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Penn Valley Pundit: Penn Valley business harnesses the sun

Longer, warmer days inspire one to think about the power of the sun and the role it’s playing in the “go green” movement.

Many of us kvetch about our energy bills, but there is a growing number of households doing something about it. In Penn Valley, Plan It Solar, voted the best solar company in Nevada County in The Union’s 2006 readership poll, provides knowledgeable, reliable service for those converting to full or partial solar power for the home.

Martin Webb, a Penn Valley resident, founded the company five and a half years ago after working at Sierra Solar Systems for three years. He had a vision of starting his own business, and with $4,000 to his name, he applied for a state seller’s permit and launched the company in a garage.



“I was inspired by reading about Mary Kay and how she had started her business with just $5,000,” recalls Webb.

Len and Mimi Malthan, the parents of his life partner Asia Currie, gave Webb a part of their large garage. Webb’s trump card was Robert Roush, a fellow ex-Sierra Solar employee who had more than a decade of experience in the solar business.




The 35-year-old Webb and Plan It Solar have made great strides in their first five years. Given his personal history, it is quite an achievement. Webb is a recovering drug addict who has been clean since October 1998, when he first set foot in Nevada County. He left a life of drug abuse, homelessness and despair in the Washington, D.C., area and came to California to get a fresh start. The Union’s Dave Moller chronicled the story of his triumph over addiction. It is online at http://www.theunion.com/article/20060904/NEWS/109040146&SearchID=73274281232764.

“We had a record year in 2006,” says Webb. “We hit $2.5 million in sales, we won The Union poll for the first time, and two of our competitors went out of business.”

Webb hired two employees from the now defunct Alternative Power Systems and cut a deal with California Solar Electric Co. to be his exclusive installer. He now has 11 employees and is projecting $3 million to $4 million in 2007 sales. Webb and his employees work out of a new building on Penn Valley Drive, and he is considering adding a second location in the Sacramento Valley.

So what’s his secret?

“I bring to the table vision, creativity and a very unique way of managing a business,” says Webb. “I am not a top down kind of guy. I am really communicative, and I want my employees’ opinions.”

Webb is passionate about the benefits of solar.

“Power bills are going up, and so is pollution,” says Webb. “The more power you use, the more reason to go solar and the better payback.”

In Nevada County, it is fashionable to go “off the grid,” but by staying “on grid” and remaining a PG&E customer, Webb advises, you will be entitled to the California solar rebate, which can range from about $2,500 to more than $75,000, depending on the size of the solar system installed.

Here are some sample figures: A 12-panel system, after rebate, can cost from about $14,000 to more than $16,000. A 20-panel system, after rebate, ranges from about $23,000 to more than $27,000. Roof-mounted systems are always cheaper than ground-mounted ones. Systems installed during 2007 or 2008 will also be eligible for a $2,000 federal tax credit.

The upfront cost is why Plan It Solar partners with mortgage lenders and banks to help customers finance the shift to solar.

“Everybody wants to go solar, but they want to know how long it will take before they get a return,” says Webb.

Once installed, the return can begin immediately, since California has a tiered energy billing system. All households are given a baseline amount they can consume at the lowest rate; as consumption exceeds the baseline, the rate goes up. Solar essentially eliminates the highest rate tiers first, explains Webb, and while PG&E can cost as much as 37 cents per kilowatt-hour for the top tier, solar averages around 20 to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour. If you’re a typical modern family with lots of lights and gadgets, you will see savings.

“I am helping the customers, my employees and the environment,” says Webb. “It feels wonderful, making such a positive impact.”

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A horse vaccine clinic will be held at the Penn Valley rodeo grounds Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Three veterinarians will be present. For more information, call 272-4537.

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If you know of an interesting person or subject in Penn Valley, Rough and Ready or Smartville, e-mail jeans@theunion.com.


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