The Journal Gazette
Monday, July 11, 2016 10:58 am

Gamble on solar panels pays off

Frank Gray

When SafetyWear installed a field of solar panels on the roof of its building on East Wallace Street in December, company officials knew they were taking a bit of a gamble.

The goal was to install enough panels to produce more than enough electricity to meet the company’s needs. But company officials also knew that the company that installed the solar-energy system started out in San Diego, where it’s sunny 68 percent of the time.

Fort Wayne? It’s only sunny here about 59 percent of the time. Plus, in San Diego, they don’t have to worry about snow blanketing solar panels in the winter. In Fort Wayne, let’s just say it snows.

As Brian Steele, chief financial officer of SafetyWear put it, "It’s hard to know when you’re a rookie" how well the system will work.

All in all, though, the company’s foray into solar power is turning out well.

The goal in December, when the company had the solar panels installed, was to generate 106 percent to 107 percent of its power needs. In months when the company generated more electricity than it used, it would be able to put extra kilowatt hours in a bank of sorts. In months when it needed to rely on the electric utility to meet its power needs, it could draw on those electric credits to pay its bill.

The company, based on usage going back one year, consumes about 65 megawatt hours of electricity, but its solar-power system has show the capacity to generate 70 to 72 megawatt hours, meaning the company would be able to bank perhaps 7 megawatts hours per year.

The company was lucky last winter because there was little snow, Steele said.

He’s also learning that good days sometimes aren’t as productive as days that might not seem ideal. For example, on a cloudy day, the system can generate a lot of electricity, more than on a hazy day or even a bright day if it is very hot outside.

The best days, Steele says, are when it is about 50 degrees.

Of course it helps that the people at SafetyWear are sort of conservationists. Steele goes around the business turning out lights, and he turns off the lights in his office when he goes to lunch. During the day, the company opens windows in the warehouse to let light in. When I visited in December, the lights in the halls were out. It was dim, but you could get around.

The company will never be able to get completely off the grid, Steele says. There aren’t reliable batteries to store excess electricity, so the company has to rely on the utility for electricity at night.

But over the course of years, Steele says, the hope is to bank enough credits from excess electricity generated to keep net electric consumption at zero for years, even as the solar-power system loses efficiency as it ages.

Also, Steele says, "What we’ve learned as rookies is that there’s no such thing as a zero bill." There are bunch of tariffs and fees that add up to $20 to $40 a month."

A glance at SafetyWear’s electric bill tells a surprising story, though. It shows that from June to December 2015, the company paid for between 4.7 and 5.9 megawatt hours of electricity every month.

After the solar-powered system was installed, the company bought 2.7 megawatt hours in January and 1.4 megawatt hours in February.

Since March, the business has officially bought zero kilowatt hours of electricity from Indiana Michigan Power. At an annual rate, Steele said, the system is generating about $8,000 worth of electricity per year, before tax credits, which means it will pay for itself in about half its projected life span.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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