Making power: local company sees rise in solar demand

by Lisa Schauer

“If you can see outside, you’re making power. If you can see a shadow, you’re making a lot of power,” explains Mike McKechnie, president and founder of Mountain View Solar. That’s what he tells his customers and prospects when asked about the reliability of solar power in cloudy weather.

Mike McKechnie, president and founder of Mountain View Solar in Berkeley Springs.

His Berkeley Springs-based company was again ranked number one solar contractor in West Virginia, as measured by kilowatts installed in 2020, by Solar Power World, an industry trade publication.

“My secret recipe is I hired a good team,” shares McKechnie. “People are here for a career, not just work.”

Mountain View Solar employs about 40 people, most living in Berkeley Springs or nearby. Installation crews work in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania on commercial and residential projects.

Crews have installed solar power in homes located in the Hancock and southern Fulton area.

In Morgan County, Mountain View Solar has installed over 50 solar systems in homes so far, with 12 more in the pipeline.

“We believe there is more solar per capita in Morgan County than any other county in 100 miles,” said McKechnie.

“That means we’ve been embraced by the people of Morgan County, and we are grateful,” he said.

These days, having power in the event of an outage is the driving factor for homeowners installing solar.

“The solar industry really changed in 2020 because of COVID,” said McKechnie.

“People became more interested in their homes when they started working from home. Commercial business declined, but residential increased, especially for solar with batteries and a generator.”

Henry Gil-Newton, of Berkeley Springs, installs an array of solar panels on a rooftop in Morgan County. Gil-Newton is an installation crew leader at Mountain View Solar. Photo by Matt Hovermale.

Initially, solar power was typically grid-direct, meaning it was tied to the commercial power grid. Solar power was used to augment commercial power.

Increasingly, out of necessity or choice, more people are going off-grid, installing solar batteries and generators with their solar panel arrays to achieve energy independence.

“There has been a huge migration to solar batteries and solar generators because they provide autonomy and energy resilience,” said McKechnie.

Solar panels can be installed on a rooftop or on the ground. Solar installations vary in size and can power everything from a small remote cabin to an entire farm or compound. Most are now paired with an automatic standby generator for extra power.

From construction to solar

Born in California and adopted at two weeks, McKechnie projects the sunny optimism of his home state. He moved to Berkeley Springs with an ex-girlfriend in 1993 and started Mountain View Builders in 1995 to build luxury homes with his brother Pete.

“What could be better than this?” Mike remembers asking his brother as they pondered their early success.

“It would be better if we could make these big houses more efficient, instead of spending money on all that fancy stuff,” replied Pete.

Around 2005, McKechnie got fired up about solar, started attending trade shows out west, bringing back what he learned, and trying to incorporate the new solar technologies into houses they were already building.

He built an experimental solar house for his own family out on Pius Ridge in 2007, and was featured in the Washington Post.

More customers started asking for solar and it became more popular. The company stopped building homes altogether in 2011.

For the past 10 years, the company’s focus has been exclusively on solar electricity, or photovoltaic (PV) technology, commonly known as solar panels.

The company abandoned their early efforts in wind power long ago, citing an insufficient amount of wind. Solar hot water was another method that disappeared. Solar electricity has become the standard bearer for alternative energy technology.

Being in a rural area, where people either want or need to be self-contained, solar batteries and solar generators are gaining in popularity. Ten years ago, about one in 15 customers wanted a battery. Today it is one in four, according to McKechnie.

Local solar home

Thirteen years ago, Stan Oaks and his late wife Linn moved from Gaithersburg, Md. to build their dream home in Berkeley Springs.

Oaks said they went solar in their new home for the efficiency and low maintenance. He had 28 solar panels installed on his garage, and then added 12 more for a back-up battery and generator, for a total of 40 panels.

Oaks said he liked having a low electricity bill, and his only regret was not getting the solar battery and generator initially.

A solar home on Maranatha Road in Morgan County. Photo courtesy of Stan Oaks.

“Our power bill was $9.35 a month for a 3,400 square foot house,” said Oaks. During a neighborhood power outage for 26 hours, the couple ran everything in their home at full power.

In 2012, Oaks sold their solar house on Maranatha Road. He still resides in Berkeley Springs.

Path of growth

Installation crews from Mountain View Solar are working in Loudoun County Va. this summer, installing solar power systems for the public school district. The move will save the schools thousands on utilities each year, according to McKechnie.

The Loudoun County school system will be able to export power to Dominion Virginia Power for future credits.

With the passage of House Bill 3310 on April 9, West Virginia joins Maryland and Virginia to become the 29th state to allow such solar power purchase agreements (PPAs). These legal agreements have become a popular way for electric customers to finance an investment in solar energy. PPAs are also an incentive for attracting businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

It could take a decade or more for a solar installation to pay for itself. But with easier financing available through the passage of the new legislation, solar will become more affordable for homeowners, businesses and municipalities.

What’s on the horizon for Mountain View Solar? Growth, growth and more growth, say company executives.