Appalachian solar power benefits recovery center
West Virginia's Mountain View Solar recently completed a solar project on Mountaineer Behavioral Health and in addition to reducing energy costs, the project also employed people who were in the center's recovery program.
By Paul MacDonald
The State of West Virginia is well-known for fossil fuels such as coal which has been dug out of the Appalachian Mountains for generations, and served as an energy building block for the U.S. economy for decades.
But renewable energy is quickly getting some traction in the Mountain State.
Mountain View Solar (mtvSolar), located in Berkeley Springs, in the Eastern Panhandle of the state, has been steadily working away at installing solar projects in West Virginia—and, since it is in the northeast part of the state, also doing solar installs in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
The company has its roots in construction. In 1995, Mike McKechnie founded Mountain View Builders, building custom green homes in the Berkeley Springs area. From the start, the company had an employee and family-oriented focus, to best serve its customers. It built energy efficient homes from start to finish, overseeing all aspects of the building process.
In 2009, after seeing the potential of solar and battery projects to save people money, back up critical loads, and generate clean electricity, the company transitioned to become mtvSolar—and hasn’t looked back.
“Some people might think West Virginia is not an ideal place for a solar company—we’re still considered by many people to be a coal state,” says Mike Studholme, senior commercial and residential PV consultant with mtvSolar.
“But it has turned out to be a good move with the way renewable energy has grown in the region.”
Added to that was a solid company mandate: “We believe in clean energy, doing good for the planet, and being good stewards of the environment,” added Studholme.
On a solid business case basis, though, it also helps, as mentioned, that it was also at the nexis of those three other states, which also have growing solar power markets.
The award-winning company has now installed more than 1,000 renewable energy systems in the residential, commercial, and public sectors in the region.
mtvSolar has also proudly been involved in a large number of solar projects for non-profits in the region.
A project the company completed in 2022 for Mountaineer Behavioral Health, formerly the Mountaineer Recovery Center, in nearby Martinsburg, West Virginia, is now helping the recovery center save money—but it also did much more.
The center had talked with mtv-Solar a few years’ back about possibly installing a solar project, and in 2022, decided to move ahead. Dr. Jonathan Hartiens, CEO of Mountaineer Behavioral Health, like mtv-Solar, has a strong belief in clean energy—and the savings a solar project will deliver.
During the planning for the project’s planning process, Dr. Hartiens brought up the thought of having some residents of the recovery program help with the installation of the solar project. mtvSolar was quick to jump on board, and two residents helped with installing the 200 kW project, made up of 522
solar panels (a subsequent phase two, with 179 panels, will be built on an adjacent building, housing the center’s newly-built Women’s Recovery Center, in 2023).
“We thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Studholme. “We said yes, and we hired two men who were in recovery at the center to install the project with our crew.”
Built in 2018, the 48-bed Mountaineer Behavioral Health facility helps residents to deal with substance abuse, including opioid addiction.
Sadly, West Virginia was hit hard by the opioid epidemic. It had a per capita opioid mortality rate over three times the national average in 2020, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
West Virginia has since taken a number of companies to court related to their roles in oversupplying prescription drugs in the state, that fueled the opioid epidemic, and successfully won a number of cases.
The state has set up the West
Virginia First Foundation, which will receive monies from the settlements to help those recovering from substance use addiction.
In terms of the recovering residents at the Mountaineer, mtvSolar interviewed four residents, and hired two for the project.
And they are continuing to look for further employees. “The relationship with Mountaineer is open—we are interviewing candidates all the time, to bring on the team.”
Taking on the approach of employing residents in recovery was new to mtvSolar, but it’s a good fit for the company.
“As a company, we’ve always believed in second chances for people,” says Studholme. “Like many companies, we’ve had employees who have had difficulties with addiction, and we’ve helped them get the help they needed. There was a spot for them on our team to come back to, if they wanted.”
As with any potential employees, they are looking for people with energy and drive—and an interest in the solar power industry. “There are also certain trades skills that convert well to solar, like construction and electrical.”
Studholme noted that training was required for the two men on the Mountaineer project. “There was on-the-job training with our experienced crew members,” he explained. “That’s why we limited it to two hires on the project—we wanted to make sure they had the attention they needed, to learn and understand what we are doing during each step of the process—they were working side by side with our experienced crew members.
“They both did a good job—one of them did so well that we wanted to keep him as part of the crew.”
As part of the overall approach, there were requirements for drug testing, and counselling, during the project for the two individuals.
As noted, West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, and mtvSolar views this initiative as an extension of its community involvement.
“Giving back to the community through employment is something that is very important to us,” said Studholme. “And one of the most important things for someone in recovery is to have a daily purpose.” So, in other words, it’s a good fit.
With all industries in the U.S. facing labor shortages, it also helps to cast a wide net for potential employees. But it’s important to take on initiatives such as hiring folks in recovery with a good dose of reality.
“It’s certainly good to have multiple sources, for employees,” said Studholme. “But hiring people in recovery is not the easiest thing to do. It requires a good amount of training, and there are the struggles that people in recovery can have that need to be monitored.
“But it’s important to us as a company to help people, too.”
For companies looking to hire folks in similar situations, Studholme said it’s best to keep the number of trainees manageable. As with all new employees, you want to keep the number of new employees low, to ensure they receive quality training from their experienced co-workers.
In terms of the nuts and bolts of the Mountaineer project, Studholme explained that no pre-work was required on the roof. An engineering firm did an analysis of the roof structure, and okayed it for a solar project.
The size of the project, at 200 kW, really falls into the sweet spot for mtvSolar, as it’s been focusing on projects 250 KW or less, in the small to medium size.
There was some space on the back of the Mountaineer building that they were able to utilize as a laydown and mobilizing area. “It’s a fairly short, one-story building, so getting on top of it was easy.” They employed a lift to get the panels and components to the roof.
During installation, in the summer, they dealt with some very hot weather, but the work was paced accordingly, with the company making sure workers were getting sufficient breaks, and keeping hydrated.
“That’s the thing about installing solar power in hot weather—the sun is getting at you from above, and from the reflection from the panels you are installing below,” says Studholme.
In terms of components, the project uses REC 380W twin peak 72-cell solar modules, and SolarEdge 43.2 kW inverters. These inverters utilize the latest safety measures, and are easy to service, if required. “It allows us to monitor the system’s performance over time, too, and gives us input if there is a fault or malfunction, so we know exactly where the problem is. With that kind of intel, it can minimize the time service people spend on the site, which is good for everyone involved,” says Studholme. The racking system is from SnapNrack.
More recently, the company has been taking on larger projects, including three solar projects totaling 2 MW on schools of a county school board in the region. And there is more to come, with that school board, over the next several years. And things are continuing to grow on the commercial side, says Studholme.
“Interest in solar power is at an all-time high, and the technology has never been better,” he added.
Batteries and storage are becoming a larger component of the work they do. “Probably 50 per cent of the installations we do on the residential side include batteries, and on the commercial side, batteries are going to be more important.”
Even though they are ramping up the work they do, Studholme said the company is doing it in a controlled way, so they can maintain their high quality standards.
“There has been steady growth since we started, but it has really ramped up over the last five years—and we’ve seen substantial growth in the industry in the last two years, which has been a surprise with the pandemic.”
Going forward, mtvSolar is going to be busy. Studholme says they are encouraged by the interest in solar power, and renewable energy initiatives, such as what was included in President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
It is one heck of an exciting industry to be involved with, says Studholme. “There is a lot going on in the solar power industry these days,” he adds. And the folks at mtvSolar seem to have a front row seat.