Here Comes the Solar

Here Comes the Solar

Your friends and neighbors want you to follow the sun

By Emily Votruba
Current Contributor

I want more solar power at my house in Elberta, and I want more people in Benzie County to get solar powered, whether it’s through electrifying and solarizing their personal energy use or by participating in a group project in our community or region. I would like to see electricity in Benzie County—and the rest of the United States—be carbon-pollution free by 2035, which is President Joe Biden’s carbon-pollution reduction target and is in line with experts’ recommendations for global energy use, if we’re to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Blah blah blah, right? 

There are reasons to get solar that have nothing to do with global warming. What about just regular air and water pollution from coal and natural gas development and use? What about the fact that, after the initial cost—which is getting lower all the time—it is free?

So, what’s the holdup? 

For me, a few things had to happen before I suddenly had a photovoltaic (PV) array in my backyard in the early spring of 2018, after about 30 years of vague daydreaming. As it is for most people, money was the biggest, most immediate delaying factor for me. But so was confusion: confusion about the process, confusion about the technology, confusion about my life in general and where I would be in five, 10 years, 20 years. 

I knew solar power was a good and necessary thing to do—I didn’t need any convincing about that. I wasn’t even concerned about how soon the solar would “pay for itself.” (I may be unusual in this regard.) Rather, it was the nitty-gritty, brass-tack details, including the literal hardware, the permits (zoning, setbacks), the upkeep, and even where to put them that I was really cloudy on. For one thing, I thought they had to be on a south-facing roof, and there is only one small part of my roof (the highest part) that faces south.

For most of my life, solar power, like computers in days of yore, seemed like the province of people with soldering irons and a lot of time on their hands. I am not an electrician or an engineer or even handy. I was too intimidated to embark on any kind of DIY solar—I don’t even really understand what my breaker box does. And if I hired someone to do the work, I worried I would have to spend thousands of hours, in addition to dollars, learning to maintain the system in order to get any savings or energy benefit out of it. 

Where was the plug-and-play, straight-out-of-the-box, Apple computer of home solar?

Funny, sometimes, how technology marches on—or leaps forward—while you’re busy assuming you can’t do something.

One day, I had a casual conversation at The Mayfair Tavern in Elberta with some friends who had just had a new array installed with the help of CBS Solar of Copemish, and the clouds parted. I had heard of CBS Solar, of course—they have been doing Mother Earth’s work of harnessing solar energy since the mid-1970s. But it wasn’t until I had this conversation and heard how easy CBS, and the latest technology, makes the process that I decided to get cracking and figure out the money part.

I would love to save everyone the time I spent dithering, so we can get this county—and country—clean-electrified ASAP. I interviewed some current Benzie solar-havers about how their systems came about and what advice they have for anyone who is on the fence about solar. I learned a lot from all these folks, and I hope you will, too. Pull up a barstool and hear what they have to say.

The Early Adopter: Charles Olsen
Charles Olsen has been an eco-warrior for decades. He lives in Frankfort now, but he grew up in “Eco-topia,” a.k.a. the Cascadia bioregion in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. Back in the 1980s, he lived completely off the grid and met his water needs with collected rainwater (no well), a home-built septic system, and hot water from a woodstove. He used a Cadillac alternator and a one-lung gas engine to charge a big truck battery for electric power. There was not enough sunlight to put up solar panels where he and his family lived at the time, but they were considering a windmill when life and career took them to New Jersey and then to Michigan. 

“Frankfort reminds me a lot of living near the coast at Puget Sound,” Olsen says. “But it turns out there’s even less sun here than there is in Seattle.” 

Olsen has been an electric vehicle (EV) owner since 2014. 

“I think I got the first true EV that was available in the U.S. other than the [Chevrolet] Volt, which to me wasn’t really an electric car—it’s a gas-electric hybrid,” says Olsen, who hired CBS Solar to install a grid-tied photovoltaic system on his roof in December 2018. He was chiefly interested in offsetting the charging expenses for his new EV, a BMW i3. 

Like several other people in this article, Olsen says that he was motivated, in part, by a tax incentive; he got in on solar just in time to take advantage of the 30 percent federal tax credit that was rumored to be expiring at the end of 2019. (That tax credit is indeed being phased out: the credit was reduced to 26 percent for systems installed during 2020-2022, and to 22 percent for systems installed in 2023. It will completely expire in 2024, unless it is renewed by Congress. Green-leaning elected officials and their fans, take note!) 

Olsen likes that his system is fully automatic and he does not have to think about it.

“CBS did a great job. They made it super simple; we just told them how much power we wanted, and they came back with what they could do with our roof, pulled the permits, and we signed the contract,” he says, adding that the amount of grid power his array is offsetting has been less than expected, but he is out of roof area to expand. Olsen’s array does cover the charging of his car, though. He participates in Consumers Energy’s net-metering program, which means any excess energy that the array generates in any billing cycle shows up as a credit on the bill. “We’re anywhere from $10 to $25 a month, in terms of what we’re generating that we’re getting back. It’s not huge, but over 10 years, it’ll pay for the system.” 

Olsen’s advice: Shop around, beware of scammers—“Some companies say they’ll install systems for free, and then you end up paying more than the system is worth over time”—and buy American-made, if possible. And it might not hurt to limit your expectations. “Covering all your electric needs requires a huge system. But if the grid fails, there are ways to disconnect your system and still charge your car, phone, and back-up light system.” He also suggests looking for rebates, tax breaks, and favorable financing, such as the Michigan Saves program, and be aware of deadlines related to those. Also: “If you go with a ground-based mount [rather than on a roof], make sure the bottom edge of the array is high enough off the ground so you can garden or mow under it easily.” 

The Work-Life Balancers: Gretchen Boekeloo and Matt Nahnsen
“We got solar at our house one year ago and at Solé Salon [in Beulah] in October 2021,” says Matt Nahnsen, who lives just outside Elberta/Frankfort and owns Solé Salon and The Roadhouse Mexican Bar and Grill in Benzonia with his wife, Gretchen Boekeloo. “Both times, it took about five months to actually get the panels installed from when we made our first payment.” 

Instead of a fixed-mounted system on a roof, like Charles Olsen’s, both of Nahnsen’s arrays are freestanding ground-mounted and can be adjusted seasonally for maximum sun exposure (this is the same kind that I have). You just loosen some bolts with a socket wrench, turn a crank to the desired tilt, and tighten the bolts. It takes about 10 minutes, tops. Nahnsen has a handy chart with information on how to calculate the perfect tilt for our latitude here in Benzie County and the correct dates to make a change. For instance, the panels should be at their most horizontal in summer (making them a great shady spot for a lawn chair) and at their most vertical (about 60 degrees, at our latitude) in winter—which happens to help the snow slide off the panels.

Both of Nahnsen’s systems are grid-tied, but he does have a Tesla backup battery panel at home, too. He explains: 

“We got the battery so we could use the solar when the power goes out. Because as soon as the grid goes down, the solar panels stop sending power to the grid and to your house… [This happens automatically as a safety measure,] so there’s no current in the line while the guys are working on them.” 

The combination of a grid-tied system with a battery backup means that Nahnsen and Boekeloo are not dependent solely on the grid, but they are also using the utility company as “a big battery.” At Solé Salon, there is no battery backup, but it’s useful to be generating a lot of their own electricity during the newly established* summer peak rate hours, when electricity prices are about 50 percent higher, which also happens to be when their business is busiest.** 

“Of course I like the environmental and independence aspects of the solar. After looking at a lot of data, I realized that, overall, solar is much less harmful for the environment. Also, I drive a plug-in hybrid; so in case of an apocalypse, I can still get around,” Nahnsen says. A surprise bonus: “I love to nerd out on my Tesla app. At any time, I can see on my phone how much power I am getting and using in real time; I’ve always wanted to say ‘in real time’—isn’t time a construct? Also, it shows the solar offset of any day, week, or month. When it’s cloudy, you don’t make shit for electricity. When it’s sunny, it’s fun to look at the app and feel like a badass.”

Nahnsen’s advice: “People considering solar should ask themselves why they want it. If they want it for electrical independence, they should get a battery or two. That will cost a lot more, but it feels great to not worry about outages. If they are getting it solely for environmental reasons and financial reasons, then it makes sense to not get the batteries and to get as big an array as the [utility company] will let you. It will pay for itself in seven years or so, and having no or very little electric bill is dope. At [Solé Salon] it’s great, because it really offsets our electric bill during peak hours, when we need electricity the most, which feels very efficient.”

The Farmers: Sharron and Paul May
In the survey I sent out to everyone interviewed for this article, Question 3 was: 

“What is the fundamental reason why you got solar? (Save money, save the planet, stick it to the man, etc.)” 

Sharron May’s response was: “Yes. Save money, save the planet, stick it to the man.” As for the proximate reason—the thing that motivated them to finally make those calls to CBS Solar, who installed their 8.12-kW, grid-tied, freestanding mounted system in the spring of 2018 at their home just outside of Elberta/Frankfort—the Mays wanted to take advantage of the aforementioned federal tax credit and a USDA rural development grant, which covers any costs related to installing renewable energy systems. Oh, and they were also pretty excited about “minuscule energy bills!” 

 A surprise drawback? 

 “The installation disturbed the seedbed [of our garden], and we now have an invasive species problem.” Sharron May explains. “We had no plan for the landscaping, which should have been done in conjunction with the project.”

 The Mays’ array has a great location exposure-wise, with no close surrounding trees or obscuring structures, but it is uphill from the house and is large enough to collect and dump a significant amount of rainwater. 

 “Ultimately, we built a long raised hügelkultur berm and planted it with strawberries and herbs, so it could be passively watered from the runoff from the panels,” Sharron May says. “Otherwise, this water could have seeped into and rotted the foundation of our old house and potentially caused a flooding issue in the basement.” 

Sharron May’s advice: Plant problems are a thing with solar, including unexpected outbursts of plantlife, changes to the amount of light that your existing trees and plants get, and—in the most fraught cases—your favorite trees may have to sacrifice some limbs. Installing the three or more four-foot concrete footings for the steel girder supports for the freestanding array is pretty disruptive, and it would be a shame to find out Grandpa’s heirloom roses are right in your best solar spot. “I recommend consulting with our neighbor forester, Paul Gerhart. A lot of things that people consider harmful are beneficial within a larger framework…Think about your other landscaping and construction goals in adjacent areas and the potential equipment and access needs. Determine a sensible order and timeline for other projects, in light of the [solar] installation.” 

The Tech-Savvy Trailblazers: Wilfried Schley and Beth Marcott
Wilfried Schley is so eager for you to get solar that he has shared links to his panels’ monitoring system on Enphase Energy’s site, information that is public. Like Olsen, Schley and his wife, Beth Marcott, have a rooftop system, with two fixed 3.5-kW arrays on their house and garage in downtown Frankfort—one faces south and the other faces west. The west-facing array produces about 25 percent less power than the south-facing array. The 27 Solarworld panels were manufactured in the United States, and they are connected to the grid with Enphase micro-inverters. Each array has a separate meter. Like Nahnsen, Schley can monitor his “daily harvest,” as he calls it, through an app on his phone. 

“On a sunny day, the solar system will produce over 40 kWh [kilowatt hours] of energy,” Schley says. 

Don’t get too stressed out by these technical details, though; you don’t have to know as much about solar as Schley does! On the other hand, if you want to understand how these systems actually work, he is a great guy to talk to. He and Marcott bought their property in Frankfort about 10 years ago, and one of the reasons they chose it was its suitability for solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays. 

Schley was a member of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) in the couple’s previous home of Wisconsin: “I learned everything I needed to know about solar PV systems. The next step was to turn my knowledge into practical use.” 

The couple had also looked into Frankfort’s master plan ahead of time, and they saw that the city touted the benefits of sustainable energy and mentioned the need “to reduce the reliance upon the existing energy grid and unsustainable consumption of natural resources.” Who says no one reads master plans?

Even with all their preparation, the permitting process was long—in part, because the Frankfort Planning and Zoning Commission was debating wind and solar power rules at the time. I attended some of these meetings, and I remember when both Frankfort and Elberta had moratoriums on solar installations, while they considered setbacks and safety concerns. With a permit finally in hand, Schley and Marcott started building their system in late 2013 with 10 solar panels and help from a local solar PV installer, Jeff “J.D.” Stratton. 

“He was part of the Benzie Solar Initiative, a group of citizens promoting solar installations,” Schley says of the now-defunct nonprofit organization that operated for about five years. “We added four more modules the following year, and I personally installed a second array with 13 panels on a west-facing roof.” 

In addition to being solar pioneers in Frankfort, Schley and Marcott’s experience is a little different from that of anyone interested in solar now. They are participants in the Experimental Advanced Renewable Program (EARP) with Consumers Energy, which began in 2009 and closed about 2015. Under EARP, Consumers and the customer have a contract for up to 15 years, during which Consumers buys—at a fixed rate—all the energy that the customer’s renewable system produces. EARP participants cannot have a battery backup like Nahnsen and Boekeloo. Schley and Marcott’s contract is good until 2029. 

“So I have a lot of time to think,” Schley says. “My best guess is that—with the help of fuel cells and wind, combined with an affordable battery system—we should be able to disconnect from the grid then and get off natural gas,” which they use for heat. 

I was curious about how he deals with winter snow cover on his panels, which are fixed flush with the roof. 

“During the winter, snow stops the production of energy,” Schley explains. “The first winter, I set up a ladder on the roof to pull the snow off the panels with a long broom. It would break my heart to see the snow on the panels on a very sunny day in the winter. Beth didn’t like me going up the icy ladder. Now, I just wait for the happy moment when the snow slides off after a brief warm-up.” 

Ultimately, though, whether the panels are clear or not doesn’t make a big difference, Schley says, because the sun angle is so low in winter.

I asked Schley if their system has brought any unexpected benefits, and he came back with one that had not occurred to me: The roof shingles are protected by the panels! As for expected benefits, they are legion. 

“Knowing that we will run out of fossil energy sources, it makes sense to me to start utilizing renewable energy now. It helps our goal to reduce our personal carbon emissions. We also like reducing our energy bill, and we hope to add a battery system in the future, to get more out of the solar PV and as a backup, in case of a power outage,” Schley says. “There are no moving parts [to a roof system], and there is no maintenance; the system will work as long as the sun shines and has been running since 2014 without any issues. 

He continues:

“So far, we have produced over 50 MWh.*** At this rate, the initial investment will be paid off in about five more years. Annually, we break even on our electric bills, even after we added an EV [car] charging station last fall. About 85 percent of the charging of our EV happens at our home. We drive about 10,000 miles per year. At this point, the carbon offset of our solar production is the equivalent of about 35.5 tons of carbon during the last seven years.” 

That is the same as what 710,000 ten-year-old maple trees capture annually.

As we know, with great power comes great responsibility, and just because they are generating a lot of electricity doesn’t mean Schley and Marcott are not careful about how they use it. 

“If it is located in your basement, an electric heat-pump water heater can eliminate a dehumidifier in the summer, too. This will cut your energy cost for warm water more than in half,” Schley recommends. 

Moreover, he and Marcott use electric lawn equipment, because it is quiet and clean. They have sealed and insulated their home, including the crawlspace. They use an induction cooktop instead of a gas range and have an energy-efficient, electric heat-pump clothes dryer. They cover their windows in the winter at night with insulating cellular shades. They have a Wi-Fi smart thermostat, and all their lights are LEDs. 

Schley says he has almost given up trying to convince older people about solar and energy conservation, in general. He sees idling cars and smells two-stroke engines and feels their operators are perhaps beyond persuasion. But since he is located close to the elementary school in Frankfort, he hopes his residence demonstrates to the kids that there are alternatives to wasteful and unhealthy technologies of the past. 

“Often, young kids recognize our Tesla and give us compliments. They know it’s their future,” he says. “Maybe someday we can offer some sustainability lessons to the school curriculum and demonstrate how it works, to help them take their future in their own hands.” 

Schley’s advice: “Review your electrical bill, and see how much you use and how much you need. Get an assessment to find the best location for your solar panels. Get quotes from multiple solar installers. Utilize tax credits and other incentives. Review your local building ordinance, and talk to the city supervisor or zoning administrator to discuss solar PV possibilities in your community. The price for LiFePO4 [lithium iron phosphate] batteries is getting lower, and the combination of solar PV and battery systems allow you to utilize all the power from your solar system and to be almost independent from the power grid. In the future, you will also be able to use your EV car battery to bridge a sunless period in the winter. [i.e. Power your house with your car!] Residential solar provides benefits to the utility’s system that can lower power bills for everyone, such as reducing the [carbon] fuel burned by the utility to generate its own power and transmission and distribution. Plus, it drives local economic development and jobs, while making our communities cleaner and more resilient to weather events.” 

The Cloudbuster: Rick Schmitt
As the co-founder and co-owner of Stormcloud Brewing Company in Frankfort, Rick Schmitt has been making winters on Main Street a lot brighter since the pub opened in 2013. In 2018, Schmitt and his team opened another great place to hang out—and, from what I hear, work—on the other end of town: the Parkview Taproom production facility, just below the Gateway Arch on the way into Frankfort on M-115. 

In addition to a number of smart energy-saving features, the Taproom has ground-mounted tracking solar arrays—some of the first in the county—as well as two electric-car charging stations. The panels have a mostly southern orientation, but they move automatically to catch even more rays, all year long. Unlike freestanding panels like Nahnsen’s and the Mays’ that need to be adjusted manually, tracking panels literally follow the sun, tilting automatically throughout the day to maximize exposure. According to Allen O’Shea, owner of CBS Solar, tracking panels are up to 1.5 times more efficient than stationary panels on a roof. But they are quite a bit more expensive, especially with systems that are smaller than 6 kW—this is where the guidance of an established, trustworthy solar installation company can be really important.

Traverse Solar, who installed Stormcloud’s panels, estimates that tracking systems improve energy production by 30 to 40 percent over stationary panels, and they can be great for small spaces, such as side yards in towns. In the Taproom’s case, there is no shortage of space, and the 10 panels are very noticeable as you near the bottom of the hill into town, standing in their large mown field like a 6.2-kW football team—Rick, why not 11? ****

“I like that it is visible for everyone to see in a prominent way. Hopefully that has made more than one company or residence install a solar panel or two,” Schmitt says. (I will say, it definitely added to the flame under my butt.) 

Schmitt also likes that they are generating carbon-free energy, not counting the one-time use of fossil fuels during installation. He says saving money and saving the planet had about equal weight in the decision to install solar. The array is expected to pay for itself in about nine years, after which it will be free energy. 

“It is the right thing to do. It is the future,” Schmitt says. Helping in the decision was a 25 percent installation cost grant from the same USDA Rural development program that the Mays took advantage of.

Schmitt’s advice: So far, he says, there have been no problems or issues with the system, and a surprise benefit is “the number of people who stop by just to explore and look. It’s a cool thing.” To whoever is inspired by the sight of those trackers, Schmitt’s advice is to do a bit of homework about which type is best for your location and budget, and then: “Just do it. There’s no time like the present to start making a difference.”

The DIY-ers: Kay and Randy Bond
“Randy and I have cared about the environment forever, including way back when we decided to only have one child,” Kay Bond says. “Randy became an organic grower in 1975, when there wasn’t a market for organic produce.” 

When the Bonds were looking to relocate Up North from Grand Rapids in 1998, they discovered that the properties they liked best came with an unexpected extra expense: about $15,000 to run out wiring and join the electrical grid. Since the land and house they ultimately built in Homestead Township cost just $37,000 total, that fee seemed especially— extra. “We wanted to retire early,” she says, laughing. 

For the first few years of their off-grid life, they heated with wood and used propane for pretty much everything else, including lights. And then Randy, who says he likes this sort of challenge, thought they ought to try solar, so he installed a set of amorphous silicon panels with lead- acid batteries for power storage in February 2006. 

“We bought a pretty cheap set-up to start with. I did it all,” Randy Bond says. “Because I didn’t know for sure what I was doing, and because of all the trees we have around us, I didn’t know for sure if it was going to work. But it did.” 

Since then, they have been upgrading every few years: the panels, batteries, and their lighting—, for example, switching to LEDs.

“How wonderful LEDs are compared to when we started,” Kay says. 

In 2017, they gave their amorphous cell panels to a neighbor in exchange for help getting them off the roof and acquired poly-crystalline panels and a charge controller from CBS Solar, who showed Randy how to wire everything up to their batteries. Poly-crystalline panels are significantly more efficient than amorphous silicon, and the price has come down considerably. Randy built the frames that secure the panels to the roof. Then in February 2021, they got all new lead-acid batteries: The battery bank consists of eight 6-volt batteries, which each weigh about 120 pounds. Randy expects them to be good for another eight to 10 years, “which is about how long I’m going to be good for,” he says, laughing. He says he trusts his lead- acid batteries, saying the newer lithium ion and lithium iron batteries “may not be quite there yet” for home use. (For instance, they have been known to catch on fire.) 

“Shortly after we first installed the panels, we went into town on our usual Sunday trip to get the paper, and we found that everyone else—including the stores—had lost power in the storm we had the night before, but we still had electricity. That’s when we realized we were never going to lose power,” Kay says. 

The Bonds do have a smaller overall energy footprint than most households. The average Michigan home uses 676 kWh of electricity every single month. 

“We have overbuilt our system compared to how much we use,” Randy says: “Even though we have only 1 kW [of generation potential, meaning in glorious full-sun conditions], we very seldom have a shortage.” 

The water pump and lights are all electric now, and there are electric power tools, and “after the panel upgrade, in 2017, we joined the 20th century with a little microwave,” Kay says. In addition: “We have two propane wall furnaces, to keep the laundry room water from freezing and so it’s not under 60 degrees when we get up in the morning, but most of the heat is from the woodstove.” Their refrigerator, cookstove, and hot water heater run on propane, but the Bonds use less than 300 gallons of propane a year. 

“We divided up the total cost of our system—including all the upgrades we’ve made—and it turns out we pay about $30 per month for electric power for the life span of our equipment. And we never have an electric bill,” Kay says. 

There is a backup generator for when the batteries are tapped out, but they haven’t had to use that—yet. 

“We haven’t gone all the way through winter with [the new panels], so we’ll see,” Kay says. And so, yes, what about snow? 

“The worst time for power generation is in the fall, when the sun is low but the leaves haven’t gone from the trees,” Randy says. In the very beginning, he would go up on the roof and adjust the tilt of the panels seasonally. But soon, Kay put the kibosh on that. “I just leave them vertical all year round! It works fine, and that way I don’t have to worry about clearing off snow.”

The Bonds are big advocates of first taking an inventory of what items in a house use electricity. Randy suggests: “Maybe instead of asking how we’re going to get enough electricity, the question should be what are we using that electricity for?”

Kay explains: “In Grand Rapids we were living in a large, three-story house in the inner city. Before we left, we went through every room, made a list of what was electric, and decided what we could live without, and what, if anything, could replace it. For example, I used to have an electric can opener! We had so many electric gadgets, and did we really need them? I wouldn’t want to dictate what people should do. But everything is so automatic with us. You need to have a little wake-up call sometimes: Do I really want to do that? Just because it’s always been done. There’s nothing that you look at anywhere that doesn’t initially come from the earth. It’s drilled from the earth, dug from the earth, planted. Everything comes from the earth, and where will it go when it’s used up? And what goes into those panels to make them: Minerals. The sand is mined—it’s not ordinary glass, ordinary sand, but a particular kind. So even solar panels aren’t 100 percent pure. They have a cost initially and [there comes a time] when they’re no longer usable.”

There is a kind of communitarian benefit to single-home solar, Randy says. Installing solar on your house or property doesn’t require a huge grid upgrade. “When they put in big solar farms, for example, the grid system has to be rebuilt to deal with it, because there is so much electricity generated where it is not immediately used; whereas, if you put it on your house or business, it uses the same hook-up. “If we’re going to go with solar, let’s put it on our houses, as opposed to out in the field where we’re disrupting all the non-human [life] out there. All that roof space [all over the country], and it’s not doing anything.”

The Bonds’ advice: Despite their DIY, off-grid success, Randy thinks grid-tied is the way most people should go, rather than a battery system. “It’s easier. It takes a lot of the mystery out of it. Someone comes in, hooks it up, and it just works, whereas I have to constantly watch my batteries and monitor the whole system.” Plus, running on 12-volt batteries requires special wiring, which may, if you’re concerned about these things, limit the resale value of your house. What’s more: “Things keep improving. The newer panels have a built-in inverter, so they’re producing AC [alternating] current. That means they can be mounted almost anywhere in the yard, because the wires can run up to 100 feet without a loss of current.” No climbing up on the roof necessary; no worries if your existing roof line slopes delicately and faces northeast. “Anybody—especially if they’re building or buying a new house and they’re going to have a mortgage, with the mortgage rates down at 2 percent or 3 percent—go ahead and have a full solar system put in for net metering. It might add $20K to your mortgage, but if you’re getting it for 2 percent over 30 years, you’re actually immediately making more money.” (Meanwhile, the interest rates for Michigan Saves financing for residential solar and other energy efficiency upgrades, for instance, are 4 to 5 percent. And since you are not given 30 years to repay it, the mortgage is probably a better option.)

The Recovering Luddite: Emily Votruba
Well, I guess that leaves me. I remember sitting in the breakfast nook of my parents’ house in 1988 and reading in the Detroit Free Press about the climate scientist James Hansen’s speech to the United Nations about global warming. I didn’t need any convincing after that. I had already been concerned about algae blooms in the Great Lakes and chlorofluorocarbons that were creating a hole in the ozone layer that was causing frogs to die from sunburns. Frogs!!!

Many years passed, during which I was more or less environmentally activated—I was a member of Students Against the Violation of the Environment (SAVE) in high school and the Environmental Concerns and Action Coalition in college. I was an anti-fracking activist in Ithaca, New York, and joined the Ithaca Biodiesel cooperative, with a ’92 VW Jetta named Shelley which ran on waste vegetable oil. 

I’m not sure anything I did made a difference to anyone except me, and I am sure that I severely irritated a number of housemates. I couldn’t wait to get my own house, so I could live the way I thought was right.

Of course, it’s never that simple. Maybe it would have been more ecologically sound for me to stay in Brooklyn and live with roommates. In fact, yes, it definitely would have been. When I lived there, according to the New York Sun, the carbon footprint of the average New Yorker was 0.67 tons annually, as opposed to 1.16 tons for the average American.

But here I was, in this drafty house built in 1900 (not new construction, so I get some climate rewards for that). Eventually, I found myself in a position to put money down—on a credit card—and get a Michigan Saves loan for the rest of the $13,395.71 that I needed for a 3.66-kW ground-mounted solar array, with 12 305-watt C-Sun panels with nano coating, arranged six over six, on a massive steel frame, built and installed by the lovely people at CBS Solar. 

I kind of thought this would be enough electricity for me, but I didn’t really know, because I had never looked at my electricity bill harder than enough to cringe at it. What I did know was that it was the biggest array I could both afford and fit in my yard, amid all the things I had planted over the years—oaks, a butternut, a row of hazelnuts, a tamarack, a pussy willow, a linden, some wild cherries, one hybrid and one American chestnut, two hawthorns, a mulberry, a black walnut, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, grapes, sunchokes, highbush cranberries, asters, a couple of elderberries, a white pine, a pair of Elberta quinces, a small hoophouse with a fig tree in it, and a frog pond. (Frogs!!!)

I, too, sneaked in under the wire to get the 30 percent federal tax credit for my system, and I also was able to sign on to Consumers Energy’s net-metering program. I got a fancy Excel spreadsheet each month with details on what I—okay, the sun—had produced that month. Whatever my panels generated, I used first; any excess electricity that was generated by my panels went to the grid. Any deficit, I bought from Consumers, just like normal. They paid me the same rate for my extra energy as I paid for theirs, and my surplus generation in any cycle showed up as a credit on my bill. 

For several months in 2018, I didn’t have an electric bill: I owed $0. That first year was a daydream come true. To top it all off, the disruption involved with laying those footings for the ground-mounted system caused a huge explosion of morels in my yard that May. I still have two jars of dried ones.

But then, some things happened. My linden tree had a huge growth spurt and began casting a ton of shade over the panels. And so did the butternut. And one of the cherries. And not just shade, but like, yick—some kind of weird tree jam, all year long, which has to be scrubbed or powerwashed off, which is really hard to do at the upper reaches of the array, nano coating or not. (Snow is not a big deal. I have a broom head on an Unger extension pole.) Then, my sainted mother gave me her old electric clothes dryer (I’d always line dried, all year, previously) . And then, also thanks to a combination gift and loan from my mother, I got a 2021 Chevy Bolt—which is now under recall, because of possibly being about to catch fire, but which still functions and I do drive it sometimes, and therefore, I want more solar.

My net-metering agreement is good until 2028. Unless I want more solar, which I do.

According to Consumers, as soon as I add to my system—say on my west-facing roof, which I now know has a lot of potential, or perhaps with a tracking panel if the setbacks allow it—I will be booted out of the net-metering agreement and the entire system, old and new, will fall under Consumers’ new program: Distributed Generation. 

It’s a nice name and a nice idea. To the farthest extent that I can possibly afford it, I believe I should be helping to advance the transition to clean energy. Consumers states on its website that it intends to produce 40 percent of its energy with renewable sources and completely eliminate coal-generated electricity by 2040, and DG will help them do that. But it is irksome, to say the least, that big corporations with their profits are not shouldering more of this burden. And it is kind of a bummer that, if I get more solar, my excess energy will be worth only 80 cents on the dollar to them. Or rather about 80 cents—according to the Consumers representative I spoke with, it’s more complex. (Summertime off-peak and peak surcharges play a role in the pricing. There are “thises” and “thats.” And no more spreadsheets).

Suddenly, a Tesla Powerwall battery backup system—which would allow me to add panels and keep all my excess for night use and say “foo on you” to Distributed Generation—is sounding very good. But a spare $10,500 I do not have, even if such possibly-catching-on-fire, lithium iron magic were not in short supply, stuck in the port of Los Angeles or what have you. On top of that, I have been trying and failing to get called back by solar installers to get more panels since the end of July. It would seem that some of you didn’t need to read this article—apparently there are enough of you to keep the installers super busy.

So, under surprise benefit of going solar, I will say: Morel explosion and a new willingness to look very closely at my electric bill and my energy use, in general. And under surprise downside: I’m still looking for my next fix.

At least, for now, I will be following the obvious advice of Schley, Marcott, and the Bonds, which is to look for more ways to save energy in the first place, while still holding on to the dream of one day getting off fossil fuels entirely and powering my whole life with the sun. Though I work from home and am on the computer all day long, I’m going to try to get my average use back down under 450 kWh per month. And come February, the linden will be getting a severe—but not deadly—haircut, and the cherry may have to become biochar. Like Randy Bond, I’m going to leave my panels more vertical this year and see if I get better results. (I live in the woods, too.)

My advice to you, though, is the same as Rick Schmitt’s:. Just do it. As with trees, the second best time to plant solar is always today.

*Peak pricing went into effect June 2021.
**Peak hours are 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays from June through September.
***That is 50,000 kWh, or enough electricity to power the average Michigan household for 74 months
****Football joke.

Featured Photo Caption: Some trees needed pruning to help the author’s 12 solar panels to capture energy, especially in the winter. Photo courtesy of Emily Votruba.

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