Solar power sees surge
By Christin Nance Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org September 5, 2012 11:28PM
Ben Brubaker, left, looks over electrical connections while testing a solar tracking unit attached to a photovoltaic panel on the roof of the Porter County Career and Technical Center in Valparaiso Tuesday Sept. 4, 2012. Brubaker, of Valparaiso high school, was working with fellow seniors Austin Geary, of Chesterton and Riley VanEerd of Boone Grove. The panel, part of a larger effort to produce solar and wind energy at the center, helps power some lights and other items. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 7, 2012 6:02AM
The Porter County Career Center has a bevy of energy-saving technologies on display — from LED lights to a wind turbine.
But the roof of the building is a busy place — as two dozen more solar panels are installed by students and a few professionals. They will join a dozen panels that were installed about two years ago.
The school joins an increasing number of Northwest Indiana residents and businesses installing solar panels to take advantage of energy savings and support green energy efforts.
Porter County Career Center Director Jon Groth said the solar panels and windmills the students have built prove their value on two fronts.
“Our philosophy is we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint and lower our NIPSCO bills,” Groth said.
The panels serve a practical purpose during power outages. After severe storms knocked out power to thousands of residents in early August, Groth said the Career Center lights were “working the whole time because of the solar power.” Even if the solar power runs out, the school’s emergency lights operate on batteries.
Kevin Moore, owner of Midwest Wind and Solar, said that business is booming. His company installs wind, solar electric and solar hot water systems.
“It’s just been crazy,” Moore said. “When the phone rings, somebody will say that they want a wind turbine, but once I educate them about payback, they’ll typically become a solar customer.”
About 60 percent of his business is residential, 30 percent commercial and the remaining 10 percent covers municipal and school buildings.
Moore said that wind doesn’t make much sense unless it’s installed 100 feet in the air and on a 2- to 3-acre plot.
“Solar is more for the average consumer,” Moore said. “As long as you have an unshaded location, it’s almost like a satellite dish.”
Valparaiso resident Elizabeth Gingerich, who is a professor of sustainability in business at Valparaiso University, said the impact of 24 solar panels saves money and decreases the carbon footprint.
“Our main goal was to get this commercial building (at 409 E. Lincolnway) off the grid and to set an example for other business owners to do the same,” Gingerich wrote in an e-mail. “Not only will we be producing sufficient energy to meet all of the needs of our tenants, but NIPSCO will be purchasing any overage.”
Gingerich said she saves $2,200 annually by using NIPSCO’s feed-in tariff. She said that the system will reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 137 tons.
Though prices for solar panels have decreased in recent years, installation is still a considerable investment, with projects averaging around $1,000 per panel.
With a 30 percent federal tax credit, Moore said solar system owners can get back their investment between four and eight years, depending on which NIPSCO renewable energy program they enroll in.
NIPSCO offers two programs for homes or businesses with renewable energy — net metering or feed-in tariffs. With the net metering program, customers are given a credit on their monthly bills for the renewable energy they produce. For example, a home that generates 750 kilowatt hours, but only uses 700 kwh would receive a 50 kwh credit toward a future bill. Statewide, 298 customers participate in the program, with 49 NIPSCO customers enrolled as of 2011 (an increase of 15 customers from 2010).
“We’ve seen more homes and schools participating in net metering,” Meyer said.
NIPSCO purchases renewable energy from customers enrolled in the feed-in tariffs programs. The typical electric rate is 11 cents per kilowatt hour, but solar energy is purchases by NIPSCO at 27 cents an hour. More than a dozen customers are already on-line with the program, said NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer, with about 100 applications being considered.
“Typically, the amount of investment required (to install the technology) is so expensive that larger customers tend to participate more,” Meyer said.
Moore said the feed-in tariff has a maximum participation of 500 kilowatt hours, with 390 kilowatt hours used by customers so far. Groth said the new panels at the Porter County Career Center will be enough to put the school in the feed-in tariff program, which usually requires 24 panels to be worthwhile.
Moore said the feed-in tariff takes about four to five years to pay back the investment, while net metering customers see return on their investment in seven or eight years.
“All of the hardware for a solar system is warranted out to 25 years,” Moore said. “So that’s about 12 years or so of free energy, and since electric rates always increase, the savings are great.”
NIPSCO’s incentives are offered for customers with solar, wind, hydropower and biomass systems.