Greentown Michiana 2.0: The Future of Inovateus & Solar Power: An Interview with TJ Kanczuzewski and Peter Rienks
Innovation is the common theme linking many healthy, sustainable communities across the country, and Inovateus, based in South Bend, Indiana, derives its name from the word “innovation.” Yet it is also focused on community well-being, says TJ Kanczuzewski, CEO, making it a natural partner for GreenTown.
Since its founding in 2003, this provider of integrated solar energy products and services has been laser focused on creating innovative alternative energy solutions, specifically using solar electricity.
GreenTown recently conducted an interview with Kanczuzewski and Peter Rienks, Senior Account Executive, to learn more about the future of Inovateus and solar power.
GreenTown: Tell us about the beginnings of Inovateus Solar, and how you have grown in recent years.
TJ: My father, Tom, was concerned about the world’s energy future, and he had this idea. He researched different types of renewable energy, and solar power was the one he thought made the most sense as it related to the electrical infrastructure in the United States. And solar proved to be the solution that could be most easily implemented with existing buildings and during new construction.
Since we started ten years ago, we’ve grown quickly through our work with corporations, utilities and municipalities across the U.S. But it’s our focus on community well-being and sustainability that have opened many doors. We now have 25 employees, mostly in the South Bend area.
Peter: Another quality that differs from other solar companies is that as an integrator we are turnkey – but we’ll also work with any suppliers. So we are a service-oriented company. We sell engineering expertise and full-service, integrated photovoltaic solutions, from design to development to construction.
You have completed projects around the U.S. and in the Caribbean with companies such as IKEA, GE and Ford Motors. Tell us about some of your bigger projects.
Peter: Kari-Out is the largest maker of those packets of soy sauce and hot sauce that come with takeout food. The solar project we helped them create now generates 80 percent of the factory’s power. The business owners are very fiscally responsible and are driven by return on investment. They are saving about $500,000 a year on energy costs. Payback will take about four years.
As you mention, General Electric is a strong relationship. They were looking for a partner to help them with a solar carport. GE called and liked that we spend time educating people about solar – it’s part of our customer mission. The installation was so successful GE approached us about installing solar-powered charging stations around the country. We have done several installations for electrical vehicle or EV charging stations, which is a major municipal trend now.
GreenTown: What are the biggest hurdles to overcome?
TJ: Return on investment — ROI — normally comes up first. The second concern is about caring for a property: On the ground or on the roof, how does the installation take place? Are you making holes in the roof? Third, it’s people that make solar investments a success. Most of our clients don’t have much experience working with solar power projects, if any, so a lot of education is required.
The fourth hurdle is understanding how solar works. Most people and companies are tied into the utility. They don’t think about how much energy they use and consume, and they don’t think about how electricity is generated.
If you combine all these, the takeaway is that solar is a different way of thinking for most Americans. If you add solar panels to your house or business, you have to look at it as the same investment as a new facility or renovated kitchen. When you’re generating your own electricity, you achieve independence. That first step is difficult for many of us. Most people don’t like change. Now that we’re getting into the energy revolution, people and organizations are doing it their own way, producing their own electricity and no longer relying solely on the utilities and the grid. It’s a different way of thinking.
As experts in solar applications, there is a lot we have to teach. Typical payback, for example, ranges from two to ten years, with most projects in the three to five year range.
Peter: The Midwest is a very interesting solar market. We have decent sun exposure but the main driver is energy cost in the Great Lakes states. We have relatively low energy costs, which is great for businesses and residential customers, but those energy costs have been rising in the Midwest steadily, about three to five percent annually. Now we’re at nine cents per kilowatt-hour, or eight in some places, but as prices for solar drop [CORRECT?] and rates for electricity rise, we’re probably at about an eight-year payback. In the next five years energy costs could rise 25 to 50 percent.
So solar makes sense now but will be close to grid parity in the next several years. It’s an emerging market and we want to educate people so that they are ready when the economics of solar makes sense.
GreenTown: Discuss the differences between solar and wind power.
The difference between solar and wind is that solar produces power when utility charges peak rates and people are consuming most energy: 8am to 5pm. You can put solar on site where energy is being used, and you can build solar in the desert. Wind is more site-specific. Solar works most anywhere.
Wind works best when it’s big, as in a utility-scale project. Not everyone can put a wind turbine on their house or place of business, but there are many windy areas where you can put up a wind farm.
Solar power systems cater more to residences, businesses and consumers, while wind works at the utility scale.
GreenTown: What’s holding solar power back?
TJ: It needs to get a little cheaper in some areas. And we have to offer more education for customers. But people are becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits of solar. And if solar became less political, more people would support it.
Peter: Ten years ago people wrote it off because it was a 30-year payback. Now it’s a five-year payback. People are starting to notice, too.
GreenTown: What are your near-term business goals?
TJ: We are currently the 18th largest solar company in the U.S. We are hoping to be top 10 by 2016 and top five by 2020. We are very passionate about solar and think it will be big in our country. We have a great workforce in Michiana and have the professionals to achieve those goals. We see solar as needed and we are only in our infancy.
Peter: We are also getting into the manufacturing business and develop products to lower the installed costs of solar. It’s bringing more jobs to South Bend and lowering the installed cost of solar.
Innovation is what we’re about. We’re a very creative group and always challenging what’s out there and trying to raise the bar.
GreenTown: How can people learn more?
TJ: Come to GreenTown Michiana April 22 in downtown South Bend. And check out the tools we have on our web site. And there are many industry organizations we belong to that provide great information, including Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, Indiana Renewable Energy Association, Illinois Solar Energy Association and others. Working with a group like Inovateus, people can get a handle on much of that information.
Peter: In South Bend, you can see one of our installations at TRANSPO’s LEED Platinum Administration, Maintenance and Operations Facility at 1401 S. Lafayette. We designed and installed the solar panels, which now help defray costs and improve the energy profile for TRANSPO. The 100 kilowatt installation helped grant the building LEED Platinum certification, and it’s the largest Uni-Solar installation in Indiana.