SRDC, businesses talk solar energy

SLAYTON?- Area farmers, businessmen and homeowners gathered in Slayton on Monday to learn how solar energy can benefit their bottom line.

The Solar Energy Seminar was sponsored by the Southwest Regional Development Commission (SRDC) and Minnesota energy and lighting firms.

“We’re here to help improve the knowledge of solar thermal and photovoltaic energy and what’s available out there,” said Annette Bair, physical development director of SRDC.

Subjects that were presented included systems for passive solar heating, solar electrical systems, reducing power consumption with energy-efficient lighting and financing options, grants and tax incentives for going solar.

“Food is cheapest at the farm,” said Curt Shellum, owner and CEO of Rochester-based Solar Connection. “The price doubles by the time it gets to the store. Where is energy cheapest? Where you produce it. Why you own it, it gives you leverage, and you’ve got the price fixed for 20 years.”

Sunlight is free, but the initial cost of harvesting its energy can be high. Solar power can be used to generate electricity with high-tech photovoltaic panels, or heat buildings with simple panels that create an air chamber heated by the sun and circulated throughout the structure. Once installed, the systems are relatively maintenance-free.

Though start-up costs have been high, they are declining and grants and loans are available.

“For a long time solar was pretty expensive, and it’s not inexpensive now, but the cost of solar has gone down 60 percent in the last two years,” Shellum said. “Some of it is economy of scale, improved production methods, and some is frankly overproduction.”

Photovoltaic solar panels produce electricity that can be used on site, and excess power can be sold back to the utility company at retail rates.

In older communities though, houses are often shaded by trees. An option for homeowners is to get together and form solar gardens, much the same way people start community gardens. Individuals buy solar panels to install in any community space with lots of exposure to the sun, sometimes in association with an existing solar installation.

“Every school I’ve done an assessment on has more room on the roof than needed to meet the needs of the building,” said Chris Gamer, photovoltaic manager for Novel Energy Solutions.

The most efficient option for solar to date is passive solar heating. Sheathing a building with polycarbonate or metal panels with lots of tiny holes to admit outside air creates a plenum chamber, an air space that heats rapidly in sunlight. A simple fan with a thermostat exchanges the heated air with air in the building. There is no maintenance and no moving parts aside from the fan.

Passive systems are easy to install with local labor.

“We’ll work with local people, train them and subcontract so the revenue stays in the community,” said Bill Holzer, CEO of Novel Energy Solutions.

Initial costs for solar installations can be reduced through USDA REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) grants and PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) loans.

“Commercial and industrial clients can take out loans for retrofitting existing buildings,” Bair said.

PACE loans can be applied to the costs of solar panels or building insulation. The owner pays the loans back through increased property taxes but can begin saving on energy costs immediately, possibly resulting in net gains.

In addition, solar installations are usually exempt from sales tax and property tax evaluations.

With the loans and subsidies available, payback can be reduced to a reasonable time frame, after which the energy is essentially free.

“The thing I like about this is there are panels out in the field 50 years old and still producing power,” said Micah Johnson, operations manager at Solar Connection. “I have to believe we’re making them better now than then.”