Harnessing Solar Energy • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Harnessing Solar Energy

Rooftop power generation is more affordable than ever before.

by Michael Puente

In the 1985 blockbuster movie “Back to the Future,” Doc Brown famously told Marty McFly near the end of the film and looking 25 years into the future, “Where we're going, we don't need roads!”

If the movie was released today, Doc Brown may have said, “Where we're going, we don't need to buy electricity for our homes!”

That's because in the year 2040, it's predicted that more than half of the world's power-generating capacity will come from sources that emit no carbon dioxide, primarily solar energy.

That's according to a report released in June from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an energy analysis group.

It's expected residential homes and businesses will make a good percentage of solar power users–and generators. In Indiana, there are about 600 customers of solar power who both buy and sell the energy they use.

Solarize Northwest Indiana hopes to increase those numbers this year.

“What we see with solar energy, it's just helping Northern Indiana move toward energy independence,” says Carl Lisek, president of the Crown Point-based South Shore Clean Cities Inc. “We all want clean water. We all want clean air. And we're all looking at ways at just being sustainable, and this is just another opportunity for residents and businesses to take advantage of that.”

Solarize NWI is actually being spearheaded by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC).

Under the program, Northwest Indiana homeowners and businesses can sign up to install rooftop solar power that is touted as being “more affordable” than ever before.

In fact, the cost to install the equipment will significantly decrease depending on the number of homes and businesses that sign up by the end of July. There is also a 30 percent federal tax credit on installation costs.

“Solarize has been all over the country. It's like a Groupon for solar. A lot of people say they would like to go solar but it's too expensive. We have a group discount. The more people we sign up, the lower our vendor will reduce the prices. So, we're trying to bring the cost down,” says Kathy Luther, director of environmental programs, for NIRPC.

Funding to support the Solarize campaign is provided by the U.S Department Of Energy SunShot Initiative Rooftop Solar Challenge.

TO THE FUTURE A growing number of Hoosier homes and businesses are buyers and generators of solar power.
TO THE FUTURE A growing number of Hoosier homes and
businesses are buyers and generators of solar power.

“The goal of SunShot is to reduce the cost of solar energy and our project is focusing heavily on soft costs: regulator burden, red tape, lack of knowledge, those kinds of things that make it difficult to get the ball rolling. It's kind of overwhelming for people,” Luther says. “Solarize is designed to get passed all those obstacles.”

Luther says there are typically two ways a resident can save money on their electrical costs with the use of a solar system.

One is called “net metering.” That's where the electricity generated from solar panels is sent to an inverter, which sends the electricity to your home. When your home is not using the electricity, the energy produced is sent instead into the power grid.

“Your electrical meter is running backwards. Once it starts using electricity again, it runs forward,” Luther says. “Basically, it's a credit back and forth. An average homeowner may save $600 to $800 a year. The utility never actually pays you cash, but at the end of the year, they may zero you out. You may be in the hole or you could end up ahead. They start your meter roll after a year.”

Another way to save money is through a system called “feed-in tariff.” This involves the utility purchasing the electricity directly from the customer. Luther says the customer will still pay their utility bill, but they will also receive a check for the amount of solar energy they produce.

FITS RIGHT IN Advances in solar panel technology make it possible to generate power in all kinds of places, including on top of building awnings and overhangs.
FITS RIGHT IN Advances in solar panel technology make it possible to generate power in all kinds of places, including on top of building awnings and overhangs.

Currently, NIPSCO will enter into a 15-year contract with the customer. Right now, customers are making about 5 cents per kilowatt hour, even with a smaller solar energy system.

“You can get a guaranteed income that way. It's literally a payment for all the solar your home can generate,” Luther says.

The firm selected to conduct the installation is Midwest Wind and Solar LLC based in Griffith. Founded eight years ago, the firm has experience with electrical, automation and project planning for solar thermal and wind systems for both residential and commercial.

Company president Kevin Moore says the Midwest is behind such states as California and New Mexico when it comes to using solar energy.

But there's a reason for that. “It all comes down to economics. The Midwest has relatively low electric cost. Typically, we pay about 12 cents per kilowatt hour. Out West, they are paying 17 cents to 20 cents per kilowatt hour. You can see why people out west would adopt solar much sooner than us in the Midwest,” says Moore.

With the cost of materials and installation dropping every year, solar energy is seen as more affordable nowadays. “The cost of solar has gone down so much, the economics really makes sense today,” Moore says.

Moore understands that it will take communities and residents to get accustomed to purchasing solar energy products. “It's not like a refrigerator, washer or dryer. We know what those are and how they work. It really takes education on the part of the consumer to understand how it works, what it does and the cost involved.”

One of the biggest myths about solar is that there's not enough sunlight in Northwest Indiana to make it a viable option. “That's furthest from the truth,” Moore says. “Germany is the number one user of renewable energy in the world. They get about an hour less of sunshine than we do. It still works even when we have a cloudy day.”

Moore says each home has its own unique system. Some panels are installed on a rooftop, or even on land.

“Every home is really customized by us. It's based on the amount of energy usage,” Moore says. “We asked to look at their last electric bill. We can determine if you put on 10 solar panels, it may cut your electric bill by 50 percent. Or, if you put on 20 solar panels, it may get rid of their electric bill 100 percent.”

Moore says it's important to note that not every home is suitable for a solar panel system. An in-home consultation will determine that.

NIRPC's Kathy Luther says part of her job is to make people feel comfortable with the whole idea of solar energy. “Some people think it's kind of out there but in reality solar energy has been around for more than 30 years. Some think it's too new, it's unreliable, or may lower my property value,” Luther says. “There are studies that show that solar systems increase your property value.”

Luther adds that Midwest Wind and Solar will not just try to sell you the biggest system. A typical system can range from $12,000 to $15,000. Some systems can pay for themselves in eight years.

“There is also a 30 percent federal tax credit on your installation. That is expiring in 2016. So, right there, that is a big chunk,” Luther says. “With our system, you'll just sign up, Midwest Wind and Solar, and they'll come out and there's no obligation. Midwest Wind and Solar can also look on Google to see if your house is even suitable for a solar system.”

Luther stresses that the assessment in finding out if a system is right for you is free and there is no obligation to purchase.

Midwest Wind and Solar will conduct an on-site solar assessment at your home, walk you through a proposed system design, provide you with a detailed financial proposal, and answer any questions you may have.

Right now, the cities of Valparaiso, Hobart, Gary and Dyer have signed up to be a part of the program. “We've had quite a bit of interest in Hobart and Gary,” Luther says. “Those are the people who have signed up to be pioneers.”

Overall, Luther says, the campaign by NIRPC is to make purchasing a solar system as easy as possible.

“It just makes it easier. You don't have to find an installer. You don't need to find quotes. We've done all that,” Luther says. “You just have to decide if this is what you want to do and if solar makes sense for your house.”

For Lisek, he says educating the public is the key in making the program a success. “There's been a lot of confusion on the types of equipment can be used; where this equipment can be mounted; ordinances for communities and businesses,” Lisek says. “We're hoping to ready our communities and businesses so that they are solar-ready.”

A surprising aspect has been the involvement of local school districts, he says.

“We've seen a lot of enthusiasm with many of our communities. The biggest contributor that we've seen has been our schools. Many school administrators are looking at ways of getting off the grid. Their campuses are becoming more sustainable,” Lisek says. “In the coming year, we'll have numerous examples of organizations, businesses, schools and communities that have begun the process of moving toward solar.”

Moving toward solar, Lisek says, will have a trickle-down effect into other areas. “We believe that we all can be green. We can help with the brain-drain; we can create some new jobs with the different trades,” Lisek says. “We've seen some solar-panel manufactures coming into our area, which is a great opportunity. I think we're just at the cusp of some wonderful things happening in our area.”

For more information visit SolarizeNWI.com or go to www.nirpc.org/environment/solarize-nwi.


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