New Mexico’s Lee Michael Homes is already a green building player, building its 10 to 25 annual projects to meet Built Green New Mexico standards. Now the custom builder is diversifying and expanding its reach with a new sister company specializing in the supply and installation of solar panels and solar hot water systems.

Solar Power Evolution, formed in partnership with fellow builder Dave Engelmann of High Mountain Homes, installs new and retrofit systems on residences as well as schools and commercial properties. Because Lee Michael already installs the systems on its projects or, at minimum, pre-wires and pre-plumbs those homes for future solar upgrades, the new company is a natural extension of the builder’s expertise.

“We just thought the time was right. We felt that the people who are more environmentally conscious are coming out in full force,” explains Alexa Knight, vice president of Lee Michael Homes and a managing member of Solar Power Evolution. “It’s always been our passion. We felt it would complement our businesses very well.”

What’s more, “I think the potential is growing faster than the home building business,” Knight says. “People want to stay in their houses, and they want [those homes] to be more efficient.”

Also on the company’s side are multiple opportunities for monetary incentives in New Mexico, including a 40% payback from federal and state tax credits. Net-metering can earn area homeowners an additional 13 cents per kW sold back to the utility.

The payback is no minor opportunity, considering the region’s 300-plus days of sunshine annually. “We think that’s the best resource,” Knight says, noting that it’s perplexing that solar panels are more prevalent in notoriously cloudy areas like Seattle and Sweden than in the sunny Southwest.

As Solar Power Evolution gains traction, one of the biggest challenges will be increasing consumer awareness and education, such as overcoming solar’s “hippie” image. Also, homeowners facing resistance from their HOAs may not know that prohibitions against solar collectors are illegal in New Mexico. Outreach efforts, particularly trade shows, help the company show consumers how the systems work and how far panels have come aesthetically.

One hurdle marketing can’t fix right now is the stalled lending market. “People really want to do it, but they can’t come up with the cash at the moment,” notes Knight.

As the economy begins to bounce back, financing for energy-saving projects should pick up, as well. As it does, Solar Power Evolution is geared up and ready to help the Land of Enchantment live up to its renewable energy potential.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.