Written by The Business Journal Staff
Name: Tommie Lee Nellon
Organization: Unlimited Energy
What we do: We install solar photovoltaic and thermo systems, service and repair all solar systems, research and development and training
Education: All Fresno City schools: Carver Elementary, Wishon Elementary (Forced busing), Fort Miller Jr. High (Thank You!!! Mr. Creal), McLane High (Thank You!!! Mr. Huck), Fresno City College and California State University, Fresno.
Family: All of Fresno, I love this place. I have 3 kids: Tommie L. Nellon III , Kayla A. Nellon, Alexander D. Nellon
What led you to establish Unlimited Energy 25 years ago, Tommie?
I worked for a couple of solar companies in the late 70s early 80s and when they closed their doors, I had people — their customers — asking for my help to service and repair their solar systems. I was also asked by customers to develop new solar systems for many different applications. I found out quickly that there was money in this “alternative energy” business and being one of just a handful of guys in California that can do this type of work, I capitalized on my talents.
How much solar were you doing when you first began, Tommie?
Ninety-five percent of my work early on was solar thermal systems, solar hot water heating or solar pool heating systems. Very little photovoltaic (PV) was being installed at that time. My service area, like today, covered all of California. I had hundreds of customers and more work than I had time for. Keep in mind there were only three guys that I know of that worked in the solar field at that time and I was one of them.
Briefly explain what kind of tax credits are available to those who invest in solar, Tommie?
There are several incentives that benefit our solar customers. The California Solar Initiative rebate program gives instant rebates based on the size and type of installation. In addition, there is a 30% federal tax credit based on total installation cost. For business customers, the 30% tax credit can be taken as a grant paid out 60 days after installation is complete. Solar projects also qualify for a 5-year accelerated depreciation schedule. There is one more incentive — solar projects add value to your home or business but they are property-tax exempt.
How much residential solar do you do compared to commercial buildings, Tommie?
I would say about 70% of my work is residential and 30% is commercial.
How strong is the commercial demand for solar and how do you see that growing, Tommie?
Commercial is not that strong yet, only because return on investment is not fast enough for most investors right now. But soon it’s going to be big business. Right now the only true installers of commercial utility scale projects are the utility companies with an excellent return on their investments.
Where do you see the solar industry in 10 years, Tommie?
It’s growing by leaps and bounds. The sky is truly the limit when it comes to this industry. There are a few things that can seriously hurt the solar industry. One is labor union involvement. Over the years, I’ve fought against this. There is clearly a disconnect between the unions and what the solar market can support. I would have to increase my cost by 30% to account for what they’re wanting as union “fair” wages. That would put all of us out of business. This industry just can’t afford that right now. Our goal is to always decrease price and make solar energy affordable for everyone. Two is those who just came into the solar industry to make a quick dollar and leave. You know them by their flashy names, slick leasing plans (you’re paying three times the cost for a cheap system) and false advertisement, like they’ve spent over 20 years in the solar business. Stay away from those companies. I’m tired of repairing and/or replacing their solar systems once they close their doors.
Many are concerned about the initial price of installing solar. When do you expect these prices would go down, Tommie?
Right now pricing is as low as it’s going to get without some kind of larger state or federal rebate program.
Are more and more people opting to own their own solar systems?
Yes. People see that when installed correctly, they work very well.
How long will they last and what kind of maintenance is involved with the systems, Tommie?
The modules I install are warranted for 25 years. Maintenance is just keeping modules clean.
What materials are the most popular when it comes to solar panels and why, Tommie?
Most modules are made of silicon, tempered glass and aluminum frames. These modules will last for 30 or more years. There are some new technologies out there with thin film and others that are very cheap but they don’t produce the watts needed. In other words, they’re very inefficient and degrade in energy output quickly.
What’s the first thing people should know when they’re interested in installing a system on their home or business?
Make sure contactor has a C46 Solar Contactors License. This license is for those who specialize in solar. You will get the argument that I can install PV with a B General or C10 Electrical. This is true but what you want is someone who specializes in solar and that’s a C46 Solar Contactor. Also, please hire a local solar contractor, not some company with a satellite office here in Fresno. Hire a company who TRULY has roots here. Let’s keep our money in the city. You’ll be surprised how many solar companies out there are not from Fresno.
What are your roots in the San Joaquin Valley, Tommie?
I was born and raised here in Fresno. My parents were immigrants from Oklahoma.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it, Tommie?
Age of 12, paperboy for the Fresno Bee. What I learned more than anything else was teamwork. With the right team you can do anything.
What do you do in your spare time, Tommie?
Spend time with my kids. They’re growing much faster than I did. I like flying RC airplanes and playing the flute . . . Yes, real men do play the flute.