After attending solar tours to get ideas for their own homes, Joe and Jodi Eberhardt, of Breezy Point, will be a stop in the local leg of the National Solar Tour on Saturday, Oct. 5.
Solar is not new for Jodi and Joe. Their other property in Texas has been solar for at least four years. It was only a matter of time before they went solar in Minnesota as well, especially when they learned the capabilities of solar power in Minnesota.
“Oddly enough, people think Minnesota isn't a good place to have solar panels, but we get about the same production from south Texas to northern Minnesota,” Jodi said.
Jodi is a project manager with Freddie Mac; Joe is retired from a career working on databases for large corporations. Around the time they went solar in Texas they were already planning to pursue another solar project, this time on Lake Ossawinnamakee where they owned property since 2004.
Before developing it, that property only had storage buildings, but the couple decided they wanted to sell their large home on Pelican Lake, build a 650-square-foot home on Ossawinnamakee, and make it work for them.
They researched their options and got professional assessments of their property.
“We started with RREAL (Rural Renewable Energy Alliance in Backus),” Jodi said. “They came out and did a site assessment for us. They have a globe that shows how the sun moves. That shows you which trees are going to block the site and you have a better perspective where to put the panels.”
An assessment from RREAL revealed the limitations of their property, but it also helped them discover exactly what would work, as well as what wouldn't.
“Their general rule of thumb was to find the highest thing and keep the panels two to five times that height away to give a perspective on how much clear space you're going to need,” Jodi said.
Their house on the lakeshore was too low and surrounded by trees. They had wanted panels installed on the roof of their large pole shed; however, that plan changed as well. In the end, they went with a ground mount system.
The panels were up and running in the fall of 2018. Even from Texas they got to watch their property produce its own electricity, at least until the first major snowfall. When the snow melted in March they said they were able to really understand the capacity of their solar arrays thanks to that contrast. That was even before the 24-panel array system was totally finished.
“Over the winter you can watch how much you're generating and putting back on the grid,” Joe said. “We saw a little before it snowed heavy, then it snowed heavy and it was done. We expected that. If they're covered in snow they aren't producing. When the snow melted they started producing and we really could see it happen.”
Though the panels will not produce much electricity in the winter, they have been building up credit during the summer, which should pay for heating this coming winter.
“Now, in one sunny day we produce a week's worth of power that we would use this time of year,” Joe said. “This time of year we don't use heat, but it's all the hot water and power needs that are taken care of very easily in one sunny day.”
Their home on Ossawinnamakee costs them approximately $300 a month, down from $1,000 pre-solar. That amount pays for taxes, insurance, internet, trash and all the expenses of home ownership. Joe crunched the numbers on the panels and believes their system could pay for itself in five to seven years after which the savings are all profit.
Jodi thinks five years is overly optimistic, but seven is realistic. It helps that they were able to install the panels themselves and save a significant amount of money. In addition, rebates and tax credits helped offset the cost considerably.
“Putting up the rack is not complicated. It's a giant erector set,” Joe said.
Even so, they consider it a better investment than many items on which homeowners spend money.
“How much return on investment do you have on a dock and lift?” Joe asked. “Those never pay for themselves.”
“Another way we think about payback - we figure for the amount of money we put into the system, we get at least a 10% return each year,” Jodi said. “We couldn't even make that money off a CD or by putting it in a bank. There's a guarantee here and it makes us feel good doing it.”
They have learned a lot from their two solar projects. Though there was only a four-year gap between their project in Texas versus the project in Minnesota, Joe said technology and prices have changed. Panels being produced now are more efficient than the panels they purchased for their Texas property, and they are either the same price or cheaper.
It's gotten to the point where Joe said it can be cheaper and easier to buy more panels and install them for seasonal optimization than it is to install a system that can be adjusted as the year goes on.
Their solar homes also provide much of the fuel for their cars, as they own a Chevrolet Volt. They plan to plant vegetables among the solar panels and find other ways to make the most of their solar power supply.
The Eberhardts are excited to be on the solar tour, since tours they attended helped inform them of their options. They encourage anyone who is curious about solar to visit locations on the upcoming solar tour as a part of thoroughly researching their options.
“I think it's important to get enough information to make sure you are making a good choice,” Jodi said. “Talk to different installers. Look at the do-it-yourself option and learn enough about your situation and setting and your options for setting it up. It's different for everybody. Some people look at all that and decide to participate in community solar.”
That's the purpose of the tour.
“The National Solar Tour will empower people across the country to learn about solar technology and the process of going solar from their friends and neighbors,” said Ben Delman, communications director for Solar United Neighbors. “Peer-to-peer education is one of the best ways to encourage people to go solar. We’re excited to see how many new solar homeowners the tour creates.”
Solar United Neighbors has been hosting solar open houses for years, but this is the second year of pairing with the American Solar Energy Society in a national solar tour, something ASES has held for 20 years. So far this year the event has more than 40 sites, and growing, in Minnesota and nearly 700 across the nation.
The Eberhardts are only one of the properties being featured in the lakes area. The Severens of Ponto Lake are another couple who took a different approach to adding solar power to their home. Look for their story in the Sept. 19 edition of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.