As solar energy continues to become a more reliable and sustainable energy producer, the sector has naturally attracted numerous entrants seeking to make their fortune. However, many have learned the market is not as simple as they had thought, as evidenced by the high turnover rate.
In Andover, Massachusetts, 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Boston, there’s a well-established company that has shown its mettle through hard-earned experience with a consistent focus on its customers.
It’s not surprising, then, that ACE Solar has been ranked the #1 solar contractor in Massachusetts for six years in a row.
With combined decades of experience in solar and a reputation for professionalism, ACE continues to brighten the future of renewables around its home of New England.
Those professionals who would one day comprise ACE Solar entered the industry in 2012. ACE traces its origins to their 2015 regrouping, organizing themselves around a common purpose.
Building on combined experience, ACE expanded quickly, acquiring numerous area subcontractors and earning its place among New England’s leading solar providers and construction contractors.
In only seven years in business, ACE has installed over 300 megawatts of solar energy, making it one of the largest and busiest outfits of its kind in New England.
Today, ACE offers solar installation and maintenance experience in greenfield, brownfield, landfill, and roof arrays from 2 kilowatts to 20 megawatts. The company has also acquired a large assemblage of subcontractors, 86 in all, to facilitate ACE’s commercial and residential solar projects.
“We’re positioned nicely for the onslaught of growth in renewable energy in the solar space,” says Bob Kiley, Co-founder, Managing Partner, and Director of Sales. As both inflation and the relative price of fossil fuel energy continues to rise, Kiley is confident more customers will see the long-term value of investing in solar.
In addition to these market forces, ACE’s experience and customer focus continue to provide it with uninterrupted growth, excepting the pandemic-related slowdown. “At the end of the day we’re a client-driven company,” says Co-founder and Director of Operations Eric McLean, who himself has over 15 years in the solar industry.
McLean has an interesting take on ACE. “On the residential side, we’re a home improvement contractor,” he says, comparing ACE’s work to installing kitchens and the like. “To homeowners, their homes are their castles, so it’s important to them.”
He adds that, in contrast, after dealing with the residential side ACE must switch gears when dealing with commercial clients: “On the commercial side, we’re a general contractor, and we need to act professionally, stand up to our work, and really meet our clients’ needs.”
By putting themselves in their clients’ shoes, ACE’s team is able to empathize and communicate better with the company’s client base. “From the top down, Bob and I will bend over backwards to make sure we complete what we’re contracted for in the best manner we can, and drive home that client focus,” says McLean.
While ACE does boast 86 employees, it’s remarkable how its executive staff still get on the phone to deal with every customer project. Thanks to this nimbleness, ACE has weathered the tide of COVID, supply chain mishaps, and economic shortfalls.
In contracting, mishaps and setbacks are inevitable, McLean says. “To a homeowner or building owner, that can be a big deal; how you then handle it is what makes you a good or bad contractor and makes the experience good. From the top down, we strive for that.”
He mentions how ACE does not upsell its services and strives for clear communication, even when it’s not necessarily in the company’s best interest. “We’re not a nickel-and-dime contractor,” he remarks.
Which brings us to ACE’s carefully cultivated company culture. First of all, Kiley says, “We look to recruit and retain.” ACE offers its employees numerous incentives including fair and competitive compensation, profit-sharing measures, and equity participation in company ownership.
Yet perhaps above all is the company’s largely “hands-off” attitude toward its multitude of subcontractors. With all ACE’s experience behind them, the management staff has intimate knowledge of their subcontractors’ capabilities, deftly assigning each contractor the projects that suit their skills. As Kiley remarks, ACE’s team sets up a secure balance of trust with both employees and subcontractors.
“We give them the power and the tools to do their job, and I think we set an example for them in how to deal with issues, problems, and resolutions,” he says.
Several recent projects exemplify ACE’s growing capabilities, scale, and skills. A recent project with local solar partner Catalyze has ACE building a large solar plant in the southern Massachusetts town of Blackstone.
Located on a repurposed dairy farm, the plant will comprise nearly 16,000 solar panels to generate 3 megawatts and 6.4 megawatt hours of energy to the surrounding residents and businesses. Expected to be up and running by the time of this publication, the Blackstone project will power over 700 homes and displace 6,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air—the equivalent of the exhaust from 1,200 cars.
Another project to showcase ACE’s capabilities and scale was the provision of integrated solar power for Arsenal Yards, a mixed-use, smart growth development in the Boston satellite city of Watertown. More than just an apartment building, Arsenal Yards comprises a number of discrete structures such as a hotel and parking garage, each with its own set of engineering challenges.
As all new construction must include renewable or solar energy infrastructure, per state law, ACE was the natural choice for the job and was consulted for its expertise in the design and build of such projects. But the biggest challenge was Arsenal Yards’ urban location—the facility itself, including all storefronts and the parking garage, had to remain open during construction. ACE aced it. “The build, challenging as it was, can’t beat solar,” Kiley says with satisfaction.
A third project, well demonstrating ACE’s versatility, was the dual contract to install panels at the middle school and high school in the small town of Auburn, just south of Worcester. Both these schools, opened within the last ten years, meet Massachusetts’ requirement for renewable energy, and gave ACE a rare opportunity to explain the benefits of solar power to the next generation.
Bolduc recounts how the company to set up kiosks to explain its operations and solar power in general to students and curious visitors.
But one of ACE’s ongoing projects may be its most ambitious yet: building a solar farm in one of Massachusetts’ famous cranberry bogs. “That’s a little challenging, from a design and construction standpoint,” Kiley remarks dryly. As the harvest season cannot be paused, ACE must work around the bog’s nearly century-old vines and take care not to disrupt operations.
“We’re veterans in solar, and we have the experience to accomplish difficult projects,” says McLean, adding that this project reflects ACE’s all-round ability with the most complex challenges. “There’s not one we can’t overcome.”
While these achievements exemplify ACE’s ability with large-scale projects, the many smaller projects remain the company’s bread-and-butter.
Even with utility prices rising, many potential clients, both residential and commercial, initially consider solar to be unreasonably expensive. As director of marketing and technology, Casey Bolduc notes that ACE’s customer focus means empathizing with clients and not trying to upsell solar features.
“It’s more of a consultative approach when we work with clients,” Bolduc says. “We get into the costs that you’re offsetting, and that makes it more tangible.”
Kiley breaks it down to simple economics for clients. “In our proposal, we give them the predicted cash flows of the system for the next twenty years,” he says. “In most cases, the return on investment for residential solar is in the five-, six-, seven-year range,” and he predicts that the trend will continue as fossil fuel energy prices continue to rise.
As ACE approaches its eighth year in business, the company is emerging from the COVID-induced slowdown to take on new projects, as well as pick up some older ones where they left off.
Solar subsidies, such as Massachusetts’ SMART program, continue to provide market initiatives for consumers to switch. And while pre-pandemic, ACE had planned to expand into new markets in the Carolinas and the Midwest, its leadership team is content to remain closer to home, as New England provides numerous markets ripe for expansion.