Two stories of Michigan solar power ambitions

Jan 28, 2014

First up, a Michigan man who’s trying to win millions of dollars with solar power.

He’s trying to put solar panels on as many Michigan homes and businesses as he possibly can.

Prasad Gullapalli’s Novi-based Srinergy wants you to invest in solar panels – for your home, for your business – doesn’t matter. He’s looking for anybody in Michigan to go solar.

He’s making the offer with no upfront costs.

“There’s no catch there, that’s actually a great question, but there’s no catch there,” Gullapalli says. “What we have is a zero-down financing through a Michigan Saves financing program.”

Michigan Saves is a non-profit that already offers affordable financing for geothermal, energy efficiency and solar projects.

Gullapalli signed up for a federal program, Race to the Rooftops, that challenges companies to put up 5,000 solar installations by the end of this year, plus another 1,000 in 2016. The winner gets $7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. There’s up to $10 million total in incentive prize money.

Gullapalli won’t say exactly how he’s doing on his goal. “We don’t have much time actually, honestly. It is an ambitious goal and we’re not giving up,” he said.

Even if Gullapalli comes up short of his goal, he’s still selling solar installations.

Solar installations in Michigan so far can generate roughly 19 megawatts worth of power. By comparison, Michigan’s heavyweight –coal – generates 4,570 gigawatts, more than 240,000 times as much energy as solar.

Next up on the solar special, we head to West Michigan. That’s where I meet up with Ed Brandel, the applications engineer at Energy Partners. It’s a small startup business in Muskegon. 

The problem with solar is that you only get power during the day, when the sun’s out. So it’s not as reliable as traditional sources like coal, nuclear or natural gas.

Brandel shows off Energy Partners’ new kind of solar panel system, called Solar 24.

“This is the front. This is where the sun shines and this is where all the power is generated,” Brandel says, pointing to the polycrystalline cells.

So far, a pretty typical solar panel. But then Brandel flips the panel over. On the back, there’s a circuit board connected to a bunch of lithium phosphate batteries.

“What we’re doing different is the way we can control the energy coming from the solar panel to distribute a portion of it for charging the batteries for nighttime use. That’s why we came up with the name Solar 24, because you have power 24 hours a day,” Brandel said.

The sun can charge the batteries during the day. That way you can plug in your laptop or electric drill to recharge at night. But the power can be used immediately too; it’s up to the user. Brandel says panels could be hooked together to power an entire home if needed.

Sure, some people in Michigan could use Solar 24, especially those who’d like to live off the electric grid. But its creator, Jim Wolter, sees the real potential elsewhere.

He sees Solar 24 making a big difference in developing countries where electricity isn’t around or is not reliable. Wolter imagines another application for the technology for the U.S. military -- if, for example, a campaign sets up camp somewhere remote and needs reliable power fast.

Energy Partners has patents pending on the new device.