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The Power to Change the World

Mountain View Solar’s Mike McKechnie Sheds Light on Solar Energy and on Giving Back

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Mountain View Solar, Melinda Gipson

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Just across the Virginia line in Berkeley Springs sits a fully renovated house with enough solar panels to power not just the lights, heat and hot water but extensive Internet and EV charging stations for the company’s service vehicles. From this modest outpost flows both the vision and the technology to power thousands of homes, commercial buildings, government warning systems and soon more than half the Loudoun County Public School System.

The company is Mountain View Solar (MTVSolar.com), incorporated in 2009, after the custom builder pivoted into solar power for homes and businesses. The company was such an early innovator that it recently updated its EV charging stations because they were more than a dozen years old.

The owner and visionary behind it all is Mike McKechnie, a self-described early adopter of technology that is intended to make everyone’s lives greener, more economical and more livable. “I continue to claim that I had the first Nissan Leaf in West Virginia,” he chuckled. He adds, “I may not be the most tech savvy guy in that I may not know all the details but I love technology and we have a great team of electricians and super tech people. I love to research and learn about the different trends and find out what people might want or what we think is important” – again, to improve their lives and build more sustainable, ecological structures.

Mike’s love of innovation likely dates to living in Europe in the 60’s. His father was then a computer programmer for Philips, based in the Netherlands, and his young family with four kids lived both there and in Great Britain. Mike was exposed to experiential learning in the Montessori schools of the era and became adept at problem solving and critical thinking. Returning to the states in 1976, it was apparent to Mike that both he and his brother, his first partner, just thought differently – “we still do.” Influenced by his education to think in terms of, “What can we do to improve people’s quality of life?” and later, “How can we do it and save energy?”, he first applied this point of view to building houses that were extremely energy efficient and that contained fewer toxic chemicals in their building materials.

“We became known as a Green Builder when this was still a new concept,” he recalls. They were among the first companies in the region to offer geothermal and radiant heat and the first contractors to offer on-demand hot water heaters. “We began building healthier homes in 2003, and by 2007 we were doing solar. By 2009 we switched over to solar because building houses wasn’t as challenging as we would have liked. Solar is never without a challenge,” Mike explained.

The pattern that’s guided the company’s growth is that, as soon as a new technology emerges that is healthy and saves energy, Mike explores how to implement it. “A lot of the related building science was self-taught. We couldn’t learn it from the building community, because they weren’t doing it!” Radiant floor installation training came from Thomas Somerville, one of the big suppliers, but then company engineers and plumbers did all of its own radiant pipe work themselves. New technology is always first installed at their own homes and offices and tested to make sure it works as promised. Mike then hires the smartest and most adaptable workers he can find and trains them on how to install the systems for customers.

Mountain View’s work force has grown to just under 50, double the size of just a couple years ago. “We've tried to make a really good environment with good wages, good benefits and to make it fun and enjoyable. That's something we're really good at so we retain people for lots of years, which is unusual in the construction industry,” Mike says. His VP and Controller Kelly Waugh agrees – she’s been with the company 22 years.

“We have purposely had a very inclusive hiring practice. We also have a very strong presence of women in our business. Our management team is 62% women,” says Mike. “We did this on purpose. We find that, especially in construction, it's usually very heavily dominated by men, especially in the management level. Because we’re in the service industry, providing a service that needs to be installed and followed up, it helps us to have more women involved.” In the solar industry, “there are more paperwork hours than there are men in trucks putting panels on roofs,” he explains: “Permitting, engineering, design, procurement, interconnection with the utilities, all requires detail-oriented people with good interpersonal skills, good software, good follow-up and good communication.”

Mike's other mantra: “If our team is happy, they're going to take much better care of the customers. Our employees come first and then come the customers because we get better customer care that way.” Employee retention leads to a repository of experience – “We’ve learned a lot of things the hard way. We’ve got good people, good processes and we’re passionate about what we do. We like to help people and give back to our community, and then we get up and do it all again tomorrow.”

Besides permitting, tracking the various incentives is among the company’s ongoing challenges, because what they deliver to consumers is a complete package of fully installed and operating system, plus all the paperwork to claim their tax credits. Under the Inflation Reduction Act that became law last year, there’s a 10-year, guaranteed tax credit of 30% for both businesses and homes who install solar systems. “That’s a tax credit – not an incentive, but real money that offsets the taxes you pay,” says Mike. It’s the longest runway the solar industry has had to incentivize consumers to adopt solar technology and provides the company with a “longer runway” to aid adoption.

Mike’s bedrock argument for solar power is that power for most Americans is something they rent – they don’t own it – and the cost has always gone up, until the advent of solar. “Now you can own a portion of your utility bill. You’re taking an expense and turning it into a depreciable asset for your home,” Mike explains. It generally takes less than 10 years to recoup the cost of installation in every jurisdiction Mountain View Solar operates, and in some cases as little as 5 years. For commercial installations, the ROI has been cut to less than a year by government incentives. These metrics also are useful in determining whether a home’s roof has enough usable life left in it to justify a solar installation, or whether a replacement roof should precede adoption. Mountain View Solar has teamed with many roofers to update homeowners’ shingles so they don’t have to wait six months to a year before they can begin solar installation.

Another way to approach solar is for its ability to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, Mike says. “Big picture, we know that every solar panel we install reduces our dependence on a finite resource by accessing an infinite supply of energy. I think that's important. I've got young kids. I'm hoping that we they live in a world that is not as polluted, that has cleaner air, that has good, thriving communities where we were not so dependent on a finite resource.”

The technology has matured to the point that the efficiency of today’s solar panels is extremely high – on the order of 98-99% -- and the failure rate is extremely low. “If you don’t break it, it keeps working,” says Mike. “We offer a 25-year warranty. You know what else on your house has a 25-year warranty? Nothing!”

Seeing the impact on lower-income families that a $100 savings on their energy bills can have is something that has spurred Mike’s philanthropy. Like many building contractors, he’s worked for Habitat for Humanity, and he still donates solar panels to one Habitat house per year. To have even more impact, in 2017 the company instituted a program where, for every project for which it sold solar panels, they donated a solar panel. Homeowners can designate a non-profit where they’d like the panel installed and MTV will supply them with a list of nonprofits it has already qualified. (See mtvsolar.com/about/in-the-community

The company has now donated just shy of 1,000 solar panels plus related equipment to seven or eight different nonprofits in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pittsburg and elsewhere. One of Mike’s favorite projects was The Kid’s Club of Northern Shenandoah Valley where the company not only donated solar panels, but also helped build an outdoor basketball court.

Beginning this year, on March 31st, to commemorate the American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez’ birthday, everyone in the company engaged in a day of service to the community, a practice that Mike says will become an annual tradition.

Why Cesar Chavez Day?

Well, as it turns out, thanks to 23 and Me, Mike, who was adopted as a baby, learned that his father was Cesar Chavez. It’s something he’s known for many years but didn’t speak about publicly until he had an opportunity to meet and get to know Cesar’s other children. Understanding his heritage has made Mike even more committed to giving back to his community. “That passion that I feel for helping people, I now believe that much of that comes from him and my desire to contribute to his legacy.”

As to legacy, Mike already is having an impact on the lives of Loudouners through his work for the Loudoun public school system. LCPS has identified 54 of its 100 schools that will receive solar panels under its sustainability initiative. Working as a subcontractor to CMTA, Mountain View Solar already has completed installation at 12 of those schools, amounting to more than 8,000 solar panels. The work will continue for the next five to seven years providing substantial savings to county taxpayers – not just because of lowered utility bills and the installation of EV charging stations for busses, but through the installation of smart automation that can centrally regulate the use of heat or air conditioning to provide it only when needed.

Work on the school system excites Mike because he hopes it will engage a new generation of students to learn more about solar energy and what it can do for the environment. “They’re our future employees. There are so many jobs that this industry provides – construction, sales administration, permitting, design, engineering, fleet maintenance, there’s something for almost everyone in this growing industry and we don’t have many trained individuals to choose from. We bring them in and train them.”

Where else, he asks, can someone with a facility and interest for technology, that enjoys working outside, or that is mechanically inclined, find a job that can provide a good living and save the planet? asks Mike. “We have room for plenty of people who want to change the world.”

"We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own." Cesar Chavez

  • Mike McKechnie Explains the Economics of Solar Power
  • Two Solar Panels Power Mountain View Solar's Office and Fleet of Service Vehicles
  • Mike with VP and Controller Kelly Waugh
  • Hovatter Elementary School, LCPS
  • Residential Roof Mount
  • Trained Installer at Work

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