- Written by: Christine Fisher
- Produced by: Sean O'Reilly
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
Legatus6 is in the midst of building a 1.75 megawatt solar system that will feed 13.2 kilovolts into the power distribution loop at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida. Working with that much power, while working within the federal government’s stringent requirements, has become Legatus6’s niche.
It’s a niche that happened by accident, says John McCann, president and co-founder of Legatus6—a Maryland-based solar installer that specializes in federal contracts.
In the world of solar—where most solar installers are either building $50-million solar farms at the public utility scale or are installing small residential rooftop solar systems—midsized federal contracts provide Legatus6 with steady business and allow it to help address the problem of climate change.
A philosophical commitment
McCann was a federal contractor for 25 years before he founded Legatus6 with Robert Bowe, a business colleague who has since retired. That was in 2008, and at first the company provided government support services, taking advantage of McCann’s understanding of how federal contracting works.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Legatus6 got its first solar project—installing a 20- kilowatt solar power system on the roof of a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. Though that system was only 20 kilowatts—about what two residential homes would use—it tied into the hospital’s 480-volt system. Because of the added complexity, the project required a level of expertise that separated McCann and Bowe from their competitors.
Within a couple of years of that VA hospital contract, McCann and Bowe decided to focus on solar projects.
“We just decided that it was a potential growth industry and that we wanted to do something that would address one of the major problems in the world today, which is global warming,” McCann says. “So it looked like both a good business opportunity and an opportunity to address a very significant problem.”
It was an opportunity to do good while doing well, rooted in a philosophical commitment, he says.
Very particular federal requirements
Since then, Legatus6 has done several projects for the U.S. Marine Corps, one for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Jersey and a couple of small systems for the U.S. Army Reserves in Illinois and Wisconsin. Most of these range from 500 kilowatts to 2 megawatts. Compared to a solar farm, projects of that size are small, but compared to a residential rooftop installation, they’re significant.
Government work is not always easy, though. The level of detail required is exacting, and the level of specification is much higher in the federal world than it is in the commercial world. Every step of the work is inspected and double- checked, and the government’s engineers are often closely involved.
“They ask questions that other people wouldn’t ask, and you can view that two ways: one is they’re just being especially careful and the other way to view it is you can say, ‘Is this really necessary?’”
McCann takes the first perspective. While he recognizes that government projects have added red tape, he’s not complaining.
In reference to the company’s current project at NASA, McCann says, “All government work is exacting but NASA is sort of particularly particular, and in a good way. What they’re doing is ensuring that they get a very, very high quality system.”
It certainly helps Legatus6 that McCann has a thorough understanding of how government contracting works. The company is also a Department of Energy Qualified Energy Savings Company (ESCO), which allows Legatus6 to compete for federal energy savings performance contracts.
Those contracts allow federal agencies to procure energy savings and facility improvements with no upfront capital costs or special appropriations from Congress. In those instances, the contractor will pay for a project and be paid back by the energy savings the client sees.
“I think that is a great program because it really allows the government to get improvements that they would not have the capital to do otherwise,” McCann says. “…We all get the benefit of the government installation using less electricity and not contributing to global warming, but then the government gets the economic benefit of the reduced energy consumption.”
Legatus6 is also a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), so it helps the federal government meet its goal of awarding three percent of prime and subcontracts to SDVOSBs.
Selecting subs who understand strict specifications
Legatus6 relies on subcontractors for each phase of its projects, from the electrical engineers who design the systems, to the laborers who install them. For those subcontractors, government work can be challenging.
“Sometimes we have some subs who are used to the straight commercial work, who work for us in the federal space and who just continue to sort of get taken by surprise by the level of specificity and paper work in the federal space,” McCann says.
Because Legatus6 follows federal government contracts around the country, it must find local subcontractors for each project.
Because Legatus6 follows federal government contracts around the country, it must find local subcontractors for each project. That’s a challenge sometimes solved by an internet search and sometimes solved by driving around and saying, “Hey look, they’re tearing down a building; let’s go see who the civil contractor is,” McCann says.
“It’s kind of a hard world for people to break into in a way, because people who aren’t used to doing it don’t understand the level of specification,” he says.
The complexity of government work isn’t going away, but McCann says he hopes that as solar becomes mainstream and the equipment becomes more sophisticated, every single “average joe” residential electrician will be able to install rooftop solar systems.
While Legatus6 is committed to solar power, it also does facilities maintenance and energy efficiency services, like LED lighting retrofits. It’s beginning to pursue contracts that mix solar, LED lighting and HVAC efficiency.
“We certainly are expanding out in the energy efficiency side, which meets our goals of reducing carbon emissions and doing something beneficial for the environment and addressing global warming.”
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