Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 26, 2013

Energy task force goes solar

BY GRETCHEN MURRAY Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — NORTHPORT — A Leelanau County group focused on renewable energy says advances in technology have made rooftop solar arrays an affordable option for homeowners.

Some 40 Northport residents filled Leelanau Township Fire Hall’s meeting room Aug. 19 to hear the latest update on renewable energy from members of the Northport Energy Action Task Force, a local non-profit that encourages the use of renewable energy.

Tom Gallery, an engineer and owner of Leelanau Solar, and Steve Smiley, an energy economist with Smiley Energy Services and Leelanau Solar, tried to debunk the myths that there are not enough solar energy resources, solar energy costs too much and the technology is not ready.

“Solar technology is ready,” Gallery said. “The cheapest and most reliable is PV (photovoltaic systems or solar panels). The cost of solar panels has dropped some 80 percent in the last few years and so has the cost of inverters and mounting racks.”

Gallery explained that an average home uses 10,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. Installation of about 33, 260-watt panels — covering a 600-square-foot area — can cover 85 percent of that consumption.

Gallery explained the cost of installed systems is usually stated in dollars per watt. Rooftop arrays cost between $2.30 and $2.75 per watt and ground arrays cost between 2.50 to $3 per watt.

Gallery’s example costs between $23,000 and $30,000 installed, but he says that monthly savings on energy bills can offset the price. And, there are ways to finance the arrays beyond just tax credits and grants.

The systems don’t mean going “off the grid,” either. They use net metering, a system where an electric meter runs both forward and backward.

When more power is generated than a home uses, the system sends energy to the grid. The homeowner is credited at full retail price for energy sent to the grid and billed for the difference between what the system has earned and what it has used, said Gallery.

“It is something I would consider, but having worked as a spacecraft electronics engineer, I’m not convinced; but engineers are always skeptics,” said George Paolacci, a Bingham Township homeowner.

He worries about the cost of the systems.

“NEAT’s goal is to make Leelanau Township 100 percent-plus renewable energy powered with solar and wind energy, whatever is the best mix,” Smiley said. “Integrating the various renewable energy technologies and resources is the solution.”

Smiley said a solar array area of only 41 acres would generate 100 percent of Leelanau Township’s energy needs, and it would only take a handful of larger wind turbines to meet the goal as well.

NEAT’s push for 100 percent renewable energy is coming on strong in Leelanau County. Leelanau Solar recently completed a project for the Light of Day Organic Tea Farm in Solon Township. And, its recent installation at Crain Hill Vineyard made it the first vineyard in Michigan to be solar powered.

The Northport Creek Golf Course, set to open next summer, will be the first solar golf course in Michigan, and NEAT will participate in the solar electric installations at the Traverse City Habitat Depot home making them entirely solar powered with net metering connected to Traverse City Light and Power.

Stanley ‘Skip’ Pruss finds the work encouraging not only for Leelanau County, but also for Michigan. Pruss served as Michigan’s director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and as Michigan’s Chief Energy Officer from 2008 to 2010.

Pruss said more than half of all solar materials are made in the United States, and Michigan is the largest producer of polycrystalline silicon — the material used for making solar cells.