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Riding the ‘Solar Coaster’ with Azimuth Energy

Particularly in today’s political climate, renewable energy has its ups and downs. Perhaps that’s why many in the industry call it the “solar coaster.” But the renewable energy movement is a global one requiring problem solving at all levels but especially local according to Paul Marske, director of business development at the St. Louis-based renewable energy company Azimuth Energy.

Founded in 2009, Azimuth helps companies build clean energy strategies into their business models by providing engineering, construction and development support services. The company’s main objective lies in finding clients for whom solar power is currently cost-effective. And that largely depends on location.

“That’s the thing that makes solar a bit complicated,” Marske said. “It’s really a state-by-state market.”

Because each location has a unique mix of laws, government incentives, culture and cost of electricity, Azimuth conducts extensive research to find the sweet spots where their services are financially viable.

“The cost of electricity is really what you’re up against when you’re asking a customer to consider installing solar,” Marske said. “As the cost of installing solar is coming down, it’s spreading the market out because the cost for electricity does not go down like that. It’s remained flat, if not increased.”

These lower prices are helping the solar industry to grow exponentially. In 2016, the one millionth solar system was installed in the U.S., and the industry is expected to double that by 2019, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The growth has helped Azimuth find success in the region and abroad. In St. Louis, Azimuth has installed renewable and efficient energy technologies at the Science Center, Moonrise Hotel, Pageant Theatre and Busch Stadium, where Azimuth’s services reduced the stadium’s energy consumption by 20 percent.

Azimuth has also worked with resorts on Caribbean islands to install advanced technology microgrids, which essentially store solar power in batteries to create independent and reliable electrical networks. This kind of energy storage is similar in function to that of a generator.

“If you pair them with solar, you’re creating your own little mini-utility for your house,” Marske said, noting that using batteries to store energy for future use would be particularly beneficial in places where customers pay peak demand charges for electricity. “If you can add a cost-effective option to store energy for use when the sun’s not out, you’re basically creating one more little piece of the puzzle that removes you from reliance on the utility.”

Energy storage technology is relatively expensive right now. But as batteries become cheaper and more efficient, Azimuth hopes to one day offer it to customers as a standard complement to solar technology.

“In my mind, at some time, they’ll always go hand-in-hand,” Marske said, adding that affordable energy storage is arguably one of the next major innovations in the industry. “It’s just not quite there yet.”

Azimuth is currently focused on growing the company organically and hiring more like-minded people.

“I think part of the reason employees like working for our company is that every time we do a project, we’re impacting the environment and the planet in a positive way,” Marske said.

The company’s location in the CIC@CET building on the Cortex campus might factor into that equation, too. Azimuth President Marc Lopata said that although the space was slightly more expensive than others he was considering, the amenities, atmosphere and administrative functions covered by Cortex staff at the CIC@CET location put it “over the top.”

“It’s just a fun place to work,” Marske said, adding that location was one of the draws for him when he decided to make the move to Azimuth around the beginning of the year. “I love being able to invite customers, family, friends to stop by and check it out.”

Marske said clients seem particularly interested in checking out the campus in person.

“I’m always offering for clients to come here to meet, and the sense that I get is that I’ve gotten more yeses to that than I would have in the past,” Marske said. “Businesspeople around St. Louis are curious about what’s going on here and they’ve heard about it. So if you give them an opportunity to come down and check it out, I think they’re apt to come do that.”

In spite of the industry tumult, Marske remains optimistic about the future.

“The momentum with renewable energy, with clean energy, is not just a U.S. thing,” he said. “It’s a movement across the world.”