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Early adoption powers solar strength

Trinity attributes sales to its head start in now-booming industry

In 2004, Tom Pollock saw the light.

Technically, Pollock, then CEO of Freehold’s Trinity Heating and Air Inc., recognized solar power’s potential in the 1980s when he was selling solar hot water.

“We thought, ‘Gee, if they could ever do this for electricity, instead of just water, this would be a great thing,'” he said.

So in March 2004, when he heard about the state-subsidized program being launched to entice residents and businesses to switch to solar energy, Pollock paid attention.

A little more than a month later, New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program became a major reason Trinity Heating and Air became Trinity Solar — though “I didn’t even know what a solar panel looked like,” Pollock said.

Back then, Trinity Solar was one of 54 companies installing solar systems in the state. Now, Pollock said it’s among the leaders of a pack of 465. During Trinity’s first year selling solar systems, it installed 100 systems; in 2011, the company expected to convert about 1,700 homes and businesses to solar power.

In seven years, the company has grown from 26 employees to 415. In December, Trinity vacated its rental facility in Freehold and moved to a newly purchased space nearly 10 times larger in Wall Township.

Pollock credits the company’s success to excellent timing, quality service and chutzpah — a good amount of which is required when a business switches services. Guidance from the state Office of Clean Energy, which oversees the Clean Energy Program, also was imperative, he added.

“There was a learning curve,” Pollock said of the transition from HVAC to solar power. “The state was kind enough to teach us and train us.”

State-supplied rebates — up to 70 percent of system costs — also spurred growth for Trinity, as well as its competitors. In fact, so many residents and businesses began signing up for solar rebates that the state stopped accepting applications in November of 2010. But instead of a slip in sales after the rebates ran out, the numbers continued to soar for Trinity, Pollock said.

Greg Reinert, spokesman for the state Board of Public Utilities, said that the rebates gave way to solar renewable energy certificates, which helps Trinity as well as its competitors. Homeowners and businesses can sell SRECs for cash in market-based programs for 15 years from the date of installation.

“If you look at other states, which also have the federal tax credit” — a 30 percent refund on system installation, which expired Dec. 31 — “you won’t see nearly the growth New Jersey has experienced,” Reinert said. “It’s the SREC market that’s really driving the growth. That’s what allows a solar array owner to pay off their system in typically five to seven years.”

Under the SREC program, companies or homeowners that build solar installations earn SRECs based on the solar energy they generate.

The state’s RPS, or renewable portfolio standard, mandates the state’s power suppliers include a certain amount of renewable energy in their portfolios. In order to meet those standards, power suppliers must generate their own renewable energy, purchase SRECs or pay a penalty that essentially acts as a ceiling for SREC prices.

As more solar capacity is available, the demand for SRECs has decreased — an issue Reinert said the state is trying to address by accelerating the RPS, moving the schedule of annual renewable energy goals ahead by one to three years. That’s designed to address a precipitous drop in SREC prices in recent months.

But even with all the incentives and energy savings, Pollock said convincing his first crop of customers to commit to such a costly home improvement wasn’t easy.

“It was still a hard sell because you go into someone’s home who’s paying an electric bill of $1,800 a year, and you want $50,000 for a product they’ve never seen and they don’t know if it works,” Pollock said. “We started with existing customers. It was hard to understand, but they knew at least they could trust me.”

E-mail to: editorial@njbiz.com

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