’ll personally come and walk them through it.”

“Once people see that solar works, how it works and why it works, they understand that it can work for everybody,” Stipanovich said. “Everyone we talk to becomes a believer once they understand those things.”

Arthur has presented proposals to multiple agencies and organizations in Texas County, including the county commission and Houston School District.

“There’s a lot of education needed and it’s going to be a process,” he said. “I think the education about these systems, how they function and what they can and can’t do is the key to seeing small communities wanting to go solar. I figure in the next five years, solar will be big in Missouri. But there has to be a grassroots campaign educating people first.”

Arthur plans to donate a small system to the Houston School District’s vocational department.

“The students will be able to tear it down, unhook it, and go back through the process,” he said. “Then me, a school teacher, or someone else who’s electrically certified can teach them more about solar than they would otherwise be able to learn.”

Arthur believes his status as owner of Missouri’s largest family-owned solar power company and one of the top few in the state overall is part of a larger picture.

“I want people to realize that my company didn’t just happen for no reason,” he said. “I feel that God led me to be in this position to help communities protect themselves and to build their own power so they can control their future. I’m kind of a maximum freedom guy, and I believe that people need to understand they can gain freedom from increasing utility bills and the uncertainty of not knowing what the market is going to do years down the road.”

*Editor’s note: The following portion of this story did not appear in the printed version of the Houston Herald.

Arthur said one of the reasons solar power is slow to expand in rural areas is that utility companies haven’t gotten on board yet.

“Electric companies support renewable energy, but they support it where they can control it,” he said. “If we put solar panels on someone’s house and they don’t have to pay the utility company any money any more, then the company isn’t making a profit any more. In Springfield, they’re getting ready to build the biggest solar plant in Missouri, but City Utilities is going to reap the benefits of that, not the customer.

“There’s a huge battle going on right now over whether home owners and commercial industries get to solar and start building it out back toward utilities, or do utilities try to take control and build it out and sell it to their customers. I’m trying to educate people that it really does work, that it can offset electric bills and that it’s stable and not some wild energy shooting sparks out.”

Arthur and Stipanovich pointed out that solar is one of the only energy resources that has decreased in cost.

“The price of oil, coal and everything else has gone up over the past 100 years,” Arthur said. “Solar used to cost roughly $80 a watt installed, but now the prices are anywhere from $2.50 to $3.50 a watt.”

“Since 2011, the installed cost of solar has dropped 60 percent, whereas the average utility rate has increased in the range of five to eight percent,” Stipanovich said. “So we’re going the opposite way. And with solar, you’re talking about a technology that basically allows power to be made out of nothing. You don’t have to burn anything or rely on another resource, like digging something out of the ground. People just need to realize you can harness that.”

Arthur, who is a board member of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association (MOSEIA), said one of the many benefits of solar is that there are monetary incentives for people to begin using it – especially commercially.

“There is a 30 percent federal tax credit, if someone has taxable income or it’s a business,” he said. “And businesses get an accelerated depreciation, so the full 25-year life of a system and deduct if fully within the first five years. It’s a good way for companies to protect their investment, because if they’re able to offset electric bills, invest in that and deduct it, and then lock in their electric rates and not worry about inflation, it’s like a triple-dip for them.”

In many urban areas, rebates have existed that pay for large percentages of the initial cost of installing a solar system. Arthur hopes similar incentives will soon appear in rural areas, so more average citizens can afford solar.

“There’s a huge opportunity,” he said, “but we have to educate people so they can put pressure on their coops, cities and legislators. So many people have watched my company grow who are with coops or cities and they ask ‘why can’t I get rebates and why does that person in St. Louis get half of their system paid for and I have to pay for all of mine?’

“I just tell them they’re a member of their coop, and you elect board members to vote on how the coop operates. I think it’s important that people start putting pressure on their coop or city to understand it’s a proven technology and can work.”

Arthur said it’s hard for people to grasp the concept that solar power systems can have the capacity to produce enough electricity to run a home or business and have enough left over to actually put some back into the grid.

“The reality is, with a big enough system your meter can actually spin backward and you’re supplying the grid with electricity instead of taking it,” he said. “I have a video of one of my clients in St. Louis, and it was overcast and rainy and his meter was spinning backward. All that’s necessary is ambient light – that’s how efficient these systems are. I’ve even had the moon make my system come on and the lights come on. 

“People have a hard time understanding that kind of efficiency, and I’ve spent a lot of time discussing that. But if I brought you a car that refilled itself, you’d think it was too good to be true and you’d want to drive it everywhere.”

To learn more about solar energy, including its costs and benefits, call Missouri Sun Solar at 636-299-0786, or email Caleb Arthur at caleb@missourisunsolar.com. The company’s web address is www.missourisunsolar.com.

The Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association’s Web address is http://adminmoseia.hypermart.net/.

I think the education about these systems, how they function and what they can and can’t do is the key to seeing small communities wanting to go solar.”

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