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Company's growth radiates to developing world

The Solar Strand, a solar array laid out in the pattern of a DNA fingerprint, is nearly finished at the Flint Road entrance to the University at Buffalo's North Campus.

The project was a meaningful step in the growth of Amherst-based Solar Liberty, which installed the 3,180-panel array.

"What a great project to see when you first enter into the university," said Adam Rizzo, the company's president. "It shows the University at Buffalo being a cutting-edge school."

Solar Liberty was recently honored by two government agencies as the largest solar installation company in New York state for 2011, based on the number of systems installed and the kilowatt capacity brought online.

But there is much more to the company's strategy than installing systems. The founders, brothers Adam and Nathan Rizzo, say success in the business world supports their goals of helping people in developing countries.

Adam Rizzo got interested in solar energy while studying environmental law at UB's Law School.

"One thing that's unique about solar is, it's a distributed power, meaning that it can be produced where it's needed," he said. "So a home or a business could have solar energy on its roof or next to it on the ground, and provide all of the electrical needs it would need."

The setup is ideal for people in rural areas of less-developed countries who lack access to electricity infrastructure. That use of solar power is where the Rizzos' business approach took a unique turn.

"Nathan and I realized that in order to do our nonprofit or developing-world work, we would need to first have a business in the United States that was able to help us grow into those ambitions," Adam Rizzo said.

They founded Solar Liberty in 2003, as a wholesale company selling solar panels to other installers. "We very quickly became a large provider of solar panels to the European market, because they were taking off and they were looking to the U.S. to provide more product," Adam Rizzo said.

As the supply of panels caught up with demand, the Rizzos refocused. "We saw the next kind of viable option for us was to get into the installation aspect of the systems, so we weren't relying on other installers to purchase our product," said Nathan Rizzo, the vice president. "We had to develop the projects ourselves to work into."

The Rizzos applied lessons about components and design they learned from European companies they had worked with. And Nathan Rizzo, now the company's lead installer, got photovoltaic certifications with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority.

The company performed its first installations in 2006, starting with homes. Its list of customers gradually expanded to included nonprofits, schools and businesses. Schools were of particular interest to the Rizzos, a chance to educate young people about solar power where systems were being installed.

Solar Liberty took on larger projects, including an 1,100-panel solar array for a transit bus garage, and the 750-kilowatt Solar Strand system at UB. Successfully bidding on the Solar Strand meant a lot to the Rizzos, since Solar Liberty is locally based and Adam Rizzo is a UB law school alumnus.

"We knew that because of our experience in the solar market in New York State that we were able to not only provide a competitive price, but also a higher-quality installation than some of the competitors that were also bidding on that project from all over the country," Adam Rizzo said.

The Solar Strand was designed by acclaimed architect Walter Hood and funded with $7.5 million from the New York Power Authority. It will be officially dedicated on April 23.

Last year, Solar Liberty generated $25 million in revenues, compared to $15.7 million in 2007. More than 50 people work at its Sheridan Drive offices, including some at a subcontractor, Allegro Power.

After nine years in business, the Rizzos say public awareness about solar energy has grown.

"I think our timing with the solar market in New York and on a global level was perfect, in terms of growing our company, because I know that there had been other solar companies in the '80s that just weren't able to survive, because public participation wasn't there, and as well as the government programs to support these technologies that are now here for us," Adam Rizzo said.

Solar energy's outlook and viability remain a topic of debate nationally. The Rizzos say they draw upon their own experiences to measure solar energy's worth.

"I think if you were to ask a homeowner that actually has solar panels on their roof, that you would get a much different answer from someone that doesn't," Adam Rizzo said. "And when they wake up everyone every morning to see solar panels generating electricity on their own home, that they would have a much different opinion [of] solar energy in the United States, especially in the New York market."

The Rizzos say their company has lasted in part because it is strictly a solar energy business, not dabbling in other areas. They also say the engineers they have on staff, many of them UB graduates, offer another advantage over competitors.

Solar Liberty's growth has enabled the company to continue to donate equipment and funds to the Solar Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit serving developing countries. (Donors from outside the company also support the foundation.)

A medical facility in Haiti uses solar panels from the foundation, instead of relying on a diesel generator or kerosene lamps. The foundation also supplies solar cookers, which use solar energy to cook food and sterilize water, to people in developing countries.

"I think it's coming together," Adam Rizzo said. "We can't say that we're at the finish line yet because there is so much need in the U.S. and developing countries, that I don't think our work will ever be done. But it's somewhat gratifying for us to see these projects actually happening, from a concept that Nathan and I had put together to actual implementation."