IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN THE U.P.
(written for micheen.org)
By John A. Kinch, PhD
Michigan Energy Options
I'm on the roof of a house in Marquette. East lies Lake Superior, shimmering in the distance on a sunny April afternoon. Solar installer Ian Olmsted is pointing out the dozen 250-watt solar panels he's recently affixed to the south-facing roof of this appealing home in a pleasant neighborhood, a short distance from downtown.
"Sweet looking, aren't they?" says Ian.
And they are. Sleek, perfectly uniform, a deep blue, giving off a NASA-like techy feel.
Ian still needs to hook up micro-inverters on the Michigan-made panels and then run the electricity into the home. He recently completed a job at another house nearby. Both of these homes are getting photovoltaics, in part, because of a program designed to drive energy efficiency upgrades through neighborhood sweeps.
Over the last year and a half, BetterBuildings for Michigan has been fanning out in dozens of Michigan communities. Thousands of homeowners have taken advantage of the program's energy improvement offerings and attractive financing packages through Michigan Saves.
In Marquette, more than 270 homeowners have taken advantage of this program through the Superior Watershed Partnership and the City of Marquette.
But so far just two homeowners have gone solar. Why?
First, this is not a reflection of any shortcomings with BetterBuildings for Michigan program—quite the opposite (more about that in a bit). Instead, I think, this illustrates several truisms, good and not so much, about the solar industry here and nationwide.
Rule 1: Solar PV is not for everybody. Solar is not right for you if you've got a leaky, energy-hogging building, and you yourself never turn off the lights when you leave a room.
Awhile back, a friend in Denver got estimates for a solar installation and asked me to review his bids.
"What did your home energy audit tell you about how efficient or not you are?" I asked.
"None of the installers recommended you get an audit first?"
"Don't hire any of them."
Instead, my friend got an audit and then per the analysis added more attic insulation, invested in Energy Star appliances and did some other cheap and easy fixes to cut his energy usage. He's still going to add solar PV. Now, though, he'll need a much smaller, and cheaper, system to meet his needs. And I'm betting he'll be happier with it as his payback horizon shortens considerably.
The energy audit analysis that the two Marquette homeowners received strongly encouraged them to become more energy efficient in addition to adding solar. They took the advice, installing items like a high efficient furnace, insulation and so forth.
Rule 2. Solar is sexy. Energy efficiency wears sensible shoes. A variation on Rule 1, really. The emphasis here is that the attraction of solar power is a powerful one for some of us (Michigan Energy Options' East Lansing location has 3.2 kW of solar PV and we love it).
Reduce your carbon footprint! Offset your utility bills! Get credit for putting power back on the grid through a net metering agreement! Go off the grid completely! The reasons for people adopting solar are nearly as varied as the weather in a Michigan spring. And if you choose to adopt solar without getting more efficient first, or, without having a site with a largely unobstructed southern exposure, that's your inalienable right. Someone will be right over to make it happen.
The trouble is that this may create an overall credibility issue for an industry that doesn't need any more challenges. In fact, Minnesota and other states have third-party, independent, site assessments of solar installations to mitigate potential conflicts of interest—real or perceived—of someone determining you're a good candidate for solar and then selling you that system.
Rule 3. Do your homework. There are lots of good, vetted, sources on solar power at your disposal, including a network of Energy Demonstration Centers, supported in part by the State of Michigan. Part of the mission of these centers—Michigan Energy Options included—is to provide residents, business owners and local government officials the best information we have on energy—so you can make the most informed choices in your best interests. This network is unique in the country, as far as I've been able to tell. Use it.
Let's end on a positive note because solar energy, for me at least, conveys optimism—it is a truly unlimited, homegrown, renewable resource. Ginnie Killough, who got one of the solar installations in Marquette, told the local newspaper how excited she was with the program and how she "tried to tell everybody that I knew in south Marquette about it."
That's Rule 4. Be a solar pioneer in your neighborhood and spread the word.
About Michigan Energy Options
For more than 30 years, Michigan Energy Options (formerly Urban and Northern Options) has helped more than a million people in Michigan conserve energy, save money, adopt renewable energy, reduce greenhouse gases and lead more sustainable lives. Our nonprofit is a team with diverse expertise: PhD, MBA, MPA, LEED accredited, HERS and BPI trained, licensed contractors and architects, seasoned environmental and energy experts, project and financial managers--all practitioners for a greener Michigan.
We have offices in East Lansing and Marquette. For more information, please call 517.337.0422