Comparing solar to other traditional investment methods was one of the things that convinced Eugene and Kathy Severens, who live on Ponto Lake in Backus, to take a leap and install solar at their home away from home.
The comparison came during a solar tour at Deep Portage Conservation Reserve near Hackensack. A volunteer there talked about alternative energy sources at his home and the reserve.
“When we went to Deep Portage, I remember one of the guides there was the person who really put solar energy into the context of investment,” Kathy said. “And it's a very good investment financially and stewardship wise.”
“He said he had money sitting in CDs and at the time interest rates were ridiculously low,” Eugene said. “(He said he had) $20,000 sitting in a CD making 2% a year, and when he realized the savings on the house, he realized it's an investment, and it's a better return than he was making in CDs at 2%.”
This wasn't their first exposure to alternative energy sources. Kathy and Eugene had been dabbling in reducing their footprint before most people had even heard about the concept of the ecological footprint. They first looked into passive systems and efficient housing while living in a converted schoolhouse in Nebraska in the 1970s. Kathy worked as director of the Office of Dispute Resolution for the state while Eugene worked for nonprofit organizations specializing in economic development.
Around that time solar energy was new and expensive.
“This was in the days that solar collectors, photovoltaic, were not very practical,” Eugene said. “They were very expensive and the only place they were used was the space program because the price was so high. We did things to the house to make sure it was sort of passively collecting solar energy.”
In his field, Eugene worked on projects to promote alternative energy sources.
“The organization I worked with in the 1970s and 1980s started something called the Small Farm Energy Project, which was an attempt to use alternative energy in the farm production process among the small farms in rural Nebraska,” Eugene said. “While I didn't directly staff that program, I was very familiar with it and learned a lot from it.”
Years later they moved and Kathy became an attorney with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. They later retired and now live about half of the year in Annapolis, Maryland, and half on Ponto Lake.
Eugene's parents had owned property on the lake since 1957. Since they've been gone Eugene has become majority owner of the cabin along with one nephew. Since they spend so much time in Minnesota they know their neighbors well, including Jim Balenthin, who works with Rural Renewable Energy Alliance.
“Where his current solar collectors are located was part of our land,” Eugene said. “We sold him part of that wetland he put the solar collectors on. I got introduced to his project from the beginning. I admired him for that, but at the time we were living in the Washington and Annapolis, Maryland, area in a situation where we couldn't do it ourselves. It took moving here after retirement to think of it seriously.”
As with many who choose to use solar power, Eugene and Kathy educated themselves on the benefits and disadvantages of solar. They attended solar tours, they joined a group called Solar United Neighbors and generally sought out solar panel owners so they could learn from firsthand experience.
Eugene said some time before they retired, the price point of solar changed.
“We had extra time to think about it but not a lot of opportunity to do much about it,” Eugene said. “In the meantime the price of photovoltaic modules kept going down. The price of everything kept going down. Suddenly I realized when I started exploring the internet there were installers all over Minnesota and websites where you could plug in numbers and it would give you all kinds of data I didn't know was available. I went through a huge learning curve the spring before we built it.”
As others have learned, there are various tricks to simplify solar installations and reduce the cost of materials. In this case, Kathy and Eugene joined a cooperative.
“It's kind of a self learning thing,” Eugene said. “You get families together talking to one another. Those who are interested put out a RFP (request for proposal) to local installers to make a group bid on the entire set of, say, a dozen collectors. That helps installers with a process that's difficult for them, recruiting customers. This is a big ticket item and most of them are interested in doing installation, not spending time recruiting customers.”
Though they had originally wanted to install the solar panels on the roof of their garage, the roof was in need of work first, so they opted for a system mounted on a new pole building they will use for storage in the winter. By June 11, they had a 21-unit, 6.93-kilowatt system powering their house.
“The sizing of it was designed to make us sort of self sufficient in electrical production,” Eugene said. “We aren't here in the wintertime, but the collectors will continue to collect electricity even though we're not using it much.”
At times the system produces more energy than they are using. As a result, they earn credits for times when the sun isn't shining as bright, or their consumption goes up. Many homes with solar panels use these credits to offset electricity costs at night or in the winter. Eugene learned it also helps to do activities that will draw the most power during peak energy production while the sun is shining bright.
“It is actually helpful to wash and dry clothes on a sunny afternoon before we let the electricity leave the grounds,” Eugene said. “To repurchase it back at night is actually a separate transaction on which you pay sales tax and other things. It's better to not let the energy leave the house.”
Estimates have indicated that the Severenses' solar arrays could pay themselves off in 10-12 years.
“The lifespan of the collectors is anywhere from 25-30 years,” Eugene said. “The inverter, not quite so long, but still, when you think about saving $2,000 every year (the cost of electricity ever year) for, say, even 25 years, let alone 30, you are talking $50,000 in savings. We're 75 so we might not live that long but just the idea that a payback period made business sense was the final thing in our favor to go ahead and do this. When we added this design that added some extra storage, that drove the issue home for us. We'd been thinking we needed more storage and this was the perfect opportunity to meet two of our needs.”
The couple see it as an investment in their family as well as themselves. Their kids have been supportive and interested in the project. Research has shown that their solar arrays may even increase the value of their property.
“You can do this at any age and it makes sense,” Eugene said. “Even if you end up selling your place, the value of that collector will be capitalized into the value of the property when you sell it. You'll get your money back. There's now evidence of this. (According to Zillow), the homes with solar collectors, on average, sold for 6% more than comparable properties that didn't have them.”
The Severenses know firsthand that experiences like theirs are valuable to those considering solar systems. After all, not only did they get important information from their neighbor, other neighbors have been researching solar since their project wrapped up in June. One neighbor next door is having panels installed before the end of October.
Interested in serving as examples for other homeowners, Kathy and Eugene have registered with the National Tour of Solar Homes so they can share their experiences.
“I also like the idea of sharing the idea,” Kathy said. “I've picked up from a number of people a growing interest in it.”
The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, just south of Backus, has been a part of the annual tour route for years. They were also one source of information for the Severenses. They are happy to be on the tour yet again.
“RREAL has been part of the tour for several years, part of the national tour and part of a statewide tour,” said Program Development Specialist Erica Bjelland. “People visit solar sites and learn about sustainability. We've been doing it a long time and it's part of our mission and our education and community outreach program to help people learn about solar and potential for it.”
RREAL often uses the opportunity to introduce interested parties to solar hot air and solar hot water as well as solar electrical systems. Bjelland said the tour is growing, especially locally, with new stops along the route every year.
“I think the tour has definitely expanded over the years as solar has expanded, which is really exciting,” Bjelland said.
Though RREAL will have many of the same projects on display for those who stop at their site, Bjelland said this year they will also have data and records of savings from a 35-kilowatt solar array used by the Leech Lake Nation to expand their Energy Assistance Program, proving that there are many facets to solar to meet the needs of people in varying circumstances.