Post-S.B. 310, stalwart Ohio clean energy biz turns to other states for business

Workers install 6,800 watts of PV solar panels on the Kilpatrick Farm in Warren, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Dovetail Solar and Wind)

Workers install 6,800 watts of PV solar panels on the Kilpatrick Farm in Warren, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Dovetail Solar and Wind)

Three years ago Al Frasz’s renewable energy company, Dovetail Solar and Wind, was humming along nicely.

 

The growing business employed more than 40 workers across Ohio. Dovetail had procurement specialists and a structural engineer in Athens, design teams in both Athens and Cincinnati, a safety manager in Toledo, and a team of installation technicians and project managers widely distributed across Ohio. All these employees were part of an expanding workforce helping to build commercial-scale renewable energy projects.

They collaborated on projects ranging from a solar array at an Air National Guard base in Columbus to a wind turbine in an apple orchard in Lexington. Back in those days, Frasz had plans to hire even more workers.

But then S.B. 310 was passed by the state legislature, and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich. Ohio’s successful renewable portfolio standard was suddenly frozen in its tracks. Dovetail’s business dropped sharply. The company began losing money. To keep it from going under, Frasz opened new lines of credit. He even pumped a large amount of his own cash into the business.

By 2014, Frasz’s business volume was a third of what it used to be, and he had to lay off half his workforce. At its post-S.B.-310 low point, just 22 people worked at Dovetail.

Frasz quickly realized that he had to realign his business model to focus more on where the action was: out-of-state. In addition to its five Ohio locations, Dovetail opened offices in Brighton, Mich., and Asheville, N.C., to take advantage strong renewable policies in those states. “Ohio is putting up roadblocks, while the rest of the world is moving forward,” said Frasz, noting that Dovetail has completed more than 350 projects.

More than 95 percent of Dovetail’s work used to be in Ohio; that figure has now dropped to less than 60 percent.

But Dovetail’s shift in strategy has paid off, and Frasz’s business has stabilized. By adding a few more workers, Dovetail’s workforce has inched back up to 26 employees. Frasz is looking to add more installers, electricians and logistical workers.

Frasz would prefer to do more projects – and employ more people – closer to home. He said building projects out-of-state is challenging. For example, to compete with local installers, he has to be more aggressive on his margins. Plus, travel, insurance and licensing expenses add to the overhead of working on out-of-state projects, Frasz said.

Even as Gov. Kasich and Ohio’s state legislature have seemingly turned their backs on the state’s clean energy industry, Dovetail does its best to remain loyal to businesses in its home state. Frasz sources as many of Dovetail’s components as possible from manufacturing companies based in Ohio, even though, thanks to S.B. 310, the ultimate destination of more and more of those Made-In-Ohio components is out of state, or even out of the country.

Still, consumer demand remains strong for more renewable energy in Ohio – even though state policy keeps many potential large projects from moving forward, according to Frasz. “Our Ohio residential business is growing as electric rates continue to rise and more homeowners seek to reduce and lock in their energy costs,” he said.

Ohio’s farmers are also embracing clean energy, he said. “They understand and are not afraid of the technology,” Frasz said.

Dovetail has completed more than 25 solar and wind projects on farms, many of which took advantage of incentives offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, Frasz said USDA renewables programs are underfunded, and when S.B. 310 had a chilling effect on renewables projects on Ohio farms, it was farm families and rural school districts (which often get increased tax revenue from renewables projects) that were hurt the most.

–Environmental Entrepreneurs