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Owner, Home and Mobile Energy
Sales, Middlebury, Indiana
Many states offer rebates, tax credits and other economic incentives to help reduce the upfront cost of installing solar energy systems on homes and businesses. For more information on what is available in your state, visit the Database on State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
A childhood curiosity in batteries and electronics led Leon Bontrager to start Home and Mobile Energy, an Indiana-based company that distributes and installs solar and wind power kits for homes, businesses and recreational vehicles.
Bontrager, 36, opened his company in 1998. Though he has no formal electronics degree, he says his 15 years of varied electrical work experience, an enduring fascination with electronics, and the abiding allure of an energy source that fosters self-reliance have helped him run a successful renewable energy business.
“I can take a solar panel with no noise, no moving parts, point it toward the sun—which is natural power—and provide electricity out of it,” explained Bontrager. “It doesn’t matter if I’m close to a town or out in the middle of nowhere. I have full control over what I’m doing.”
The environmental benefits of renewable energy are an added bonus: “My interest has always been in electricity and producing electricity from something other than a fossil fuel. I really like being able to provide power that’s green power. We’re not putting the environment in danger because of the stuff we’re putting into the air from creating energy.”
Bontrager and his eight employees offer a range of renewable energy services. In addition to distributing solar panels and wind turbines, staff perform on-site energy audits, design renewable energy and heating systems, help customers obtain utility and local government permits, and install the systems.
The largest part of Bontrager’s business is in solar power, and the bulk of that comes from sales and distribution. However, local interest in installing renewable systems is substantial and growing, said Bontrager. He estimates that Home and Mobile Energy has installed 50 solar and wind power systems in 2008 so far, mostly in Indiana and nearby Michigan and Ohio.
Roughly half of the company’s installations are commercial. Bontrager and his staff have installed solar panels at Cornell University, Ball State University, and several religious missions in Haiti and elsewhere. Recently, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry hired Home and Mobile Energy to install solar panels on the “green” house displayed in its Smart Home exhibit that will run through January 2009.
The other half of Bontrager’s installations are residential. “We get 10 to 15 calls a day: ‘I’d like to save money. Can you put solar on my house for me?’” said Bontrager. But, the vast majority of those callers do not buy and install systems for their homes, he added, because they do not understand the initial investment the systems require.
According to Bontrager, the government needs to raise awareness about renewable energy and provide incentives that make solar power affordable for the people contacting his company.
“We need involvement from our country -- county level, state level, federal level -- to realize the impact that solar can make,” he said. “If we spend half as much money on that as we do on some other areas that have no return, people can afford to invest in renewables, and it becomes more financially friendly than buying power from utilities.”
Despite today’s relatively long wait to see a return on investment, Bontrager has customers installing solar and wind systems for reasons beyond saving money in the short-term. “A simple 10-kilowatt system that could power an entire house will save 17,000 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution,” he said. “It will save 20,000 miles of auto driving. It’s like planting one and a quarter acres of trees.”
“There’s a lot it will do for you other than just save you money,” added Bontrager. “Saving money is going to be a long-term thing, but it will come.”