Saline Going Solar to Save Green, Be Green

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 02/10/2015 - 02:07

Alan Keeping of Saline is not all that worried about the effects of heat-trapping gases on global climate, yet he spent nearly $40,000 installing solar panels on the roof of his house and garage. He did it to save money on his electric bill.

Likewise, not all the members of Saline Presbyterian Church are avid environmentalists. Some, such as Kurt Leutheuser who headed up their recent solar installation project are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming. Yet they voted to build a rooftop solar array for the church anyway.

“There are some people that are very concerned about the carbon emission from the fossil fuels and so forth and we’ve got some people that don’t believe any of that, but they just want to see if they can make our church be more efficient financially,” Leutheuser said.

Mark Hildebrandt who lives in Lodi Township just north of Saline runs a solar installation business called Sunventrix. He did the installation for both Keeping and the Presbyterian Church. He has been in business for five years and naturally is a big advocate for solar power.

“It’s driven primarily by environmental interests and now slowly changing to more of a payback financial interest that gets more people involved too,” Hildebrandt said.

Some think that Michigan is not well situated for solar, but Hildebrandt says that Michigan has much more sunlight than Germany, yet Germany currently leads the world in solar energy output. The southwestern US may seem much better, but the precipitation Michigan receives keeps the panels cleaner than they would be in a desert region and the colder weather allows solar panels to work more efficiently.

While improved technology has incrementally increased the efficiency of solar cells, the reduced cost of the equipment has been the biggest factor in attracting new customers. The hardware cost has dropped 50 percent in the last four years.

There have also been various incentives offered by utility companies, states and the federal government. Through 2016, the US government offers a 30 percent tax credit, not just a deduction, for home solar installations.

Homeowners considering solar need to consider not only cost, but also the orientation of their house and property. Ground installations are good if the property is very open, but roof mount systems are more common. The ideal roof is oriented toward the south and sloped at 30 to 35 degrees from horizontal.

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Less ideal settings, however, may still be good candidates. For example, the Presbyterian Church installation faces southwest. This reduces light capture in the early morning hours, but it’s still excellent for the remainder for the day.

Hildebrandt said that day-to-day power generation does vary widely depending on day length, cloudiness and possible snow cover. What matters is power output on an average annual basis.

The solar energy is converted to AC voltage by microinverters associated with each panel. The solar generation system is integrated with the power grid.

On good days, excess power is banked with the power company; on bad days that power is tapped. The power company functions as a storage battery.

The power company does not allow homeowners to have generating capacity exceeding their annual usage, but it may often exceed power draw on a given day, especially in spring and summer.

The Sunventrix Company is mostly active in four counties of SE Michigan: Livingston, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne. These, along with Kent County, are the areas that have lead in the adoption of solar power generation. Sunventrix uses panels and equipment from the US company, Suniva.  Recently Suniva set up a manufacturing facility in Saginaw, so the equipment will be Michigan-made.

Keeping installed a hot tub on the deck in back of his house. He found that during cold winters his utility bill sometimes exceeded $1000. Realizing that both his house roof and garage roof were oriented south, he thought solar might be a solution to the high bills, so he called Sunventrix.

Sunventrix installed panels on both roofs. The house roof is steeply pitched while the garage roof is less steep. It turns out that the house array is more effective in winter and the garage array is better in summer. This is because of sun angle and probably also because the steep house roof is better at shedding snow.

“You know the ‘hey I’m green’ deal is interesting, but it’s not anything . . .” Keeping said, pausing as his wife interrupted. He had intended to say it was not his major motivation when his wife said that it did matter to her. He then said that the couple also had an electric vehicle, a Ford Cmax, that they could now power with the sun.

Like the Keepings, people at First Presbyterian Church of Saline are divided in their commitment to environmentalism. Leutheuser himself is an employee of Black & Veatch, a major designer and builder of power plants, and is not convinced about climate change. But others are more zealous.

The program began with an environmental committee in the church looking to find ways to lower the church’s carbon footprint. They joined a group called Michigan Interfaith Power and Light (MIPL) who hold that global warming is a core moral issue.

The committee brought about some changes that reduced the church’s power usage then they proposed adding solar power generation. MIPL connected them with an installer in Novi who presented the idea to the church’s governing body.

This body decided to look into the idea further and got a second proposal from Hildebrandt of Sunventrix. They chose to work with Hildebrandt.

They structured the program to make it acceptable to a divided congregation. They would not go into debt. They would not draw from the general fund. They would only use money specifically donated for the purpose. The size of the installation would be limited by donations received.

One installed panel and associated equipment cost about $800. The church received enough cash and pledges to buy a 56-panel, 15 KW system.

 “We had some people that donated multiple panels; we had a lot of people donate one panel and we had some that donated a part of a panel,” Leutheuser said.

So far the system is working well, although it will take a year of use to determine if it is performing as promised. Leutheuser confirmed that it was “significantly reducing our electric bills.” He expects the system to pay for itself in about 12 years.

A unique aspect of this installation is the concept of community solar.

“This project allowed some people that may be interested in doing something to do something together as a group that they couldn’t accomplish on their own,” Leutheuser said. “And some people thought they’d like to have some part of their energy footprint, if you will, impacted by that if they weren’t, for whatever reason, able to do something on a personal level on their house due to restrictions for neighborhood covenants, their house was in the wrong orientation, or whatever.”

In the end, the environmentalists are happy to be actively reducing the production of heat-trapping gasses and the unconvinced are still pleased to know that this project will save money over time.

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Another family that has adopted solar power generation is Bruce Westlake and Linda TerHaar. They too contracted with Sunventrix for a solar installation and are planning to add capacity.

Unlike the church, this couple is united in their commitment to green living. In fact, their goal is to power their house and their vehicles completely by solar. They now call their home a net zero house.

This goal has been more challenging because they live in an historic house built in 1890. They made many modifications before installing solar.

 “What we’ve been doing is reducing,” Westlake said. “We’re putting in LED lights and geothermal and we super-insulated the house.”

A company in Ann Arbor removed the original insulation, did extensive sealing, and installed cellulose insulation.

“By improving the outside envelope we were able to drop the temperature in the house by about four degrees with better comfort than what we had before,” Westlake said.

The geothermal heating system required drilling three 130 foot wells in the back yard. Heat exchange pipes running down these wells into the water table allow the system to pump heat into and out of the house. The system cools the house in summer and heats it in winter.

With the energy load reduced, Westlake was able to install a relatively small solar array that could still handle most of the needs of the house. The additional array that he plans to add will be used to charge the couple’s two electric cars.

People with solar arrays installed by Sunventrix have publically accessible websites where their energy generation can be monitored. For example, to see the Westlake installation visit: https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/pv/public_systems/7ue321385

To see the output at the Presbyterian Church visit: https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/pv/public_systems/UbsB358354?preview=1

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Mark Hildebrandt of Sunvetrix has a ground mounted array in back of his house in Lodi Township.

Bob Conradi's picture
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.