Orion sees bright future with solar energy

In December, Manitowoc-based Orion Energy Systems Inc., reached an agreement with California-based Solyndra Inc., a manufacturer of commercial grade solar panels, to become a distributor and installer of Solyndra’s solar panels.

Orion’s best known products are its fluorescent light systems and controls and Light Pipe, which are used on commercial and industrial buildings. Although it has specialized in lighting, the company wants to be known for helping its customers cut energy use, said Neal Verfuerth, Orion’s chief executive officer.

“Our mission statement for quite a few years has been to provide (energy) load reduction and green energy,” he said. “I’ve had an engineer full time researching solar energy and LED (lighting).”

Instead of developing its own solar product, Orion decided that selling and installing Solyndra’s systems made more sense, Verfuerth said.

“It’s not anywhere close to our core competencies,” he said. “Their system surpasses anything else out there.”

Solyndra’s solar arrays are different than traditional solar panels. Its panels are made up of cylindrical tubes, which contain its photovoltaic cells. Because the tubes are round, they can gather more light from the rising and setting sun, as well as reflected light from rooftops.

Because Solyndra’s panels allow light to pass through them, they are easily paired with Orion’s Light Pipe system, which allows natural sunlight into commercial and industrial buildings. And because the tubes are covered with glass, dirt is easily washed off by rain or very light maintenance.

To date, Orion has installed Solyndra solar systems on several high-profile projects, including an Anheuser-Busch facility in New Jersey. The current installation there generates about 525 kilowatts, and Orion is now negotiating for the installation of another 700 kilowatt system on the same facility.

“It might be the largest in the state (of New Jersey) when it’s done,” Verfuerth said.

Orion has also installed Solyndra’s solar systems on two Coca-Cola facilities in Georgia, as well as its own headquarters in Manitowoc. The company hopes to be able to take its headquarters off of the electrical grid during the day by this summer.

“In our manufacturing plant, during peak day use we’re putting out about 225 kilowatts between our photovoltaic and wind turbines,” Verfuerth said. “When we bundle all of these technologies together we’re getting closer and closer to parity with the grid during the daytime when power is the most expensive.”

Orion’s agreement with Solyndra is relatively new, and has resulted in three large projects that have already been completed. The company is now discussing additional projects with new customers, Verfuerth said.

“We’re kind of in the initial stages of talking to customers,” Verfuerth said. “We’ve had great acceptance, given that we got into (solar) late. We’ve got a great track of doing national rollouts, and working on the outside of the roof is an easy transition for us.”

The company believes that demand for its solar services will rise because of economic incentives and the continuing demand for “green” products for commercial and industrial buildings – which have played a significant role in the demand for its lighting, Light Pipe and control products.

“We’ve partnered with (Menasha-based) Faith Technologies and have been doing our installations with them,” Verfuerth said. “I’m very optimistic about what the future holds.”

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