What about donating solar power to Michigan non-profits?

Feb 1, 2016

The Next Idea

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels through alternative energy may seem like an expensive goal, especially in an era when even traditional utilities need major investments to keep running. Add to this Michigan’s cloudy, snowy environment, and using solar energy might seem impractical, if not impossible.

But a group of volunteers in Ypsilanti is unfazed by the prospect of thick clouds and thin funds. In fact, SolarYpsi thinks this post-industrial, Southeast Michigan city can reinvent itself as a “Solar Destination,” where people come to see how a community can improve its economy and image by investing in solar energy.

So, what about that Michigan sunlight? According to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the state gets four hours of peak sun per day, enough to power an average home with 5000 watts of solar panels on its roof. SolarYpsi notes that Germany, the global leader in solar power, only gets three hours of peak sun per day. If they can make it work there, we can make it work here.

Credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/chriskantos/2351716097

As for the cost, prices have dropped dramatically, and today a solar installation costs about three dollars per watt.  A system with a one-time payment of about $15,000 would power a home for the next 30 years. A 30% federal tax credit would further reduce the cost, and the power generated would pay off the investment in as few as seven years--even fewer as the price of electricity rises. In the end, that’s more than 23 years of free power.

However, that initial payment is hard for many homeowners to make. SolarYpsi is seeking outside funding to provide people with a third of the cost of their solar installations. If these funds were focused on a small area like Ypsilanti, then the city could give out rebates for anyone installing solar power. This would be a short-term stimulus to lower the cost of solar power, but it could have the long-term effect of building a stronger market in the area. That could be replicated across the state.

Here’s how it would work. As solar installations increase, neighbors would encourage each other to go solar. Demand for contractors would go up and increase competition for jobs, driving down the prices. With multiple jobs in the same area, contractors’ volumes would go up, and their fixed costs would come down. As the costs of solar power drops, communities outside the rebate area  would also benefit from cheaper installation prices. This could start a ripple effect across the state, lowering the price for everyone. All it would take is a large investment in a small location to start the chain reaction.

SolarYpsi began its journey in 2005 with a $6000 grant from the State of Michigan. We installed four solar panels on the roof of the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative, and created a presentation to educate the public about solar power. Later, we worked with Environment Michigan to set a goal of establishing 1000 solar roofs in Ypsilanti by 2020. Convincing City Council to back this project took some work, but after a roof inventory of the whole city and other supporting material from Environment Michigan, the Council passed a resolution to back the goal.

In the meantime, DTE Energy asked for site proposals for large solar arrays in public locations. After considering several ideas from Ypsilanti, DTE Energy committed to an 800-kilowatt solar installation on the north end of the Highland Cemetery. Work is expected to start this spring. This is the equivalent of 160 solar roofs, and it brings us much closer to our goal.

So what’s the Next Idea?

To move the process along, SolarYpsi has come up with a clever way to direct funds to solar installations. An anonymous donor wanted to contribute, but since SolarYpsi was not a 501(c) 3 nor even incorporated, we couldn’t accept the money. Instead, we built a list of charitable organizations within the city that had roofs favorable for solar power and good public exposure. The donor picked six of these.

SolarYpsi then sent information about the locations to three different solar contractors asking for quotes. With competitive quotes for each location, the donor was then able to mail a check to each non-profit, along with a quote to install about 5000 watts on their building. The non-profits simply had to accept the check and pay the contractor to install the panels. There was no administrative overhead; we got economies of scale by bidding six projects as one; and the non-profits had very little extra work because everything was laid out for them by SolarYpsi.

This is an excellent model to replicate in other communities. By funding solar power projects for non-profits, donors ensure that these organizations reduce their electricity bill, and can instead use those funds to further their missions. It’s like setting up a 30-year annuity for them. And since solar power is still early in its technology curve, it will get cheaper and more efficient the same way our personal computers have over the decades. Future non-profits can reap further savings from those improvements.

With its solar investment, Ypsilanti is close to being a “Shining City,” which Environment America defines as having more than 50 watts of solar power per capita. When the cemetery project is completed, Ypsilanti will reach 49.1 solar watts per capita—within the top ten US locations. SolarYpsi has helped to accomplish this without being incorporated or becoming a 501(c) 3.

The main idea is to “just do it.”  Don’t form a committee or start on your articles of incorporation. Just work with someone knowledgeable and install solar power on your home, your neighbor’s home, or the non-profit down the street. Neighbors seeing neighbors go solar is the best way to spread the word, reap the savings, and reduce fossil fuel use in Michigan.

Dave Strenski is a founder of SolarYpsi.

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