Victoria native develops solar unit for rural use

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

Feb. 6, 2017 at 11:49 a.m.
Updated Feb. 6, 2017 at 11:49 a.m.

Bill Tolhurst, left, and Cole Brady pose in front of their solar panel devices.

Bill Tolhurst, left, and Cole Brady pose in front of their solar panel devices.   CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY Stephen DeMent for The Victoria Advocate

A Victoria native is hoping to power a movement of solar energy in rural South Texas.

Victoria native Cole Brady has teamed up with fellow University of Texas at San Antonio alum Bill Tolhurst to develop a solar power unit that can be easily transported and assembled.

"The way that solar gets done today is like if Ford came to build your car in your driveway," Tolhurst said. "We saw a way to innovate as much as possible and put it back in a factory environment."

The duo call their solar unit the PowerFunnel. The device comes with a solar panel mounted onto a hollow plastic assembly with a 25-degree pitch. It also comes with weatherproof electrical components that convert the solar energy into the kind of power customers consume in their home.

Before partnering with Tolhurst, Brady was a research engineer at Southwest Research Institute. He holds a mechanical engineering degree from UTSA.

Tolhurst has more than 25 years of experience in startups and founded the San Antonio TechBoosters. He holds a degree in electrical engineering from UTSA and is a graduate of Harvard Business School's General Management Program.

Brady came up with the duo's patent pending solar device when he was attempting to install solar power on his ranch in Victoria County and was confronted with the problems and benefits of installing solar energy in a rural area.

About 22 percent of energy consumers live in rural areas, according to a 2001 U.S. Energy Information Administration report. And, though Texas leads the U.S. in wind generation, utility-scale solar power generation has lagged.

As of 2015, only about 288 megawatts of utility-scale solar power generation were installed in the state. That same year, there was 15,764 megawatts of installed wind energy.

But, Brady and Tolhurst said their device capitalizes on resources the state already has: land and sunshine.

The device sits on the ground, which makes it easier to maintain and ideal for rural customers who typically have available land and more expensive electricity bills, Brady said.

While roof-mounted solar panels have to be adjusted to the pitch of the house, the ground-stationed solar panels come at the angle best figured for optimum production, Brady said. And, the 25-degree angle allows dirt and grime to slough off.

Brady and Tolhurst advise their customers to clean the units with a sponge and water once a year.

It takes about 10 of the units to cool every 1,000 square feet of air-conditioned living space. More or fewer units can be configured for larger or smaller applications.

The length of time it takes for the units to pay themselves off depends on the tax incentives available to the customer, Brady said. A search of the online Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency shows a list of 15 possible tax incentives for residential use of solar in Victoria County.

Customers have been able to break even on the device in as short as three years and as long as 15 years, Brady said. The device has a 30-year warranty but is built to last much longer.

In the past, solar customers may have made the switch to reduce their impact on climate change. But, now, more and more are making the move to solar because it makes financial sense, Tolhurst said.

"It's now become an argument much more about economics," he said. "You still have a capital cost you have to outlay to take advantage of the economic benefit, but we're doing our part to help with that. Even if you might ultimately want 20 PowerFunnels, you can start with ten. That lowers the capital necessary to make the purchase."



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