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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Transylvania County company finds solar business brighter than wiring

Mike Kilpatrick’s electrical company was just a few years old when a friend asked in 2014 if he could send a crew to help complete a solar farm project in Rutherford County. “I didn’t know what a solar farm was at the time,” he says. “All we had done to that point was commercial electrical work for big box stores and hotels.”

Mike Kilpatrick

The work introduced Kilpatrick and his Southern Tradesmen Services Group to photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electrical energy and the equipment that feeds that energy to the grid. “I said to myself, ‘This is cool. I really like it.” 

Kilpatrick, who is not an electrician, started his company in 2011 in the county where he grew up with five people he met through a staffing agency he formerly owned. He was contracting with other companies, when he decided to begin his own business with them as employees.

After his first solar experience, he transitioned his company quickly. He traveled the region for the next few years drumming up commercial-sized solar projects while turning down work in his older business. “The good Lord gave us sunlight and we’re harvesting that sunlight and we’re converting it to electricity,” Kilpatrick says of his business model.

He shortened his business’ name to STG Solar to reflect its new emphasis and grew from 18 employees to 206 over the past decade. The work has moved beyond just providing electricity, but to protecting the planet.

“This is more than just a job for us. It’s something we’re very dedicated to,” says Kilpatrick.

STG Solar has an office in Raleigh, but its headquarters is in a small building off U.S. 64 in the unincorporated area of Pisgah Forest in Transylvania County, best known for its national forest and 250 waterfalls. The company has a small footprint in its home county, as most of its workers live elsewhere and are in the field, where it can take months to build an industrial-sized solar farm covering hundreds of acres of land.

From 2015 to 2022, STG Solar built 950 megawatts of industrial solar farms from New York to Arizona and along the East Coast. Kilpatrick has enough jobs lined up in the next two years to double that production if he can hire another 200 workers. A megawatt can power an average American home for 1.2 years.

“It’s there, it’s available for us to build,” he says. “It’s for us to decide if we can handle it all.”

Solar energy didn’t make a mark on North Carolina’s energy grid until 2012, when it contributed 0.01%. By 2022, solar energy accounted for 8.5% of the power grid, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. North Carolina ranks fourth in the nation – behind California, Texas and Florida – in overall solar capacity. There are 240 solar companies in the state, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association.

There’s also a demand for even faster growth. A 2021 law calls for the state to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2030 compared with its 2005 levels, and have net-zero emissions by 2050. The United States has similar goals.

“We’re still at the very beginning of where the industry is going to continue to grow,” says Matt Abele with the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. Several factors have slowed construction of large-scale commercial solar projects in North Carolina, including regulations related to the repurchasing of power from utility companies and size-related requirements. In some places in the state, electrical wires are unable to interconnect without upgrades, Abele says. 

Some solar companies that have done the most business in the state have started to expand beyond North Carolina’s boundaries in recent years, Abele says. He expects some of these obstacles to fall aside as the industry matures, he says.

Kilpatrick believes the environmental benefits will keep solar growing. “People realize that what we do on Earth has an impact,” he says, “and we can’t continue to put massive amounts of toxins in the air.

“It’s (solar) not only going to keep growing in the next few years, it’s going to be explosive growth.”

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