It takes a (solar) village
Could the Lake Tunnel Solar Village change the face of Geneva?
Ryan Wallace doesn’t believe the McMansions that dot suburban Monroe and northern Ontario Counties are the future of housing. “My advice is to sell them while you can,” he says. “The next housing crisis will be one of a lack of supply of urban homes and a rotting inventory of unsellable, large homes.” He’s hedging his bets as part of a new housing development owned by his wife and his mother, Lake Tunnel Solar Village. Located on Routes 5 & 20 in Geneva, Lake Tunnel will have built twenty housing units with solar power, solar carports, plus a charging station for electric cars. Wallace describes the property as “a typical neglected urban infill lot with traffic noise and railroad tracks but also easy access to the lake and downtown entertainment and restaurants.” The first of the homes have only recently been installed on-site, but Lake Tunnel Solar Village has already made its mark on Geneva’s economy: the Solar Home Factory, the company that builds the homes, has eleven union-scale employees with health care and pensions, all without a pilot tax exemption. Wallace hopes to hire ten more before the year is out.
Conventional wisdom regionally suggests that solar-based housing could work in Western and Central New York but might work best in Ithaca or Tompkins County, where a proven track record of interest exists. “That was the predominant response,” Wallace says of taking the Lake Tunnel project to banks and investors. “But I think that we’re always up for a challenge. We thought, not only could we do this in a factory, but we could do it here in Geneva.” And they’ve had no trouble selling them: the first phase of development, which includes six townhouses and a villa, has sold out; the second phase of houses is selling fast. The houses range from $149,000 to $195,000—a little steep for Geneva—but the lack of utility bills make up for it. According to Wallace, most of the buyers are from out of state.
Geneva is a long way from Grants, New Mexico, where Wallace built his first solar panel with his uncle at the age of fifteen. “My family is a family of scientists,” he says. “We were able to power lights, water pumps, a television, and even HAM radios, which we used to try to call the MIR space station.” After high school, he attended the University of New Mexico for three years before dropping out to pursue his first startup. At a bar in Albuquerque, he met Tracey O’Donnell, a Geneva native and occupational therapist. They relocated to Florida and started QwikSolar in 2009. At that time, Florida did not have the reliable government incentives that solar panels were dependent on, so QwikSolar was barely surviving. In 2011, Wallace married O’Donnell at Keuka College’s Norton Chapel. He fell in love with the Finger Lakes and, more specifically, Geneva. “I couldn’t believe that this town wasn’t bustling with people moving into it,” he says. Fueled in part by O’Donnell’s interest to return home, the newlyweds moved to Geneva the following year, bringing their newborn son and QwikSolar with them.
With upstate New York’s long, harsh winters, Wallace initially had a hard time convincing people that solar power could work, but that didn’t last. His fortunes changed early on, when the Geneva Bicycle Center on Exchange Street hired QwikSolar to install ninety-two 250-watt solar panels. The panels were funded by the sale of spin cycles to Om Yoga, who had obtained the funding through a city grant. “It’s kind of a neat story about how all that money stayed local,” opines Wallace. In its first year of business in New York, QwikSolar did $90,000 in business; the following year, it made $4 million. When they arrived in New York, QwikSolar was just Wallace, O’Donnell, and a van. By 2014, they had ten employees. That same year, Wallace built a 6,480-panel solar farm off Carter Road (near Geneva’s middle and high schools), sending energy to local businesses (a loan and NYSERDA grant funded the construction), as well as a solar-powered private residence for his young family.
As QwikSolar took off, Wallace began to notice that the interest in home buyers buying smaller homes was beginning to eclipse the interest in retrofitting existing houses with solar panels. With that realization, O’Donnell, Wallace, and his mother, Marita, decided to segue into home building, and that’s when they conceived Lake Tunnel Solar Village. In 2017, Wallace sold off QwikSolar and launched SmallGrid, which evolved into two companies: the Solar Home Factory, owned by Wallace; and Lake Tunnel Solar Village, the development company owned by O’Donnell and Wallace’s mother. The former builds the homes; the latter company handles the finances and sales of the building lots. The original plan was to purchase homes from a home manufacturing company in Pennsylvania. But after seeing that the quality of the homes left something to be desired, Wallace decided to open his own factory and manufacture the houses himself. In the spring of 2018, Wallace acquired two properties owned by the city: one at 33 Forge Avenue, where the Solar Home Factory is now based; and one at 68 Elizabeth Blackwell Street, the site of the Lake Tunnel Solar Village. Wallace bought them at a discount in exchange for forgoing a pilot program.
Lake Tunnel Solar Village isn’t the first time lakefront housing has been proposed in Geneva. In 1987, the City of Geneva commissioned the late Max Farash to develop and build 300 condominiums as part of a $60 million Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) project. By 1990, the city had dropped Farash from the project, and the housing—which would have been located in the wooded brush between the current Finger Lakes Welcome Center and Seneca Lake State Park—never materialized. Geneva’s millennial population grew by thirty-seven percent between 2010 and 2013, and today, nearly a third of Geneva’s population is under forty. In 2015, the website nerdwallet.com ranked Geneva third as one of the best places for millennial job-seekers in New York State, ahead of Ithaca, Canandaigua, and Albany. “Poll after poll finds that millennials are seeking to define themselves by their experiences rather than the size of their homes,” says Wallace. With even aging baby boomers interested in smaller, lower-maintenance housing, the timing for Lake Tunnel Solar Village is right.
Wallace credits Lyons National Bank for its willingness to take a chance and back the project. “What Lyons National Bank saw was our track record, and we were wildly successful. We started QwikSolar and it grew rapidly. We built the first community solar farm in New York when no one had even heard of community solar,” Wallace notes. He cites the bank’s own history of risk taking, pointing out the relocation of its headquarters to downtown Geneva in 2014 when similar banks might have relocated to Canandaigua or Victor. “It takes a special kind of organization to say, ‘Okay, they’re a risk, but you know, they’ve proven they can handle the risk,’” he says. In addition to backing from LNB, the Lake Tunnel Solar Village is expected to receive $1.25 million in funding from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), but Wallace hasn’t seen the money yet. And Wallace says that the Solar Home Factory is experiencing growth similar to QwikSolar’s early days: last year, the Solar Home Factory sold $600,000 in homes; this year, he expects to do $4 million. States Wallace: “The hardest part has been juggling all the pieces of that growth.”
While there are no additional projects as broad as Lake Tunnel Solar Village on the horizon, Wallace hopes to build more solar homes throughout the northeastern United States. Other municipalities have approached him, and through LNB, he has been put in touch with entities from Oswego and Schenectady. For now, though, he’s focused on developing more in-fill properties within Geneva itself and looking to the Sixth Ward (also known as the East Lakeview neighborhood) for his follow-up project. “We’re looking anywhere that we can find lots that are ready to build,” he says. Customers inquiring about the homes are less skeptical about solar housing and more interested in the intricacies of the homes themselves. Says Wallace: “I love it when people say, ‘Ah well, good luck living without natural gas,’ and I say, ‘I do it every day.’”
Erin Scherer wrote about downtown Geneva’s dining scene in the May/June 2017 issue. She lives in Geneva.