PV Squared named entrepreneurship award winner

GREENFIELD — When the Franklin County Community Development Corp. created its Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2011, Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics was already marking 10 years since its formation as a worker-owned co-operative, building on what its own creators foresaw as an emerging technology that would be heating up wildly in the years ahead.

PV2, or PV-Squared, as the Greenfield cooperative business is known, will be honored Friday evening as the seventh annual Haas of the Year Award winner at the CDC’s Celebrating Entrepreneurship event beginning at 5 p.m. in the Arts Block Ballroom. The award is named for Hillside Plastics founder Richard Haas.

“Our region has so many terrific small businesses, and many of them could have won this year’s award,” said CDC Business Development Director Amy Shapiro. Members of PV2, as a worker-owned cooperative, “are invested in the happiness of their clients, the livelihood of their workers, and the health of their community. We are lucky to have them in the Pioneer Valley.”

The spark that led to PV2 in early 2001 was a conversation between Donald Campbell of Northfield and the late Richard Gottlieb of Sunnyside Solar in Guilford, Vt. They talked about photovoltaics, unemployment and vacant factory buildings, and starting a manufacturing co-op that could produce panels from silicon cells.

“There’s hardly a better time to get into the industry,” Campbell told The Recorder at the time. “The demand is growing by leaps and bounds. For the long-term, the market looks really good.”

Yet a feasibility study funded by then-Greenfield-based Cooperative Development Institute, “about five years before the solar industry really took off,” recalls Kim Pinkham, one of two remaining initial co-op worker-owners, concluded that the market for panels would be small. Startup capital to get an assembly plant going, the study warned, would take a whopping $25 to 30 million. Instead, it suggested, forming a cooperative to design PV systems for installation “could be done on a shoestring,” said Pinkham.

With help from CDI, PV2 incorporated in 2002 and opened its doors in 2003 at the CDC’s Wells Street Venture Center, eventually moving to offices and warehouse spaces across the street.

“We now do as many systems in a week as we did in a month when we first started,” she said, nearly quadrupling over the past five years from 495 kilowatts designed and installed in 2011 to 2.45 megawatts total last year.

“We’ve grown as the market has grown,” she said. “The panels then were much more expensive, the industry was very different and the incentive picture in Massachusetts was just getting started. We were able to tap into that to get our start.”

Business is strongly driven by a combination of federal and state incentives, with Massachusetts being “one of the best, if not the best state in the union, with a strong investment commitment to supporting solar tech and green building in general,” Pinkham said. “Certainly that’s contributed to our success and to the market being vibrant,” as well as adding to the level of competition in the design and installation of systems.

(The only manufacturer of solar panels in Massachusetts, Evergreen Solar, shut down its Devens factory in 2011, and shifted production to China, in a joint venture with a panel maker there.)

PV2, which sells solar systems in Western Massachusetts and southern Vermont, which is now closed, is also licensed to install in New Hampshire, said Pinkham. Most of those are residential PV systems, but the co-op launched a commercial sales and design department a couple of years ago. That’s focused its efforts on helping fill a niche in the market for small-to-medium-sized commercial solar, so it’s now about 40 percent of PV2 business, in terms of kilowatts installed.

“The impetus is to see the market grow,” Pinkham said, probably more slowly in this political climate than we’ve seen before. But the commitment in the state is fairly high.”

What’s also changed, for PV2, is its own understanding of how to work as a cooperative.

“Fifteen years ago, we hadn’t learned all the lessons we know now,” said Pinkham, a former business administrator. “We’ve learned how to be business people. When we started we were enthusiastic and inexperienced, but we’ve learned what it means to get the payroll out, to pay our taxes on time, to write a contract you and your client can live with. We’re much better at that than when started. None of us had been business owners.”

Also, she said, “We’ve learned to be better worker co-operators, in our communication skills, as group decision makers.”

PV2’s board president, William Sillinger, said, “At PV Squared, it’s all about the people we’ve assembled, people who make our worker-owned co-operative function responsibly in the community. … They are the brains and the brawn, the heart and the soul of our co-op. We are proud to design, sell, and maintain solar energy systems; enabling citizens … to generate their own clean energy on site, addressing climate change and improving community health. Our enterprise reflects our shared values.”

Stacy Metzger of PV2 expressed appreciation for this year’s award.

“It’s a great honor to be recognized in this way by an organization that dedicates so much of itself to local economic development. We got our start at the CDC … and with their guidance, technical assistance, and support. … They are our neighbors, friends, and colleagues.”

On the Web: http://www.pvsquared.coop

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

Author: Going Green

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