E&S Mart – Altavista, Virgina.

Mike Mattox – Altavista, VA

Lunch time at E&S Mart in Altavista, Virgina., hums. A steady tide of customers and deliveries keeps the gas pumps ticking, the grill hot and the register open. Most of the faces are familiar ones. Many make small-talk over one of the high-top tables in the deli. Some will be back later for dinner and a pint of beer.

At the center of it all is Mike Mattox, the owner of the convenience store/deli/tap room. Almost simultaneously he calls most of the people moving through the store by name, talks business with the delivery drivers, asks patrons about their families and helps in the kitchen. He’s a man the people of Altavista have come to trust so much that in 2012 they elected him, a former high school earth science teacher, mayor of their small rural town.

“I want to set an example, to be cutting edge,” Mattox said. “I realize that there are finite resources, especially energy, on this planet.”

The example Mattox sets sits above his commercial storage units just outside the E&S Mart window. There, facing due south, are 96 solar panels that produce clean, renewable energy.

“I’m a rational environmentalist,” he said. “I don’t think we all ought to go back to no power or no cars, but I think we can certainly take steps on our own that can really make a difference.”

Mattox knew for many years that he wanted one day to install solar panels, but he never quite knew how to make it happen – mainly due to cost. Then, when speaking with a USDA Rural Development employee about opportunities to partner, he learned about the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).

For Mattox’s project, REAP provided $39,125, which was about 25 percent of the total project cost.

During construction, Mattox said, “I probably had 50 people come up and want to see it, want to talk about it. If I can plant that seed in their head maybe they’ll want to do something one day – anything from 400 sq. ft. to having a field of solar panels.”

Now Mattox is able to sell his solar energy to the local utility company for almost double what he pays to buy it back. His electric bills average about $150, which was down from about $1,400 the year before.

“You have to look at the entire cost and know that you’re going to get a reasonable return on investment, and you can,” he said. “You just have to be willing to make the jump.”

“The USDA and the Rural Energy Program can help people, they certainly did me,” Mattox said. “There wasn’t a question they weren’t willing to answer, they explained what we needed to do and made sure we did it right the first time. I really enjoyed working with those folks, and they taught me a whole lot too.”

People still come in often to ask Mattox about his solar energy, and the first place he always takes curious customers is out to the meter – “This is energy actually going out onto the grid,” he says. “It’s amazing.”

As that meter shows movement in the opposite direction than most are accustomed to seeing, Mattox can almost hear the energy he’s saving and the renewable energy seed he’s planting in his rural community – they almost hum.