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SOLAR EXPANSION: Sun Solar CEO Caleb Arthur says his company will begin a $15 million capital raise this summer with the intention of becoming a solar panel manufacturer.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
SOLAR EXPANSION: Sun Solar CEO Caleb Arthur says his company will begin a $15 million capital raise this summer with the intention of becoming a solar panel manufacturer.

Sun Solar to invest $100M in solar panel manufacturing

Company also is expanding operations to Illinois

Posted online

Officials at a Springfield-based solar energy company say the venture is growing on multiple fronts, including out of state for the first time in its 11-year history, while also adding solar panel manufacturing to its services.

Sun Solar LLC, which last year reached $41.2 million in revenue – up 210% from 2020 – plans to open its first office in Illinois by early June, said owner and CEO Caleb Arthur. The company still intends to keep its headquarters in the Queen City, but Arthur said he wanted to invest more resources in the Prairie State to capitalize on increased business and clean energy investments. The 12,000-square-foot facility Sun Solar will lease, split evenly between office and warehouse space, is in Cohokia Heights, near East St. Louis, he said.

“We’ve got a really aggressive expansion plan for Illinois this year. We’re looking to add another 75 employees just in Illinois by the end of the year,” he said, noting the company’s employee count increased to 250 at the end of last year from 114 in 2021.

Sun Solar this month was recognized by Springfield Business Journal as the area’s fastest growing company at its annual Dynamic Dozen awards. Arthur estimates revenue this year could land between $70 million and $80 million.

Panel plan
Solar panel manufacturing also is on the company’s plate, as Arthur said Sun Solar plans a $15 million capital raise with its customers this summer. That money would go toward what he estimates will be a $100 million investment for the company to start manufacturing by 2024. A location also is yet to be secured, he said. Sun Solar’s current services are solar panel installation and leasing programs.

“I’ve always had the dream of being able to manufacture and create my own panels for my own customers,” he said, noting the investment will cover raw materials, payroll, rent and inventory. “It was just a pipe dream and never dreamed it would come true.”

Arthur said the solar energy industry has a large opportunity through the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last year. The act will award nearly $27 billion to leverage private capital for clean energy and clean air investments across the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The money will be divvied up among the states with open competitions for grants expected to begin later this year.

The Inflation Reduction Act provides a 30% solar investment tax credit though 2025 and Arthur said it should incentivize the build-out of more domestic solar manufacturing. Large projects in the Midwest are already in progress. Through affiliate 3Sun USA LLC, Enel North America plans to begin construction this fall on a $1 billion, 2 million-square-foot solar photovoltaic cell and panel manufacturing facility in Inola, Oklahoma, about 25 miles east of Tulsa.

China currently manufactures 80% of the world’s supply of solar panels, according to the International Energy Agency. It’s an amount Arthur said the federal act will hopefully reduce.

“If we can produce and manufacture all of our own energy needs in the United States, why do we keep relying on other countries, especially countries that aren’t real friendly with us?” he asked. 

Officials at another local solar energy company say they have no interest in entering the solar panel manufacturing space.

“We prefer to stick to our skill set of selling and installing solar panels, generators and batteries to residential, agriculture and commercial customers in Missouri and leave the manufacturing to others,” said Solara Energy LLC Chief Operating Officer Ryan MacDonald, via email, noting doing so would take years and nearly $100 million for the company to build and begin production.

Shawn Roberts, CEO of Springfield-based APC Solar, didn’t return messages seeking comment before press time.

Arthur said to quickly get to market, Sun Solar is looking for an existing building in the 200,000-square-foot range – and at least half of it air conditioned and heated.

“You can’t have dust and things like that when you’re manufacturing and assembling the panels,” he said of the need for a climate-controlled environment, adding the facility likely will employ around 200 people.

Missouri and Kansas are both being considered but Arthur said the latter state is currently offering the company a substantially larger incentive package. He declined to disclose details as discussions continue. 

“We might end up across the border for our manufacturing plant,” he said.

Legal wait
Even as Sun Solar looks to the future, a legal case Arthur filed last year against one of its former executives and a local bank remains active. The lawsuit against former employee Adam Stipanovich, OakStar Bank and its renewable energy financing division, BrightOak LLC, alleges the defendants conspired to create a competing finance and leasing program with trade secrets that were in violation of a nondisclosure agreement, according to past reporting.

Motions by the defendants to have the case dismissed were denied last fall by 31st Judicial Circuit Judge Jason Brown, according to online court filings. However, Brown has since retired, which forced the case to be reassigned – one of several delays over the past year, Arthur said. Judge Joshua Christensen is now presiding over the case.

“Right now, we’re just going through the process of trying to get information from them,” Arthur said of the defendants. “We’ve sent them questionnaires on when did things occur, dates and times.”

Once the questionnaires are filled out, the next step is depositions, which are witnesses’ sworn out-of-court testimony.

“They go under oath, and my attorney asks them questions,” he said, adding he hopes the process can be completed this year. “They’ll turn around and do the same thing with me.”

Arthur said his attorneys, Steven Marsh and Jason Shaffer of Hulston, Jones & Marsh LLC, told him after filing the lawsuit to expect a long wait.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been involved in some lawsuits in the past, and I know how long these things can drag out,” he said. “I kind of anticipated it.”

Illinois activity
Sun Solar’s work in Illinois largely was made possible because of its St. Louis office, Arthur said, adding the company slowly started taking jobs around 18 months ago in the southern and central portion of the state. Illinois passed a clean energy bill in 2021 with the intention of bringing it to 100% renewable energy by 2050, according to the state government’s website.

While the Federal Reserve raised interest rates last year, making selling solar more difficult in Missouri and many other states, Arthur said Illinois homeowners with solar could be eligible for a tax credit of up to 30%, which has bolstered the company’s sales.

“While 80% of our revenue last year was in Missouri, I’d say 80% of our revenue this year will be in Illinois. It’s just been a paradigm shift for our company,” he said. “Luckily, we already had that foothold in St. Louis and are just able to expand out of that hub.”

Sun Solar has regularly sent installation and sales crews to Illinois this year, while other employees have elected to move.

“We’ve physically relocated at least 15 of our employees so far and it will probably end up between 30 or 40 of our Springfield employees,” he said.

Aside from Cahokia Heights, a central Illinois office around Springfield or Peoria also is planned before year’s end, Arthur said.

“It’s been very beneficial for us to have employees already trained who are willing to relocate,” he said.

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