November 13, 2017
Shop Talk

Harvard firm going on 43 years strong in solar industry

Photo | Brad Kane
Steven Strong, founder and president, Solar Design Associates, Inc.

Steven Strong

Title: Founder & president

Company: Solar Design Associates, Inc.

Founded: 1974

Location: Harvard

Employees: 15

Age: 67

Residence: Harvard

Education: Northeastern University, Boston Architectural College

Solar Design Associates has been with the clean energy industry since its early stages more than 40 years ago. From designing the first house to export electricity onto the power grid, the firm has worked on projects large and small – including Clark University's near net-zero academic center in Worcester – as the industry has evolved in fits and starts.

What kind of projects did the company do in the beginning?

We started with solar thermal projects and also independent and very efficient solar house design.

We did one of the largest solar thermal installations in New England in 1979, a large multi-unit housing complex in Quincy.

Solar thermal was the technology of interest at the U.S. Department of Energy at the time, and it got a lot of support from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, which wanted to see lower energy costs for moderate- and low-income housing.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan scaled back that enthusiasm for solar. How did that impact the industry?

It grew gradually. The president was not a fan of solar, but there were a lot of folks who were intrigued by the technology. It has immediate and near-term cost effective applications. It started a lot with off-site locations, places that were not connected to the power grid and needed only a small amount of energy. That was the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1979, when President Jimmy Carter was still in office, we were commissioned to design and construct the first all-solar residence to export a surplus of electricity onto the power grid. It resulted in a single-family residence in Carlisle, Mass., exporting power onto the grid because they made more than they needed. That started the utility-connected opportunity, and it grew from there.

Did that help the firm get customers?

Shortly after that, Boston Edison – the predecessor to Eversource Energy – approached us, as they were having some bad press over problems at a nuclear station. They wanted to build a house representative of the technology and design 25 years forward, because they had seen what the Carlisle house had generated in interested around the world, and they wanted to offset their bad press.

In 1982-1983, they commissioned us to do what was called the Impact 2000 house. The very-popular TV Series "This Old House" on PBS got wind of it and wanted to chronicle construction of this house. The utility got more positive press than they imagined, and we got the house done and opened for tours for the first six months. The house was eventually sold to a private couple.

What do you see in the solar industry today?

As time has gone on, solar has grown dramatically. Now – in conjunction with wind, depending on where the resources are – the lowest cost of new generation in many cases. Obviously, the resources have to be there.

The reason nuclear plants are having issues financially and are seeking subsidies from governments is it is too expensive to run those plants. Solar and wind are outbidding even coal now, in various jurisdictions depending on how the power rates are structured.

What solar work do you do now?

We work across the entire spectrum. We do custom houses, custom ground-mount systems. We did the solar on the Olympic Games in Atlanta. We helped Hampshire College in Western Mass. power its entire campus with solar.

We've done 250 megawatts of utility-scale solar in the last three years. We didn't construct it. We design and engineer and then we oversee construction.

We've spread our reach outside of Massachusetts to all across the country from Maine to Hawaii and to Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

What are your new significant projects?

One of our largest projects right now is the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, which is a complex with multiple hospitals but all close together on the same site. It has been a challenge, because there is a lot of seismic [earthquake] activity there.

The project we did for Clark University in Worcester was similar in complexity, because the university wanted a rooftop system and we had to work around the air conditioning units and other systems on the roof.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Brad Kane, WBJ editor.

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