Columbia solar business expands headquarters

Beams of sunlight and employee enthusiasm fueled the crowd of blue and orange as Direct Energy Solar opened its new solar headquarters with a ceremonial solar panel switch-flipping Wednesday in Columbia.

After acquiring Annapolis Junction-based Astrum Solar in July 2014, Direct Energy added "solar" to the company's name and launched plans to be one of the largest residential and commercial solar installers in the country.

The company quickly outgrew its former headquarters, Chief Information Officer Stephen Simons said, and decided to expand, making way for additional project managers, engineers, designers and sales and service agents.

"Our previous [headquarters] was very much a very low-overhead cash-grab, startup place," said Simons, who has been with Direct Energy since 2010. "It was some odd collection of offices we inherited and collection of cubes we inherited. We just made it work. Here, [the facility] is custom built to our needs and our specifications. We have an open workspace, which is far more efficient [and] far more collaborative."

Simons said the new 42,000-square-foot facility gives employees more open space and low cubicles, as well as "huddle rooms" for meetings and conferences with the company's local and national customer base.

The new headquarters is home to 160 employees with another 70 seats to be filled by the end of the year. Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO Lawrence Twele said that means an improvement in the county's workforce.

"Innovation fits directly with the [county] workforce, so we're very happy [Direct Energy] was able to stay in Howard County," Twele said. "The jobs they have are sales, marketing, engineering and installation, [so] it's one of those companies that provides a lot of opportunities for a wide range of skills."

Consumers can choose to opt out of utility company transmission and distribution costs, Simons said, by installing a solar panel on the roof, which can hold an average of 300 watts of power.

"Let's say you leave for work during the day and turn off everything," Simons said. "Your solar system generates that power to run the meter backwards and the utility will give you a credit for the power you're generating when you're not using it."

Although Direct Energy Solar Vice President Cory Byzewski said solar energy is "still in the early days," the company's operation plans to hire 800 employees in 2015 across North America to meet growth and expansion goals.

"For every thousand installs we do in the community, it's about 94 jobs we create just for our team, not including economic develop factors," Byzewski said. "We want to be one of the top three [companies] in the nation, [but] it's a tricky thing because it's a moving target. The industry is growing so fast [and] we want to be a part of it."

Direct Energy operates in six mid-Atlantic states and as far out as California, areas Byzewski said were "economically feasible" with stronger support for solar energy.

For Maryland, harnessing solar energy "makes sense," he said.

"We have states, like California and Massachusetts, where there's a more defined value proposition," he said. "We think Maryland is going to be a very strong state for solar in the future [and] we expect to be the number one player in Maryland since it's our home."

Following the ceremony, employees and local and state officials toured Direct Energy Solar's Innovation to Inspiration 18-wheeler mobile exhibit with an interactive display of new innovations in home, solar and business energy management.

As the company expands, President Scott Boose said solar energy will grow as well.

"Solar really helps us make a difference in customers' lives," Boose said. "Through the technology and innovation in solar, it positions us to make that difference and, frankly, allow customers to use less energy. From an energy company, [that's] not something you often here."

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