The Journal Gazette
Saturday, December 05, 2015 10:03 pm

Solar power getting customers' attention

Frank Gray | The Journal Gazette

For the past few years, Mark Brough has been working for a company called SunWalk in San Diego, selling solar power systems to businesses and homes in Southern California.

A few months ago, though, the Fort Wayne native returned here to open an additional office and try to increase interest in solar power.

It’s easier to sell solar power in places like California, where electricity costs twice what it does here, and most people are what Brough calls pocketbook environmentalists. They’re interested if they can save money.

Solar energy is changing, though, he said. Solar panels are more efficient than they were years ago, but most important, the price is coming down. A few years ago, solar panels cost $8 to $15 per kilowatt that they generated. Today the price is down to $3.50.

"It’s getting advantageous," he said.

At least one company recognized that. SafetyWear, which has operated for years at 1121 E. Wallace St., recently became Brough’s first Fort Wayne customer, buying an array of solar panels mounted on the roof that, company officials hope, will enable the business to be 100 percent solar-powered, potentially cutting its electric bill to zero.

"It’s a no-brainer," SafetyWear’s Chief Financial Officer Brian Steele said. "I’m disappointed we didn’t do it earlier."

Brough’s company isn’t the only one in the region offering solar power as an option.

Renewable Energy Systems in Avilla has been installing solar power systems in northern Indiana and Fort Wayne for seven years. Recent work includes an installation project for the University of Saint Francis.

Indiana Michigan Power in late October announced that it recently broke ground on its second solar-generation facility. The utility company also said it launched IM Solar, a program that allows Indiana customers to use local solar power without the expense of installing their own system.

Most commercial solar installations, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, have been put in by large retailers and office buildings, led by Wal-Mart, Prologis, Target, Apple, Costco, Kohl’s, Ikea and and Macy’s.

The solar industries association released a report last week that said 40 percent of all new electrical generating capacity in the first half of 2015 came from solar. Nationwide, there are now 1,275 large-scale solar installations built by utilities, up from only 100 in 2004, and  prices for those facilities had fallen by 65 percent. 

A solar installation can range from a few dozen solar panels on the roof of a business to tens of thousands of the panels for a utility- ;size operation.

For SafetyWear, the driving force to go with solar is a federal tax credit that expires at the end of 2016, Steele said. The tax credit covers part of the solar system installation cost. The second-biggest factor was that even though electric rates are relatively low here, they increase every year.

The savings on electricity will allow SafetyWear to recover the cost of its solar power system – the company wouldn’t disclose what it paid – in as little as nine to 10 years, Steele said. After that, the company’s cost for electricity could drop to zero.

The company can also depreciate the value of the system, creating more tax savings.

Renewable Energy Systems announced in August that it had installed solar panels on the roof of a Marathon gas station in Ken­dall­ville to run the station’s electrical system to reduce operating costs. Renewable Energy also installed solar panels on carports at the University of Saint Francis campus last month to produce power for the athletic and science buildings.

 Eric Hesher, who owns Renewable Energy, said photo­voltaic solar power has proven reliable, and the price of panels has fallen dramatically. He agrees with Brough that this has helped create more interest among people who want to save money on electricity, be self-sustaining or who are environmentally conscious.

"Payback gets better year after year," Hesher said.

Solar does have disadvantages, Brough said. There aren’t adequate batteries available to store excess power during the day for use at night, but people are working on a solution, he said.

Converting to solar power might be difficult for a startup company that’s heavily leveraged, SafetyWear officials said. But, Brough said, an established company with money in the bank that’s earning practically no interest and losing value to inflation might find it worthwhile to invest in a solar system.

"What drives it is when prices (of electricity) go up, people will get creative," Steele said.

Indiana Michigan Power doesn’t have any solar-generating facilities complete yet but plans to have four units that can power an average of 2,000 homes a year when it is done with them. 

Indiana Michigan spokes­man Tracy Warner said it’s good to have diverse power capabilities as times change. While it is difficult to quantify interest right now, Warner said some customers have told the company they want to see solar power.

 According to the Indiana Energy Association, comprising publicly owned companies, utilities in the state believe they need renewable energy sources. One of the most cost-effective ways is to assemble huge collections of solar panels, association President Mark Maassel said.

"Indiana has assumed a leadership role in wind power," Maassel said, adding that Indianapolis is the third-largest user of solar power among large cities in the U.S.

"We continue to see growth," he said.

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