Douglas Weiss's property near Bungo Creek, west of Pine River, is a testament to the dropping solar panel prices. He said when he bought panels in 2011, they were nearly two times the price they would be today.
“I put this in in 2011 and the price of solar panels is about half what it cost me,” Weiss said. “That's just mass production of them. It's a whole lot cheaper now.”
That means while some homeowners investing in solar today may be on track to receive payback on their systems as soon as 10 years, Weiss may be looking at a more substantial time, but he doesn't care.
“It's very important for me. Sustainable living, climate change and all those things are very important for me and something I want to invest my money in,” Weiss said. “If I wanted to invest my money in a new truck, I don't think there'd be very good payback. “
He wanted solar panels, so he got solar panels. He compares it to some people buying things like four wheelers and new vehicles. In those cases they aren't expecting to make money back on their investments, so if it takes a while longer for his panels to turn a profit, that doesn't matter. For that reason, he's not even sure how much he saves each year compared to the cost of the system over time.
“I don't even know that,” Weiss said. “I haven't looked at that. I've looked at it as I could either give my money to an investment banker or Wall Street or I could put it into something I believe in. The other thing is, I don't think my neighbor who buys a new truck asks, 'What is going to be the new payback?' I don't want a new truck. I want a solar array because I believe in that and it's something I want. Maybe my neighbor wants a new truck or a Bobcat or whatever or a four wheeler. I wanted a solar array, so I got a solar array.”
Weiss has been on the National Solar Tour of Homes for nearly six years. He remembers not only higher prices on solar panels when he first started, but he also remembers that there used to be fewer homes in the area on the tour. As panels increase in affordability and as neighbors are more and more able to talk to people with first-hand experience in solar, this alternative energy source seems to be growing even in small places like Backus and Pine River.
“There are definitely more,” Weiss said. “We've had this since 2011 and I know there are many more than there were just this year than there were in the past. I don't know why they've really proliferated here very recently. The technology has been out there a long time and the tax rebates have been out there too. Maybe it's the economy.”
As with other solar homes, Weiss's property has more than just solar panels. Weiss has a south facing room with large windows passively collecting solar heat, solar hot air panels, a deep winter greenhouse, ample insulation and other features that make the home extremely efficient. He said the solar heat provides him his biggest savings.
“The solar heat is really a bigger savings than the solar array,” Weiss said.
Weiss's array provides enough solar power for all of his home's needs, with exception of backup wood heat. Like many other solar enthusiasts, Weiss planned ahead for other purchases that he would eventually use to eliminate his need for gasoline.
“In 2011, we put in the solar array,” Weiss said. “I constructed that to produce all of my electrical needs plus what I would need for an electric car. I did that through RREAL (Rural Renewable Energy Alliance). We estimated what I would need for an electric car. I've been selling back to Crow Wing Power until I got my electric car, which we finally got in March. We finally found a car we thought would work up here.”
Having bought an electric car in March, Weiss and his partner Barb Mann are now starting to familiarize themselves with this other aspect of powering their lives through solar energy. The combination of different technologies is very common with solar advocates.
The car has a learning curve, due to its charge cycles, and they are both careful to plan their trips according to their charge time. In truth, Mann said it is much like planning trips to town for gasoline conservation, a habit she got into long before they purchased the electric car.
“You have to plan,” Mann said. “I did anyway when it came to condensing trips to places and maximizing where I was going. I did it anyway, but now I'm thinking, 'How many miles did I have? Where do I need to go? If I need to, where can I plug in?' We think about that.”
The car is supposed to be able to travel 238 miles on one charge, though the pair have gotten 341 miles out of one charge.
“I'm sure we could make 350,” Mann said.
“I think we've gotten comfortable with driving with limitations,” Weiss said.
They don't consider those limitations that great. They have already driven to Duluth and Mann said if they ever needed it, they could always rent a car, but that has not yet been necessary. They've put 7,000 miles on the vehicle since purchasing it. Using current gas prices and the 18 mile-per-gallon fuel economy of Mann's previous vehicle, they have saved an estimated 388 gallons in gasoline.
Switching to an electric vehicle did come with some surprises, however. While doing their research, they found that the lakes area has approximately 20 documented public electric car charging stations. What research didn't reveal, however, is that not all charging stations are the same.
“We went online and all these charging stations in the Brainerd area popped up,” Mann said. “What we learned in a hurry is that a charging station is not a charging station is not a charging station. The ones that were in the Brainerd area, most of them were Teslas.”
There have been some surprising benefits to electric car ownership, specifically their electric car does not require general maintenance very often.
“The other thing nice about this car is the first routine maintenance is at 100,000 miles,” Weiss said. “You aren't changing oil or doing that stuff to it.”
Their experience with their electric car will be part of their presentations during the national solar tour Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6. There are several solar tour locations in the lakes area this year in Breezy Point, Jenkins, West of Pine River, Ponto Lake, as well as at RREAL and Paws & Claws Rescue and Resort. To find locations, visit Nationalsolartour.org/map/.