Somewhere bobbing in an ocean, there is a family living on a sailboat reading a bedtime story under a light powered by electricity generated by solar energy. While on the other side of the world, there is a team of Special Forces encamped in a desert setting up charging stations for their laptops to monitor a supply shipment moving across the open sands. Both the sailors and soldiers can thank the Solar Stik team lead by St. Augustine residents Brian Bosley and his wife Stephanie Hollis for having portable, efficient access to electricity regardless of location.
“I like to joke that we are an overnight success, ten years in the making,” says Hollis, chief operating officer of Solar Stik. “People are now aware of what we are doing, but at the time when Brian conceived his vision of where he wanted to go with this, the portable power industry was just gas generators.” In the late 90s, Brian Bosley and a group of friends were outfitting their sailboats for a long voyage. Their boats were small, and out of necessity they designed a compact, freestanding solar system to generate energy for their vessels. After traveling thousands of miles, the friends gathered and were stunned at how well their solar systems withstood the harsh marine environment. Thus was the birth of what is now known as the Solar Stik. Today, the company offers dozens of different products and hybrid systems to meet a wide variety of needs. Most of their customer base is military, but everyone from boaters to RV campers to emergency management organizations use the product.
“The market is wide. Anywhere you think it would be nice to have a little bit of power, we fit,” says Hollis.
The system is lightweight and can be set up or broken down in minutes. It is designed to harness the sun’s energy and efficiently convert it into useable electricity that can power anything a small portable gas generator would support.
Hollis says that customers in the military that once had to refuel their generators two to three times a day are now down to once a week. “When you reduce the fuel convoys, you actually save lives,” says Hollis. “That is what drives our motivation to continue to grow and innovate, even beyond the military setting. We have donated solar systems to hospitals in Africa to give them electricity, and other projects as well. We are really focused on what difference portable power can make in peoples lives.”
In 1981, Peter Wilking was a high school student, with a pretty innovative father. His dad was an engineer that worked for a county government in Pennsylvania, and that year he installed a solar thermal system at a public library. “My dad was a pioneer. I didn’t pay it much mind as a teenager, but when I was in college my brother-in-law had a fan that ran off of a small solar panel. I would watch it spin, and hit me then that this was the future of energy,” says Wilking. It was 1984.
After college, he joined the Navy and served on a Trident submarine out of Kings Bay, Georgia. He loved Northeast Florida so much he decided to stay, and bought a home in Fernandina Beach. In 2006, Wilking jumped into the solar energy business. At the time there was a large solar thermal industry in Northeast Florida, used for hot water heaters to mainly heat pools, but there wasn’t much work being done in solar electric. He began working with a local solar contractor to learn the ropes. “I just thought, geez, we are in the Sunshine State. Where else would be better to go into solar?” Wilking says.
About five years ago, the economics of solar really changed. “It was just a matter of time to where the cost of solar equipment dropped low enough relative the to cost of electricity,” says Wilking. “The industry has been growing pretty incrementally, but the last couple of years it has been growing 30 to 40 percent per year.” He is quick to say that this rapid growth is dependent on regions with incentive programs, like New Jersey and California. “I am not a big proponent of being incentivized. Here we haven’t had a lot of incentives, and I am glad we are not on that solarcoaster. You can’t build an industry that way,” he says. Wilking would know. Operating in a state with very little incentive programming, his company A1A Solar Contracting has been instrumental in growing the market here. “JEA says we have 90 percent market share of solar installation in their territory,” says Wilking. A1A Solar discontinued doing solar thermal installation a little over a year ago, and now the company only installs solar electric system.
Installing solar in your home or business is a long-term investment. It is a one-time point of purchase to “install a power plant that will serve you the next 30 years,” Wilking says. On average, the buyer typically pays off that investment within the first 7 years of ownership through savings in electricity bills. “Typically the home owner’s avoided cost [in electricity] is between $20,000 and $40,000 over the 25 year warranty period for the panels,” he says.
Wilking powers his home, business, and electric car using solar energy. “It all comes down to a philosophy as to where we want our country to be ten, twenty, fifty years from now in terms of mix of energy,” he says. “Do we want to be using fossil fuels? I don’t think so, when technology can move us away from that.”