Developer builds 750K kilowatts worth of solar

Also on the horizon are a solar investment trust and a solar consulting firm.
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An aerial photo of 401 Hall St. SW shows the solar array that covers the buildings’ rooftops. Leestma Management

While building owners are looking to keep their energy bills down during the summer, Ryan Leestma is touting the virtues of solar development.

The CEO of Leestma Management in Grand Rapids recently reported he installed 750 kW of solar development on three buildings as of last year.

This includes 300 kW at 401 Hall St. SW, 300 kW at 3520 Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Blvd. SE and 150 kW at 77 E. Michigan Ave. in Battle Creek.

All three buildings are owned by Leestma Management, and between the development and a green energy project with Consumers Energy, Leestma cut his carbon footprint by about 80%, he said.

“There’s a dramatic reduction in energy being consumed from the utility, but on top of that, I put in some major efficiency upgrades: new roofs, HVAC upgrades, better insulation, I replaced all lighting with LED,” Leestma said.

Additionally, Leestma said his power bill dropped from $14,000 per month to $3,000 per month. He expected the arrays will generate $60,000 worth of power between March and September of this year.

Leestma’s investment may be indicative of a growing trend in private solar investment. According to information from Consumers Energy, many Target stores in Michigan also have arrays in the 300-350 kW range per store.

Consumers Energy did not immediately offer further comment at press time.

Leestma also is starting his own development company aimed specifically at solar, based on interest from other real estate owners and developers. Drawing on his previous experience in the IT world, Leestma said the two markets have had similar problems — specifically in terms of education.

“What’s going on in solar is almost identical to what happened in IT 20 years ago,” Leestma said. “There’s very poor market education, an unsophisticated supplier base. People are trying to get rich quick on that one good deal and are frankly not good businesspeople.”

“Cracking the code” of solar involves managing the supply chain properly, including the equipment that is purchased and the people who are hired. Leestma said he did all of the contracting for each of his buildings and wants to pass the knowledge on to other owners looking to do the same.

Another new venture he is trying out is the formation of a “solar investment trust.”

“If an array you build is owned by a solar investment trust, and it generates x amount of power a year, investors could buy into this fund,” Leestma said. “There are banks that loan money so developers can build an array, but there’s nothing out there that says John Doe gets a $100,000 check every month based on how much solar he produces.”

From a building owner perspective, investing in solar also is a good way to secure tenants who want a smaller carbon footprint. Especially with the ongoing COVID pandemic, it’s important not only to create value for customers, but for building owners and investors to differentiate at the same time, Leestma said.

“Bill Gates calls this ‘creative capitalism,’” Leestma said. “You can perform some societal good while making money.”