In July 2016, the Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA) talked with Tony Boniface, owner and President of Independent Power Systems, about installing the first net-metered system in Montana and how his small Bozeman business expanded to three states and several dozen employees.
Tony studied electrical engineering in college and worked at IBM after graduation.
How did you get into solar?
I studied electrical engineering in college and worked at IBM after I graduated. It was a good job, but when I learned about solar in the late ‘80s, I knew it was what I wanted to do as a career. There wasn’t much literature on solar back then, or many training courses, but I learned about Solar Energy International and attended a two-week training of theirs in 1992. I had the good fortune of having Richard Perez, founder of HomePower magazine, as my instructor. After that, I was so motivated to pursue solar as my career that I jumped ship [from IBM] without a job lined up.
So how did you end up starting Independent Power Systems?
At a solar conference in 1993, I met people from the solar distributor SunWize, and soon after I started working for them as their first engineer. That was in New Paltz, New York. After two years at SunWize, my entrepreneurial spirit was raging and I’d always wanted to move out west, so I picked up and moved to Bozeman in 1995, and started Independent Power Systems in 1996. I was solo for three years, then hired my first employee in 1999. Also in 1999 Montana’s net metering law was passed, and we had the honor of installing the first grid-connected solar system in Montana, in the little town of Amsterdam. The grid-connected solar market grew rapidly from there and by 2005 I had four or five employees. Also in 2005, I opened our Boulder, Colorado office.
What made you decide to expand to Colorado?
In 2004 Colorado passed a law that provided a substantial incentive for solar. I could see that the solar market was going to take off there, so I moved down to Boulder in 2005, keeping the Bozeman branch open, and started business all over again. As I had expected the market boomed in Colorado, and within three years I had almost forty employees in that office. Today we have about thirty. Then in 2010, I made the bold move to expand to Massachusetts and opened an office in Beverly, north of Boston. It’s been a really good market out there. We have six employees in that office.
How is Montana’s solar market different from the other states you work in?
Montana is great on a number of levels. It’s easy to get permitting, easy to move forward with projects, low hassles. That keeps our costs down which makes solar more affordable for customers, which is important given the low cost of electricity in Montana.
What made you decide to support MREA through the Penny Per Watt program?
I actually helped form MREA back in the day. In the late ‘90s, there was no coordination among businesses in Montana’s fledgling solar industry until a meeting hosted by the National Center for Appropriate Technology in 1999. That meeting included solar installers and supporters from across the state, and that’s the group that eventually grew into MREA. We all recognized the value of having a coordinated effort, and I still think that’s so important.
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