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Midwest Solar: Making Cents

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Rising energy costs and concerns over climate change have many considering alternate energy sources, perhaps none as prevalent right now as solar.

Readily installed in residential, commercial and utility applications, both solar demand and supply—with systems being manufactured in the Midwest--are increasing.

READ: Midwest Solar: On the horizon 

Still, the question remains, how do those considering the switch make the economics fit the bill?

Kevin Fisk owns LAX Print, a printing company on La Crosse's Northside, which boasts it's a 100% solar powered store. And, it is at times.

Xcel Energy's Mike Herro said, "Most all of the people who have solar panels on their roof are connected to our system."

That's due in part to the efficiency of the technology (the best systems only convert about 20% of light collected into energy), and of course, winter. But that doesn't mean the outlook for solar is completely gloomy.

"The solar radiation we receive in Minnesota is about 30% less than what you would receive in Phoenix, which is actually one of the highest solar resource areas in the world, but then there's an inverse effect that comes,” said Dallas Meyer, President and CTO of Ten K Solar.

“Solar actually produces more energy when the temperature is low, so we actually net back about 10% versus Phoenix because of the wonderful fact that it's really cold here."

Fisk's system at LAX Print produces enough power to cover nine months of the year. So, is it paying off?

"We're saving around $5,000 to $6,000 a year," said Fisk.

That may sound great for any business looking to boost it's bottom line. But with solar, there's the hefty upfront cost. Fisk said he installed a 40 kilowatt (kW) commercial system that's four times as large as the biggest residential systems at $160,000. That same system, according to Fisk, now costs about $90,000.

As the technology becomes more widespread, reliable and less pricey to produce, the pocketbook burden is becoming lighter for those considering a system.

President and CEO of Viking Electric, Scott Prahl said, "We just started on a home in Brice Prairie. It's going to be a net zero, renewable energy home."

It's going to be Scott and Amy Cooper's dream home.

"We're kind of hoping this inspires others," said Amy Cooper.

The Coopers said the combination of passive solar through proper windows, extensive insulation and rooftop solar panels should mean the two-floor home produces as much energy as it uses—a net of zero—which could conceivably continue to pay off long after the couple is able to enjoy them.

Scott Cooper said, "You're going to get the benefit for the lifetime of the house."

This all requires a lot of planning and foresight.

Fisk said, "Are you going to be there in 10 years? Are you going to be there to that break-even point?"

Many more households, however, face different conundrums. Those who rent or have large trees may be prevented from using rooftop solar.

For the masses, both major utilities and cooperatives now have a couple of options. Xcel Energy is one example. Their Solar Connect Community project is keeping the model of rooftop solar when it comes to investment. Customers will buy a portion of a panel or multiple panels, according to Herro, without the need for residential installation.

"And you get the credits going forward,” Herro said. “If you move out of our service territory, we will buy that back."

Similarly, Dairyland Power Cooperative is putting in 12 sites across Western Wisconsin for their member co-ops to use in conjunction with any smaller systems they might want to install. And regardless of whether Dairyland customers buy in to their 25 megawatt (MW) system, the company's President and COO said everyone will reap the “green” benefits.

Barbara Nick said, "All of our members will be participating in our power supply mix that includes all of this utility scale solar."

Then there's an alternative for those living on the Minnesota side of the river. A company called Minnesota Community Solar said it's building solar arrays and working with utilities like Xcel to offer a pay-as-you-go model.

"We can finance on the back end and credit subscribers just as well, so we don't need that upfront investment," said Jake Wanek.

So, is solar feasible in the Midwest? The consensus says yes.

Wanek said, "We're trying to stay home and keep the sun local so to speak."

The experts agree, simply providing these options shines some light on to what extent residents and businesses can harness their own star power.

Monitor the LAX Print solar array output by clicking here!

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