LEARN DIY My Solar Journey

My interest in sustainability heightened approximately twelve years ago while paying attention to the industry I work in. Seven years ago we were able to create a full-ti me position focused solely on sustainable business practices. This role is two-fold; I work on internal efforts and we also have become a resource for our customers in helping them achieve goals all focused on becoming more sustainable organizations. Yes, this has become my dream career. I quickly became involved in a few of the sustainability groups around West Michigan where there were many leaders in their respective fields and that led me to learn about renewable energy. Along with this new role I also developed a personal passion for this work and believe in setting an example. As I started to learn more about solar, not a new technology, it made me a believer that it could work in Michigan, it was already working in Michigan and that you only need light not full sun. It then became a waiting game to see if it would become affordable for the average home owner.

In 2014 it became a reality for me. I participated in the MI Solar Works program and had a five kilowatt solar system installed on my home’s rooftop in Muskegon. This program initially was available on the east side of Michigan when I inquired about it and about six months later (2013) it became available in West Michigan. When I share my story with others, I often hear questions like: how does that work in Michigan, we don’t have enough sun– how much does it cost– what happens when the sun isn’t out and your aren’t generating any power?

I realize there is so much education that still needs to happen when it comes to solar even though it has been used for years to generate electricity in this country and around the world. My focus has become sharing my results and educating as many as I can. I even obtained a training manual to share with my local fire department so they can learn how to fight a fire on a home with solar panels.

My installation began on May 19, 2014 and I turned the switch on five days later. Since then, I have been watching the kWh (kilowatt hours) rack up through my Watch-A-Watt web-based account. I signed a contract with Srinergy out of Novi in the fall of 2013. I immediately felt comfortable with them and knew they would be very hands-on leading me down this path. That was important to me as even my trusted advisors had not gone down this path and being a single-woman without much technical training, I had to rely on my own intuition and others. I had to upgrade the electrical in my home from 150 to 200 amp and by the time that was completed it was winter and if you recall one of the worst and longest winters we have had in years. That delayed the project for several months. To determine the size of the system I had to provide 12 months of utility usage and cost. It was determined that a 5 kW system would be the best option and it should generate approximately 75% of my total annual usage. Eighteen panels cover just about the entire front roof, 360 square feet.

One of the missions of this MI Solar Works program was to find a local electrical contractor that was willing to learn these new skills, create local jobs. They found a Muskegon-based contractor that was willing to learn and my home was their first installation. Trusting that my installation was in the hands of first-time installers could have been a road block for some. Srinergy had their engineer on site as well so I really was not very nervous about that. Since then they have worked on installations in the Grand Rapids area as well.

Consumers Energy had to install a bi-directional smart meter and that happened on June 11th. I also had to file an application with them for approval before the process could start. Consumers inspected the installation before turning on the system as well as my local building inspector. I am connected to Consumers Energy’s grid and everything I generate goes to the grid and then take back what I need, when I need it. There are many regulations that exist so living off the grid is not possible in Michigan especially in urban or suburban areas. Local building codes prevent you from living-off-the-grid.

Solar does work in Michigan and you do not need full sun, even on the cloudiest days it will generate energy, only light is needed. In a four week timeframe after turning the system on it had generated 543 kWh, my typical usage for 4 weeks is about 415 kWh – so during summer months I produced more than I use. When the panels are snow-covered they will not generate any power. To date my system has generated 2613 kWh,

A program called Michigan Saves made financing easy and at a low interest rate for 10 years. My payments are very similar to the amount paid monthly to the utility company. I am really just re-directing my money. I expect my return on investment to be about 10 years. When I file my 2014 federal income tax I will get 30% return of the total cost. Bottom line, the system will cost just under $10,000. The panels have a 25 year warranty and are expected to last longer with very little maintenance.

Solar energy is clean and unlike coal and gas, solar power is fueled by the sun’s energy, which doesn’t cost a dime! There is a Net Metering program available in Michigan, meaning you can sell the power you generate to the utility company and then buy it back at a different rate. Demand for these Net Metering

Programs was so high that a lottery process was established to select who is able to participate. I did not choose to go down that path. Utility companies should let demand for solar drive the program participation, not a lottery that limits participation to a select few. Expanding these solar programs would allow for a steady growth in the solar industry in Michigan.

Michigan’s solar potential has barely scratched the surface compared to many other states, the more demand for solar, the more cost effective and efficient it will become. We must allow it to advance to the next level. I just wanted to pave the way for those who might still be skeptical and to share the process of making it a reality.

For a chronological and cost timeline, please go to the Hesselink Installation

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