Beecher Higby III wasn’t around when solar panels were invented. His knowledge of photovoltaics, converting sunlight to energy, just makes it seem that way.
Higby founded West Indies Solair on St. Croix in 1980, installing solar water heaters and solar electric systems long before it became popular.
“I’m very hands-on and good at twisting wrenches,” Higby said about himself as he fidgeted, spinning a nut and bolt in his hands while being interviewed.
He said he saw a magazine called “Solar Age” and thought solar was pretty cool.
“My first wife and I needed something to do and, of course, we wanted to help save the world,” Higby said.
Photovoltaic solar panels turn sunshine into electricity. Even today, systems don’t come in a box, one size fits all, with all the parts and detailed instructions. Installers still have their work cut out for them – sizing the system for the specific customer, taking into account the customer’s electricity use, location and available space for panels. The customers have favorite trees they don’t want to cut down; their roofs seldom face perfectly in the right direction and at the right slope.
Higby doesn’t talk residents into putting in a larger system than they need. Although that might mean a bigger job and more money for him, it is just a waste for the customer, who receives no real benefit from producing more power than he is going to use.
Residents can get into net-metering, which gives them credit for excess power they feed onto WAPA’s grid. While there are drawbacks to net-metering, Higby explains that, if they are not going to net-meter they will need a lot of batteries or a generator. The batteries require maintenance and they can be expensive. Everyone still needs the utility company, he said. He uses some WAPA power at his home but his bill is small, only around $90 a month.
Higby said he has personally installed more than 500 solar water heaters, equaling more than 18,000 square feet of collector, which is the equivalent of over one megawatt of electricity being produced each day. He also has installed more than 100 kilowatts of solar electric systems, most without batteries.
He has one employee working with him.
“I keep it a small operation to keep a high level of quality and sanity,” Higby said.
Even though it is easier than it was in the early 1980s, an installer’s job is still not easy. Sharpening his skills in those early days is how Higby became the professional he is today. While putting in systems he learned the role and function of each piece, its weakness and its strengths. He built on this knowledge over the years. He took courses when he thought he needed a deeper understanding of certain elements or the benefits of technological advances.
The proof of his expertise comes from his reputation and his success. He said he has never had a customer complain about an installation.
“Customers have certain expectations of me,” Higby said seriously.
In 1963, when Higby was nine-years-old, he moved to St. Croix from Girard, Ohio. His father was a merchant mariner and lucked out getting the job in the Caribbean. Higby graduated from St. Dunstan’s School in 1972. He has been a motorcycle mechanic and he is a boat captain. He helped start a boat-building business in Pompano Beach, Fla., and Gold Coast Yachts on St. Croix.
“I would always work and always make a living but always making money – that’s another story,” Higby said with a grin.
Solair is at 86A Castle Coakley, right next to Colorama. Those interested can call Higby at 1-340-773-4790 for more about installing a photovoltaic system, or go online to www.westindiessolair.com to learn more.