Solar Power a Bonus for St. Louis Firm

ST. LOUIS • Aside from the environmental benefits, using the energy generated by the sun makes good business sense, says an executive of Walsh & Associates Inc., a local chemical distributor.

Randall D. Lewis, the company’s operations director, said he expected the recent $500,000 installation of 416 solar panels on the roof of Walsh’s warehouse at 1400 Macklind Avenue in St. Louis to much more than pay for itself in energy savings.

The break-even point should happen within six to nine years, Lewis said.

The array consists of 32 strings of panels, with 13 panels on each string, and it covers 10,000 square feet of the roof.

The installation cost was financed in part with 30 percent coming from federal stimulus funds and also through $50,000 in one-time credits from Ameren. Walsh paid the rest of the installation costs.

“I’m using my warehouse roof to make money,” Lewis said this week.

Company officials calculated that annual energy bills at the 88,000-square-foot warehouse would be reduced to just $1,500 from nearly $36,000 because of the building’s new solar power.

Besides solar panels, the project also includes 52 solar lights on the roof that use reflectors to direct sunlight to the warehouse’s interior.

The solar panel grid was activated at the beginning of November after a 10-week installation project.

Lewis said the solar array was gradually being brought up to full production, but he estimated the solar power would more than meet the warehouse’s electric needs on sunny days. Backup electricity is still provided by Ameren as needed.

“Last week, when I was running these (solar panels) in test mode, I was way overproducing for our needs,” Lewis said.

He said the panels initially produced about 240 watts per panel.

“During the fall season and other times of the year when air conditioning is not really needed, the solar panels can produce more power than our building needs,” said Lewis. “That excess is returned to the grid for Ameren to use, giving us a credit.

He estimates that over the anticipated 25-year life span of the solar panels, Walsh could realize a return of investment of an additional $500,000, or even more if electrical rates increase.

The panels were designed by Straight-Up Solar of St. Louis and made by Sharp Electronics Corp. in Memphis, Tenn. The installation was managed by Bell Electrical Contractors.

The solar array on Walsh’s warehouse roof is among the largest in the Midwest. But Lewis said given the projected cost savings he wouldn’t be too surprised if its size was surpassed soon by other area solar projects.

That prospect has Dennis J. Gralike smiling. He is director of the St. Louis Area Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center, which is teaching union electricians how to install and activate the panels.

“You’re going to see more and more of this very soon,” Gralike said after visiting the Walsh solar project this week.

He said solar power installations could create scores of new jobs for electricians, who have been hit hard by the recession.

Stephen P. Schoemehl, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1, said the union was “putting a special emphasis on keeping pace with renewable energy installations” in classes at its training center at 2300 Hampton Avenue in south St. Louis. His union members installed Walsh’s solar array.

The center is operated by the Electrical Connection, which is a partnership of Local 1 and the St. Louis chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.

There is no shade on the massive roof at Walsh’s warehouse. That means the company gets nearly maximum efficiency from its solar panels and solar lights.

Lewis said he believed that even accumulating snow during the winter wouldn’t reduce production from the panels for long.

“The snow melts really quickly up there,” he said. “And it could serve as God’s own little Windex by cleaning the panels as it melts.”

He said the panels required little maintenance. Their efficiency is reduced by wear and grime by only about one-half of 1 percent each year, he said.


By Robert Kelly of