By Stephen Nellis on August 10, 2012.
Travis Semmes started Mobile Solar in 2006 when he realized construction job sites could use a cleaner, quieter power source.
Think back to the last time you drove past a Caltrans construction site at night. The giant light towers that illuminate the site for workers are powered by fossil fuels today, but if Atascadero-based Mobile Solar’s technology proves successful, they could be powered by the sun instead.
Mobile Solar was founded by Central Coast native Travis Semmes in 2006 and makes mobile power units that use a combination of solar panels and rechargeable battery banks to provide the same kind of electricity that would normally come from a gasoline or diesel generator. The company’s products have powered everything from big-name rock concerts to signal boosters for telecommunications companies such as Verizon.
Most of Mobile Solar’s units are designed to be power outlet far from civilization — solar panels are mounted on a heavy-duty trailer that houses a battery bank and all other systems needed to regulate the electricity into a useful stream. But one of the company’s newest products is a towable tower that provides banks of incredibly bright light — 123 lumens per watt — for road construction crews and other teams working at night.
“This is a replacement for your standard issue light tower you see everywhere on the side of the road,” Semmes said.
Designing a product for use by crews of workmen is a sort of full circle for Mobile Solar because it was born out of the construction business. Semmes, a UC Santa Cruz graduate who has worked at everything from journalism to selling vacuums door-to-door, returned to his hometown of Atascadero to work in his father’s construction business. The company built high-end residential structures in remote locations and often needed electricity at job sites with no utility services. The generators were dirty — they needed regular oil changes — and bracingly loud. The crews would often build a makeshift wall around the units just to be able to hear each other while working. “It would make your ears ring at the end of the day,”Semmes said.
Semmes recalled some crude generator units he had seen hobbled together out of solar panels and rechargeable batteries. His
father was also selling some solar equipment. Semmes asked his father about building one, and his dad told him to work up a quote and build it. His father approved, and Semmes learned his first hard lesson about running a business — don’t under-bid a job, or you’ll be sorry. “My dad really nailed me on that one. I had no idea how long it would take,” he said.
But once finished, the crews loved the new solar generator, and it drew the curiosity of building inspectors when they came to visit. “It was a huge hit on the job site,” Semmes said. “Everyone started saying, ‘You should build these things and sell them.’ ”
After roasting in the North San Luis Obispo County heat on a framing crew, Semmes decided to give it a go. He’s tapped many resources to learn about running a business — his father helped, and he’s also taken courses with a local Small Business Development Center and tapped marketing students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — and he’s bootstrapped the business all the way.
“We’re not the first company to build these, but we’re the first company to build a business around the manufacturing and sale,” Semmes said. The company occupies a 25,000-square-foot manufacturing space on the outskirts of Atascadero where it builds everything. Semmes started off designing and building the units himself, writing down the process to hire outside help when the need arose. He built demo units and sold them at a discount to finance more units. He taught himself everything he needed to know. He once thought he’d become an electrician, and though that didn’t come to pass, the knowledge helped him navigate the intricacies of electrical systems that are constantly tugging between generation at the panels and drawing and recharging batteries. His experience at newspapers helps him tell his story. And working a framing crew at least makes him glad he’s in the shade instead of the sun. Nothing is wasted.
“I’ve sold vacuum cleaners door- to-door,” Semmes said. “It’s always been my belief that a wide array of experience will help you adapt.”
Though business is down this year, Semmes refuses to budge on some parameters. One is that the systems use parts — the panels, the power controls, even the trailers — that are made in America.
That makes the price high, between $5,000 and $50,000 depending on the size of the unit. But it’s necessary because all the best stuff is still made here, and Mobile Solar’s units aim to have the best reliability and efficiency on the market and last for decades.
“The equipment is expensive. We’re not making a huge margin,” Semmes said. “We could pay 80 cents a watt for some Chinese panel. Why would we want to do that?”
The reliability factor is important. Semmes said the company’s biggest market is off-grid residential homes – not construction, as originally envisioned – followed by telecommunications and remote data. On a recent day, Semmes was preparing to send a 16-foot, 2.5-kilowatt system to Verizon. He has built systems to boost weak cell signals at remote locations and even providing temporary mobile phone service when disasters such as tornadoes down normal towers.
“We’re starting to call it the telecom special,” Semmes said.