A solar array in the South Norfolk area of Chesapeake.
When it opened in 1910, J.D. Miles & Sons got its start by installing tin roofs. Over the years, the family-owned South Norfolk company repaired houses throughout Hampton Roads, sometimes fixing up a home for three generations of family.
The roughly $100,000 array will be one of the first in Chesapeake’s historic South Norfolk community. For the company, the effort will nearly eliminate its electric bill.
The solar installation will be paid for through a new fund that aims to invest $750,000 to bring such energy to businesses and nonprofits in poor areas of Hampton Roads. The goal is to reduce utility costs and deliver renewable power to new communities.
The family has weathered both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, said J.D. Miles, the fourth namesake of the company. In the process, they’ve built quite a reputation as evidenced by memorabilia from past presidents displayed in their lobby: a framed thank-you note from George H.W. Bush and a picture with Ronald Reagan.
Miles, who runs the company with his sister, credits his dad with growing the business.
“We’re trying to keep it going for another 100 years,” he said.
Part of that involves cutting their carbon footprint. They’re working on transitioning their current 30-vehicle fleet to all electric.
The solar array could help speed the process. Installation of the American-made panels is planned for the end of this month.
The fund itself started just a few months ago, shortly after Amundsen, along with a group of parents, helped the Norfolk Academy complete a major solar installation.
“To be able to stand on the roof and watch that solar go in was just incredibly uplifting and satisfying, and one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “This was so concrete, like, ‘Look, we just had a big impact.’ I wanted to do more of that.”
So when she found herself with five weeks of vacation courtesy of the government shutdown and an unexpected windfall of capital gains, Amundsen got back to work. And she has an ambitious timeline: she hopes to finish all installations in 2019.
For Miles and the rest of the beneficiaries, the Norfolk Solar Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund will provide money for the panels and the installation. For the next seven years, Amundsen will be in charge of maintenance. The recipient will pay back the money using savings from reduced utility bills.
Then, after seven years, the installation will be sold to the organization at about 3% of the initial cost, at which point ownership will go to the business. Amundsen will make the rest of her money back, about 67%, from tax credits, she said.
These are the requirements to qualify for the fund: The properties have to be located in a “qualified opportunity zone,” like Berkeley in Norfolk or part of Dam Neck Corner in Virginia Beach.
For businesses, Virginia solar regulations state they must need a minimum of 50 kilowatts, which is about 150 panels, on 3,000 to 6,000 square feet of roof, Amundsen said. That precludes businesses with small roofs. Though money from the fund can’t be used for residential homes, Amundsen is looking at nonprofits and churches in such zones.
Amundsen said that after the seven-year payment is completed, a $100,000 array will save a business around $8,000 a year.
The Virginia Beach-based Convert Solar will install the panels and train locals in the process, said Ryan Healy, project manager for the company. It’s a continuation of the fund’s main objective, Healy explained: Spreading solar power to communities for the first time.
“It sets them up to enter the solar field with that initial education and on-the-job training,” he said. “We want to give the opportunity to people who actually reside in the zone.”
Though J.D. Miles & Sons is based in Chesapeake and Amundsen is working on another deal for an array in Virginia Beach, she wants to keep the focus in Norfolk.
“(It) is my home city and I have a lot of bonds in a lot of those neighborhoods,” she said.
In addition to cutting utility bills of businesses in low-income areas, she wants to inspire more people to start funds for local qualified opportunity zones and also to put up solar panels.
For Miles, 46, the latter was a big draw. He’s been on too many roofs to count and says he can’t remember seeing any solar arrays in his community.
While he admits the significantly reduced bills are a welcome bonus, he thinks the biggest impact could come from allowing neighborhoods to see solar roofs in their community.
“We want to save money, we want to save the environment and we want to do our part,” Miles said. “And I think you need to lead by example.”
Peter Coutu, email@example.com
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