Shining a light on solar power for business use

Solar system at Moxa’s sales and marketing headquarters cuts energy bills, provides platform to showcase new products. Jan. 10 online update: ROI information added. See "feedback," at bottom.

By Sidney Hill, Jr., CFE Media Contributing Editor December 12, 2012

Most industrial automation vendors offer products that help manufacturers implement energy management programs. But Moxa has gone a step further.

Moxa makes a variety of products to ease the process of connecting automation equipment to Ethernet networks. It also has demonstrated its commitment to reducing industrial energy use by installing a 311 kW, solar powered micro grid at its Brea, Calif.-based global sales and marketing headquarters.

The solar power system went live in July 2012, and already is producing major savings in both energy and dollars.

Before installing the solar system, Moxa was paying roughly $6,000 a month for electricity on an estimated billing plan with its local utility, Southern California Edison, according to Jim Toepper, product marketing manager for Moxa Americas.

Under estimated billing, the utility gauges how much energy it expects a customer to use each month, based on historical usage patterns for occupants of similar facilities. At the end of the year, the customer either makes an extra payment or gets a refund to bring its bill in line with its actual usage.

With its solar system in place, Moxa’s estimated monthly bill has dropped to $500. "But I can tell you we’re producing more energy than we’re using," Toepper says. "At the end of the year our bill is likely to be less than zero."

Excess power to the grid

Any energy that Moxa produces but does not use, flows to the regular power grid and ultimately is consumed by other Southern California Edison customers. "Our excess power is likely being used by neighboring businesses," Toepper notes, "because they’re connected to the same substation, and they’re next in line on the path the electricity follows as it flows through the grid."

By producing energy for itself and some of its neighbors, Moxa also is reducing the amount of power Southern California Edison must generate to meet its customers’ needs, which benefits the overall environment.

The desire to be environmentally friendly was a major factor in Moxa’s decision to install a solar power system. "This marks another milestone in our ongoing commitment to environmentally friendly business practices," Ben Chen, president of Moxa Americas, said in a press release announcing the system’s unveiling.

Chen also noted that Moxa already had launched numerous other energy conservation efforts. For instance, it cut water use by installing low-flow aerators on faucets throughout the facility. It employs rain sensors on the system that irrigates the property’s landscaping, and all building lights are controlled by motion sensors.

Moxa also has appointed a team to research other methods of saving energy, such as converting parking lot lights to light-emitting diodes, considering an electronic HVAC system, and a building energy management system.

Given Moxa’s enthusiasm for green initiatives, Toepper expected a positive response when he suggested installing a solar system in the new headquarters building. The idea sprouted from his success installing a solar system in his home.

A wise investment 

"I put in a system about two years ago, and it works great," Toepper says. "I now have a zero-dollar electric bill." He envisioned Moxa replicating that scenario when the company moved into its new sales and marketing headquarters in the fall of 2011.

"We’re always looking for ways to be more efficient, save costs, and have a smaller carbon footprint," Toepper explains. "When we purchased this property, I suggested that since we own the property-and we’re going to be here long-term-a solar power system would be a wise investment."

Acting on that suggestion, Moxa budgeted $1 million for a solar system. The result was a 35,000-sq-ft solar-fueled power plant that employs 1,133 photovoltaic (PV) panels mounted on the building’s roof and atop the adjacent carport. A central inverter converts the dc power generated by the PV panels into ac power that can be used in Moxa’s building as well as the general power grid.

In addition to cutting its energy costs, Moxa expects to eventually use its solar system to test new products that it can then market to customers in the solar industry. Moxa is a member of the Sun Spec Alliance, a group that’s dedicated to accelerating the growth of the renewable energy industry by developing standard interfaces for equipment used to monitor and manage energy system components.

"Some of the companies in that group already use our networking and computing equipment to monitor communications on large solar networks," Toepper says. "That wasn’t the primary reason for installing our solar system. But a definite side benefit will be the ability to use our system for the trial, exploration, and beta testing of new technology that would be attractive to members of the Sun Spec Alliance. So this system will become a showcase as well."

Real-time performance data

In a sense, the system already is a showcase. Moxa is using some of its own equipment-such as cameras and networking switches-to monitor the system’s performance. A display in the lobby of its building is connected to this network and displays real-time metrics from the system. The information also can be accessed, in real time, from any Web-connected device.

On a recent mid-November afternoon, the system displayed the following information about Moxa’s solar system:

  • The current amount of power the system was generating
  • The total energy generated since the system’s golive date, equal to $13,178 in savings
  • The total CO2 offset, equal to 2,665 trees
  • The total energy generated, equal to 106 tons of CO2 saved and 11,993 gallons of gas saved.

Toepper calls that display "a reminder to anyone who enters our building that this is a real technology-and it’s making a real impact on our business as well as the environment."

He acknowledges that $1 million is a sizeable investment in solar technology, but he also points out that Moxa expects full payback from the system in 4.5 years. "It’s incredible to think that you can get all of your money back in 4.5 years, and from that point on, you’re making money," he says.

Moxa’s experience has convinced Toepper that any business located in a region that has year-round sunshine should invest in solar technology. If the quick return on investment isn’t enough to make that case, Toepper has another argument.

"If a company that owns a facility in the southwestern part of the United States invests in a solar system, it will pretty much break even on day one," he concludes, "because it will have increased the value of its property."

To see the real-time display on Moxa’s solar system, visit

For more information, or to find out how to join the Sun Spec Alliance, go here:


Several readers wondered about the return on investment calculations provided. In response, Moxa representatives noted that the ROI calculation incorporates related incentives, such as federal government incentive, California State incentive, capital assets depreciation, increase in $/KWh over time and marketing value (or green credit offsets). Also considered was the appreciation of the property value by adding such a system. “The bottom line is that we are actually not paying $1 million for the system, so the payback period is much shorter,” Moxa said.