Solar systems steadily advancing
By Tim Krohn firstname.lastname@example.org
MANKATO — Mike Mead has been considering adding solar panels on his home and maybe on his cabin on Lake Shetek, with the aim of replacing much of his reliance on utility companies for electricity.
"The freedom from fossil fuels, that's what I'm most interested in," said Mead as he talked with Drew McCabe, who was manning the Green Energy Products booth at the Home & Builders show at the civic center in Mankato this past weekend.
Mead said he'd like to see the country continue to diversify and build on its domestic energy sources.
"Any country is better off if you're energy independent."
McCabe, project manager for Green Energy, said solar power systems continue to advance.
"Little by little they get better and cheaper. They still have to make some economic sense for people," said McCabe, who runs the company's Mankato sales office.
McCabe said that installing a system at a cabin that might not be used much of the year might still make economic sense. That's because state law requires utilities to buy, at market rate, any excess power generated by someone's solar system. "Even if you're not there, that power is going back into the grid and your meter is spinning backwards, so you're not losing on your investment."
Green Energy Products was founded by Tim Lipetzky in Springfield in 2008. The longtime owner of L&S Electric, Lipetzky became interested in solar power and saw Green Energy as dovetailing nicely with his electrical business, allowing his crew to install solar systems along with doing their other work.
McCabe met Lipetzky while McCabe was a restaurant server.
"I went into Red Lobster on a Saturday a few years ago and Drew waited on me and we started talking. He was graduating from MSU in construction management and said he was looking for an internship and I handed him my card and hired him," Lipetzky said.
Green Energy is the dealer for SunPower solar systems, which are higher priced than many others but built with higher quality, McCabe said. The California company is the largest supplier of residential and commercial solar systems and its panels are rated the most efficient in the world by PHOTON International, the leading solar power magazine.
"They have a good warranty and durability so they're the only panel we install. We always bring actual cells to our booth showing the difference between ours and conventional solar," McCabe said.
"The durability of the cell and the efficiency is different. People think they're all the same but they aren't."
When Green Energy started, the company was installing 25 percent of all solar arrays in the state. But as solar power has become more popular and cost efficient, more and more dealers are in the business.
McCabe said a typical residential system produces 3-5 kilowatts of power, but the company sizes the system based on the annual power usage of the home.
"If their goal is to replace 50 percent of their electricity or 80 percent, we size it for them."
McCabe said they install a few systems that replace 100 percent or more of a home's electricity, with the homeowner able to sell excess power back to the utility. But McCabe said paying the upfront cost for a system that produces all of a home's power and maybe extra usually doesn't offer the buyer a payback period that makes sense.
"Usually we're offsetting part of their utility bill and that's the best return for them."
He said most systems have a payback period of 7-12 years.
The company's main business is with farmers, rural residences and commercial businesses, but they also do homes in towns.
Many hog farmers have been installing solar on their large barns, taking advantage of tax credits for using solar as well as the ability to depreciate the business costs of the systems.
Rather than the rooftop panels often used on homes or smaller buildings, the big projects generally have panels attached to poles mounted on a cement pad on the ground. The panels can then be adjusted to different angles at different times of year to catch the most sunlight.
McCabe said there are solar systems that automatically track the sun all day. "There is extra costs and moving parts, which people like to stay away from. But they are 15-20 percent more productive, so over the long run it will pay for itself."
McCabe said many people think solar systems automatically give them backup power in case electricity from the utility fails. But that's not the case, unless the system includes solar batteries. "Some people do get battery backup for things like well pumps or freezers — just the necessary things they want to keep running. Solar batteries are expensive so most people don't put a lot of them in."