Solar as a Strategy

Solar as a Strategy

Solar as a Strategy

How Solar Energy Helps Companies Hire & Retain Top Talent, Reduce Operating Costs, and Stay Ahead of the Competition

In his book On Competition, Michael Porter wrote that, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

If your company has a strategy, as opposed to what Porter called operational effectiveness, you can build higher barriers to competition by creating a unique position for yourself. This can yield higher profits than operational effectiveness-based approaches.

Solar or solar plus battery energy storage can be a strategic differentiator – and not only because of the energy cost savings. In addition to capitalizing on the hidden opportunity in your operating costs, solar energy can help you stake out a strategic position to attract top employees and win competitive bids.

Attracting Top Talent & Millennial Workers

A 2013 Bain & Company survey discussed in the Harvard Business Review found that two-thirds of workers reported increasing interest in their employers’ commitment to sustainability compared to just a few years before. A majority of respondents said sustainable business was extremely important to them. In fact, employees cared more about the sustainability of actual businesses operations than about a company’s philanthropic activity. Perhaps most importantly, more respondents believed employers should take the lead on sustainability than they did consumers, employees, or even governments.

Sustainability is especially important among Millennial employees, who became the largest generation in the U.S. labor force in 2016. According to Forbes, green technology is among the top four things Millennials seek out from potential employers. Around 90% of Millennials, 84% of Gen Xers, and 77% of Baby Boomers say sustainability is a core value they consider when choosing a job.

We’re really focused on being the employer of choice in the region. This solar array is like a giant billboard that says, ‘Guess what? This is not your old-school manufacturing building.’ It’s not dark, it’s not dingy, it’s not unsafe. It’s technical, it’s looking forward.”

–Lori Schaefer-Weaton, President, Agri-Industrial Plastics Company

This cannot be faked. Employer actions must match the perception of sustainability. Brand credibility on social and environmental initiatives stands at only 19% according to a research study by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research. This likely contributes to the 31% of employees who quit new jobs within the first six months. Employers must walk the talk to not only attract but also retain top talent, especially among younger workers.

Our customer Agri-Industrial Plastics Company (AIP) is using its solar energy and Tesla battery system to attract top hires by staking out a cutting-edge, sustainability-focused position. This is the first solar project in the Midwest to incorporate Tesla Powerpack and the first solar plus battery energy storage system implemented by a large manufacturer in Iowa.

“We’re really focused on being the employer of choice in the region,” said Lori Schaefer-Weaton, president of AIP. “This solar array is like a giant billboard that says, ‘Guess what? This is not your old-school manufacturing building.’ It’s not dark, it’s not dingy, it’s not unsafe. It’s technical, it’s looking forward.”

The solar + storage installation will form the foundation of a comprehensive sustainability policy currently under development at AIP. “I would consider it a strategic investment for our future,” said Schaefer-Weaton.

Above: Agri-Industrial Plastics is using solar as a strategy to attract hires such as Jeff Guttry, Engineering Coordinator.

From Left to Right: Robotics at work on AIP’s manufacturing floor, a student intern gets hands-on experience in the repairshop.

Sustainability Scorecards

Many manufacturers and other suppliers are subject to sustainability evaluations by their customers. Large companies like retailers, tech companies, and OEMs spearheaded these efforts along with environmental NGOs. For example, in 2009 Walmart created a 15 question Sustainability Index and asked nearly 100,000 suppliers to respond. Walmart uses the Sustainability Index to reward high-scoring suppliers.

These sustainability scorecards are spreading throughout industry, including to smaller firms, aided by a growing suite of independent NGO evaluation and certification programs that take the heavy lifting off the buyer. If these evaluations are not yet widespread in your industry, they likely will be soon.

A number of our manufacturing customers are evaluated for their sustainability efforts. Earning top marks on these scorecards is one of the motives behind our customers’ decisions to move forward with renewable energy programs. Sustainability scores usually include some form of carbon reduction or renewable energy component, so solar energy is among the best sustainability interventions a company can make to earn a higher score.

These scorecards can be vitally important in a competitive bidding process or during annual evaluations. Solar energy and other sustainability efforts add points to a supplier’s score, which increases the likelihood of winning – and keeping – valuable contracts. Sustainability scores can be a large component of overall evaluations, along with traditional key performance indicators like price, performance, and quality. In Dell’s supplier evaluation, for example, sustainability performance is weighted at 10 to 15% of the overall score.

Above: Agri-Industrial Plastics Company (AIP) is using solar as part of their sustainability growth strategy to attract hires and clients.

From Left to Right: AIP’s manufacturing process integrates advanced engineering, robotics and skilled labor to create custom blow-mold products.

Operating Cost Opportunities

You want to reduce operating expenses. Every business does. Although this may seem less like a clever strategy than simply good business sense, solar energy can allow you to capitalize on the hidden opportunities in your budget that your competitors may not even be aware. For manufacturers and other large electric users, in particular, demand charges can be a major line item that is difficult to control. Solar installations and solar plus battery energy storage systems can slash demand charges and dramatically reduce utility expenses.

Our customer Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing (SWM) knocked over $90,000 per year off of its expense sheet. The 430 kW solar array we built for the company will pay for itself in 4-6 years.

Those savings have allowed Jenny Steffensmeier, president and owner, to invest in her employees, hire new workers, expand production, and give back to the community. The company added coverage for dental, vision, and disability to its benefits package. Several employees are receiving AutoCAD training. SWM added a second shift with new hires. The company plans to purchase additional equipment in the future. Increased community involvement and charitable giving round out the uses for those solar savings. “All of these things potentially could not have happened because the cash flow was not there before,” Steffensmeier said.

Investments in solar energy yield dividends for businesses, communities, and employees that compound year over year. How is your competition answering that?

Above: Steffensmeier Welding & Manufacturing produces 100% of it’s energy needs with solar on a net annual basis, and saves about $92,000 per year in operating costs.

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Sustainability as a Strategy

In their Harvard Business Review essay, Yes, Sustainability Can Be a Strategy, Ioannis Ioannou and George Serafeim reported on their findings from environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings of over 3,000 companies. They found that some sustainability measures are becoming best practices that are more of a necessity than a unique position. They also found that more strategic approaches to sustainability – those that went beyond common sustainability practices and differentiated businesses from their competition – were associated with increased market valuation and higher return on capital.

Ioannou and Serafeim concluded that “some companies are creating real strategic advantage by adopting sustainability measures their competitors can’t easily match.”

If you invest in solar energy before your competition does, you’ll have the upper hand. You can take advantage of higher tax credits (which start stepping down after this year), the recruiting and marketing punch that comes with being an early adopter, and extra months or years of compounding savings that can be reinvested in growth. Every day you have these advantages and your competitor does not, you put more distance between your company and your competition.

Get in touch. Solving business problems with solar solutions is what we do.

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National Apprenticeship Week: Growing the Solar Workforce

National Apprenticeship Week: Growing the Solar Workforce

During national Apprenticeship Week, we’re taking a look inside Ideal Energy’s electrical apprenticeship program and the careers that are reshaping our energy future

Building a career in America’s clean energy workforce

This week is the Department of Labor’s National Apprenticeship Week – a week dedicated to spotlighting and celebrating the unique and empowered paths that apprentices take to form their careers.

In the electrical field there’s a very specific path by which apprentices gain certification, become certified electrical “Journeymen,” and potentially Master Electricians. This process is easy to get into, but can seem intimidating without the right support and guidance. That’s why Ideal Energy has developed an apprenticeship program and offers support to our outstanding employees who are looking to advance a career in renewable energy.

Our Apprenticeship Program:

  • Trains a skilled workforce for solar – one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy
  • Supports entry-level and experienced electrical apprentices through their certification process
  • Provides competitive pay alongside expertise and training to apprentices to during their certifications
  • Gives apprentices the opportunity to gain experience with cutting-edge renewable energy solutions alongside classical electrical skills
  • Fosters success as an Journeyman in a highly marketable and limitless trade

Why become an Elecetrical Apprentice?

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that as the U.S. economy grows with 11.5 million jobs over the next decade, solar employment will increase by 105 percent — more than any other occupation in the United States. Building a clean energy economy in the Midwest requires a workforce that can design, deploy and service the advanced clean energy solutions that we’re implementing today at Ideal Energy, including solar and battery energy storage.

Electricians are in short supply, and we want to help men and women grow within a trade that’s reshaping the future. Electricity is all around us and used in nearly every part of our modern lives. The applications for the electrical trade are endless. We are reshaping our energy future with clean energy technologies like solar, and battery energy storage and it’s an exciting time to partake in this change.

Celebrating the Ideal Energy Electrical Teams

This week we’d like to celebrate our apprentices and the Master Electrician who oversees our program. Our apprenticeship program is helping to establish quality job opportunities while building our nation’s clean energy workforce. Throughout the week we’ll be sharing the unique stories and perspectives from our electrical team, and give you an idea of what it’s like to be an apprentice in at Ideal Energy.

Brian Robbins, Master Electrician

Brian Robbins is Ideal Energy’s resident Master and NABCEP Certified Electrician, and head of our apprenticeship program.

He started at Ideal Energy in 2013 with some electrical apprenticeship hours under his belt, but needed to complete is electrical coursework and on-the-job training hours before he could become a Journeyman.

Brian became the first participant in Ideal Energy’s apprenticeship program, and is now a Master Electrician. His NABCEP Certification – the gold standard of electrical certifications – was also attained along the way. In addition to overseeing all electrical teams at Ideal Energy, Brian now supervises our growing apprenticeship program.

High demand charges?

Work with an Ideal Energy expert to discover how battery energy storage systems can help.

Electric Vehicles and the Future of the Grid

Electric Vehicles and the Future of the Grid

When it comes to transportation, the future is electric. By 2025, 7 million electric vehicles are projected to be on the road in the US, with 5 million charge ports to support these vehicles. What will happen to our grid when the motor vehicle industry becomes electrified?

Q & A with Travis Cox: Sustainability Professor, Solar Powered Homeowner

Q & A with Travis Cox: Sustainability Professor, Solar Powered Homeowner


We’re chatting with Travis Cox, Co-Director and Professor of the Sustainable Living Undergraduate Program at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, IA. Travis recently installed solar energy on his family’s home.

We discuss what inspired the Cox’s decision to go solar, doing the right thing, and ice cubes made out of sunshine.

Q & A with Travis Cox: Sustainability Professor, Solar Powered Homeowner

IE: Many of our customers say that they’ve been motivated to install solar for reasons ranging from creating a cleaner, healthier environment, having a more affordable power source, and creating greater energy security. What inspired your decision to install solar?

TC: All of the above. Also, as a professor in the Sustainable Living Department I felt like I needed to be walking the talk. As a concerned human being in the 21st Century, I felt like I needed to do it for moral reasons. As a father, I needed to be an example for my children.

IE:You’ve got strong roots in the sustainability community already, so were there any unexpected benefits to having a solar powered home/business that you didn’t perceive of prior to installation?

TC: It makes me much more conscious of my power use. It gives me something to say to the kids–“Remember to turn off that light; we’ve got solar panels.” Because it doesn’t supply all of our power right now we are trying to be conscious of our consumption so we can get as much of our energy as we can from solar.

IE: Anything especially notable about the solar installation process?

TC: Perhaps the best way to answer this would be to say that I didn’t have much of an experience with the installation process. One week we didn’t have panels, the next week we did. With regard to the paper work, Ideal Energy took care of everything.  In fact, the process was so smooth our family kind of felt obligated to give them a party to say thanks! From the initial site visit, through all the beginning paperwork, up to the install, and even with the final paper, Ideal Energy has taken care of everything so that our decision to go solar was effortless.

IE: Well thanks for that, and the party as well!  We strive to provide a seamless transition to solar energy, so we’re grateful to hear that was your experience.  So would you recommend solar to your friends or coworkers?

TC: Absolutely. Heck, I’ve even been recommending it to near strangers! People at the farmers market, people who are walking down the street, even the lady from Alliant who came to install my bi-directional meter had a lot of questions for me and left with a pretty big interest in solar.

IE: We love happy customers spreading the word about solar energy.  In closing, anything else you’d like to add?

TC: My wife had a lot of questions about the financial aspects of our decision and took a lot of time making up her mind, but this story is what she said put her over the top in favor of getting the panels. At one point early on in our exploration I told my 4-year old daughter that I wanted solar panels because I was tired of getting my electricity from coal. She asked what coal was and I told her it was a rock that is in mountains and they have to blow the tops off the mountains just to get the coal in order to burn it for our electricity. Therefore, the only reason we have ice cubes is because somebody blew a top of a mountain so we could burn the coal to make the ice cube.

A couple of days later my daughter told her cousin that “ice cubes are made out of rocks.” When the cousin protested my wife had to explain it to her properly. Finally, a week or so after that my daughter and my niece were playing outside in the summer sun with ice cubes and using them all up and my wife found herself saying “Wait until our ice cubes are made out of sunshine and then you can use all of them you want.” The thought of our ice cubes being “made out of sunshine” pushed her over the edge into saying “yes” to solar.
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Maharishi University of Management’s Sustainable Living Center

Maharishi University of Management’s Sustainable Living Center

After pioneering the first four-year sustainability degree in the United States, Maharishi University of Management constructed the Sustainable Living Center (SLC), an inspired educational facility and home to the famed Sustainable Living Department. Designed as a modern, urban educational facility, the 6,900 square foot building marries sustainable infrastructure including lush gardens, fresh indoor air, rain catchment, and alternative energy sources with Vastu, an ancient eastern building philosophy.  This architectural synergy creates a true “East Meets West” design, a reflection of the conscious mindset at the University.

For the past decade Maharishi University of Management has been a hotbed for sustainable design and education. The University was the first to respond to the growing needs of the sustainability industry when they created the nation’s first B.S. Degree in Sustainable Living. Since then, the program has been expanding. The Sustainable Living Department offers a broad curriculum spanning areas of permaculture, alternative energies, water management, alternative building techniques, and performance design for the built environment. The new SLC is designed to be a building that teaches, incorporating the many principles taught within the degree program into an incredible example of architectural vision.
A closer look at urban off-grid design

The SLC uses a number of strategies to cover the important functions of heating, cooling, and ventilation.


The building envelope has high levels of insulation and tight construction to minimize heat loss. Interior thermal mass, created by handmade bricks with local clays, helps maintain a steady indoor temperature. Radiant floor heating helps maintain high radiant surface temperatures that allow occupants to feel comfortable at a lower air temperature. Passive solar design features include south facing windows with overhangs that collect solar energy and boost interior temperatures during winter months, but prevent overheating by providing shading in the summer. A heat recovery ventilator allows classrooms and offices to be flushed with fresgardensh air without an energy penalty.

the SLC has 750 square feet of evacuated tube solar thermal collectors that can harness solar energy even on cloudy days.  Annually, the collectors can provide about 30 % of the thermal energy required by the building. This energy is stored in a 5,000 gallon water tank.  When the building requires heat, the water is pumped into tubes just below the surface of the concrete floor.  If the solar thermal panels are not able to keep up with the heating demand of the building, a ground source heat pump kicks in.  The heat pump uses solar and wind generated electricity to move 2.5 units of heat from the ground for every unit of electricity used. The heat pump is capable of providing 75,000 BTUs per hour.

When outside temperatures allow, the building is cooled by opening windows or running a large fan.  When additional cooling is needed, the building can be flushed with cool night air, and air can be drawn into the building through four tubes in the earth.  If additional cooling or dehumidification is needed, a ground source heat pump is used.  The ground source heat pump uses solar and wind generated electricity and the constant temperature 18 feet below the surface of the earth to cool and dehumidify the building.

Aside from the building’s high performance design features, the energy systems would need to produce enough energy to power the building uninterrupted, year round. To achieve these design criteria, we installed a combination of solar and wind energy systems which work in tandem with seasonal changes providing uninterrupted power, year round.


meadow copyThe SLC has an annual projected energy use of 30,000 kwh, including all electrical loads, heating and cooling. Energy consumption includes the operation of geothermal heat pumps, solar hot water pumps, air circulation and lighting, in addition to the variety of electronics used within the classrooms and offices of the building.

In Southeast Iowa, wind production is highest in the winter and spring, versus photovoltaic production, which peaks in the summer and is minimized during winter months. To maintain year-round renewable energy production in Iowa, solar and wind is a vital combination. 
For this project, a Bergey XL 10 wind turbine was installed, which sits atop a 100 foot latticed tower. The turbine has a 23 foot diameter rotor and output is rated at 10 kW.  With only three moving parts and no scheduled maintenance necessary, this unit is more reliable than any other small turbine on the market. The estimated annual output is 17,00 kwh, with power production peaking in the winter and spring (source: Iowa Energy Center).

The photovoltaic system consists of 12.5 kw of PV panels, installed across three locations on the SLC property. The arrays produce an accumulative 16,250 kwh per year, with higher in production during the summer (source: NREL’s PV Watts). The solar ties into three SMA Sunny Boy inverters (two 2.5 kW inverters and, one 5 kW inverter) and an Outback 3600 watt battery based grid-tie inverter. Any surplus power from the solar and wind systems help power other buildings on campus.


In addition to the off-grid design, the Sustainable Living Center also captivates with unique architecture and innovative design. Visitors are greeted with verdant herb gardens and stunning whole tree round timber framing. The building is constructed of natural materials and finished with locally made clay plasters. The southern façade features an indoor greenhouse, where students can practice permaculture design, or enjoy quiet relaxation for studying. And true to the educational nature of the building, self-guided tours instruct guests on the many sustainable features of this brilliantly forward-thinking structure, and offers a vision of a vibrant, green future.

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