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Bristol corporation switches to solar

Electro-Mechanical Corporation is letting the sun do the work.

While most people associate Electro-Mechanical with the manufacturing and distribution of transformers and switchgear, this southwest Virginia company is looking at new sources of energy and revenue.

Based out of Bristol, Virginia, Electro-Mechanical was founded on Sept. 8, 1958, by Frank Leonard. Starting as an electrical repair shop, this was one of the first businesses in the area to offer this kind of specialized service. By the late 1960s, after their largest customer went out of business, Electro-Mechanical made the tactful decision to redirect their specialties to the mining industry. This is the first of many examples on how the company has successfully pivoted to stay atop changing demands.

“This is just a natural progression,” said Howard Broadfoot, chief operating officer of Electro-Mechanical Corporation, “It’s good to see us reinventing ourselves every decade or so.”

Today, another change is in the works.

Coal, which has successfully guided the company through the last several decades, is now a topic of political and economic disagreement. While many businesses and communities still rely on coal as a viable energy source, Electro-Mechanical feels that it is time to think forward and consider the next possible pivot as solar energy.

Solar energy is a tricky topic, and one that has to be considered with equal amounts of benefits and setbacks from an economic, social and environmentally friendly standpoint. While the production of coal is vastly cheaper than other renewable sources, it is also detrimental to the overall health and safety of our environment. While it supplies vast amounts of jobs to people within a booming industry, we must consider other up-and-coming industries, such as solar energy, that are dedicated to creating jobs in a new sector and hold greater expectations and standards for the environment in the years to come.

And who better than Electro-Mechanical to pave the way?

“We really are uniquely qualified to pursue this business,” said Electro-Mechanical engineer Kent Jones when asked about his take on this venture. “We are one of the best at what we do.”

Working at Electro-Mechanical for nearly 12 years, Jones has endured the ups and downs that come with changes in federal administration and political climate. He knows that being among the first in the field is a considerable advantage.

“It’s almost like, why wouldn’t you take this opportunity?” said Jones. “There’s no better time. Will we have other people try to jump in? Of course, that’s life, but we will have already established the product.”

The product, in fact, is not solar panels. It is the switchgear necessary for distributing the energy acquired from the sun through a solar panel to a utility provider. The Electro-Mechanical product operates as a singular component in a multi-component system. While it is not the component that most people are familiar with when thinking of solar energy, it is a critical device in the process of distributing the energy.

Jodi Dutcher, vice president of sales and marketing at Electro-Mechanical, expressed the importance of getting this product approved and on the market as soon as possible. She has been with the company for 33 years and has recently been promoted to her current position. This long-term commitment to Electro-Mechanical allowed her to experience the company evolving into new markets.

“If we’re successful in getting approved and providing our product to them upfront, we have a better chance of being the successful winner of that business as we move forward,” said Dutcher.

The customers for this product currently would include EPC, or engineering, procurement and construction, firms across the nation who are primarily focused on energy. Some examples of these companies include Silicon Ranch Corporation, based out of Nashville, Tennessee, and Solar Operations Solutions, based out of Cornelius, North Carolina.

Both Broadfoot and Dutcher recognize the value of having a company that does not consider a single venture to be the end of the road or the height of success. They expressed that this is only a natural progression for the company and it will certainly not be their last.

“Our evolution to being a world-class manufacturer is a project that’s been going on and will never end,” Broadfoot said. “It’s a journey, not a destination. We’ve been on that journey more seriously over the last five or six years and just seeing the people in the plant become more trained and more mainstream in the way we do things.”

Any transition, no matter how big or small, can create mixed emotions from members of the community. And with a steady shift from coal to renewable energy sources, different communities will have different opinions as a result of varied political views and geographical positioning. When speaking with Scott Fielder, member of the Media and Public Relations team at the Tennessee Valley Authority, he expressed the many changes that have occurred while working in this industry and the challenges that accompany them.

“The utility industry is changing, and changing quickly,” Fielder said. “Today you, the consumer, have the power to generate your own power.”

In this, one of the biggest challenges he found was creating a system that ensures there is enough power for everyone at the right time. Solar power has never been in such high demand and with this excess demand, comes many benefits. Whether it be through creating jobs or providing a source of power that people can feel good about, the shift to renewable energy is one that creates opportunity.

“Big companies and businesses are actually demanding solar,” Fielder said. “We’re actually putting our communities on the forefront of the utility industry and using solar power to revitalize them on the urban and rural side.”

For Electro-Mechanical Corporation, this was the only next step that made sense. By pivoting to a quickly growing, sustainable industry, many business owners and competitors can take a page from their book on how to remain consistent and relevant throughout the years.

Eventually, fossil fuels will run out. But as long as the sun is shining, solar energy is here to stay.


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