State of the City: Solar Edition

Now that the rain has given way to blazing sun, I thought it might be a good time to reach out to Dave Strenski in his capacity as the City’s most notable proponent of solar, and ask how we’re doing… I hope you enjoy our conversation.


MARK: So, how about it, Dave? What’s the state of the City when it comes to solar?

DAVE: Solar continues to grow in the City of Ypsilanti, but still too slowly. We’re finishing up a third solar installation – a 4-kilowatt (4kW) array on the Ypsilanti Food Coop. I also know of a solar installation happening in the Normal Park neighborhood. And we’re working on a solar powered water pump for Growing Hope’s hoop house. And, in a few weeks, we’ll be doing another solar demo for the Heritage Festival. Then, there’s also the possibility that the DTE Solar Farm will be constructed at the site of the old City dump, near I-94. It’s still in the works, and I’m hopeful that it will happen.

MARK: And all of that represents quite a jump, in terms of both the number of panels installed and the number of kilowatts produced, from last year at this time, right?

DAVE: If the DTE solar farm happens, that will be a huge jump. Nik Estep, the EMU alumnus who maintains the SolarYpsi website has added a couple of pie charts to the home page showing the number of solar installations and the total kilowatts of solar power installed in Ypsilanti, so anyone who is interested can keep track.

MARK: You mentioned the DTE Solar Farm. Do you know where we are in the process, and what the hold-up is? The last I heard they’d narrowed location down to just a few finalists… Is it just between us and one other community now? And, assuming we do get it, what would it mean for Ypsi?

DAVE: As far as I know, we are still in the running and the decision seems to have been delayed. I don’t know why. It would be a huge win for Ypsilanti for both our public image and even finanically. The location is on the North-East corner of I-94, at the Huron Street exit. It would be visible to everyone driving along I-94. I’ve asked the City, if we are selected, to consider making a small parking area with an information center, so visitors can learn more about the solar farm and about the other solar installations around town. It would be great if we could lure some people into pulling off, and check it out.

And we’ve got room to do even more, when it comes to these large installations that would be visible to the public. There’s another large chunk of land inside the City, right alongside I-94, near the end of Mansfield Street.

MARK: So, what’s next on the agenda in terms of projects for SolarYpsi? Now that you’ve done City Hall and the Coop what’s next? Have I heard somewhere that you have designs on the Freighthouse?

DAVE: Yes, it looks like we now have the go-ahead to put a 2kW system on the Freighthouse, and we’ve got the panels to do it… Last summer, the Michigan-based solar panel manufacturer, Uni-Solar, went out of business. And a friend of a friend told me about their closeout sale, so I bought 16 panels for 45-cents per watt. Which is a great price! The Historic District Commission (HDC) approved the project with a 3 to 2 vote, and the Freighthouse board of directors unanimously approved it. We’re now waiting on the State Historic Preservation Office’s approval. Once we get that, we can start installing the panels.

MARK: Can you give me a idea as to just how much power is being produced right now? Percentage-wise, how much of the power used by the Coop, for instance, is generated by solar?

DAVE: I haven’t run the numbers in a while, but the last time I looked, City Hall was 2 or 3 percent solar powered. The River Street Bakery was 100% solar powered, and one section of the Coop was about 40% solar powered. Adams School was also a few percent solar powered.

We’ve had a setback with our monitoring program. DTE Energy swapped out most of their electric meters with new smart meters, and our program doesn’t work with them. EMU Computer Science Professor William Sverdlik and I are working on creating new monitoring hardware, but we haven’t made much progress yet… If any geeks out there are looking for a nice project, give me a call.

MARK: Have you reached out through any local groups, like A2Geeks? I suspect you might be able to find someone willing to lend a hand.

DAVE: We think we have a solution figured out using transducers, arduino single board computers, and a certain circuit. It’s just hard to find the time to solder all the pieces together and make sure it works.

MARK: In Michigan, what happens to the power that you produce that you aren’t able to use? In many European countries, as I understand it, they have what are called Feed-In tariffs, which essentially guarantee that, for a certain number of years, people who install solar cells will be able to sell excess power back to the grid for a set amount per kilowatt hour. By doing so, people can better anticipate just how long it will take to reach break-even on their investment. And, as a result, such programs have been incredibly successful at incentivizing people. As I understand it, this, more than anything else, is why countries like Germany, over the past decade, have been so successful in building-out their solar infrastructure. When people know that they can break even, and make a little on the other end (before the program sunsets), they actually invest. Here, though, I don’t think our legislators have the political will to move subsidies away from the oil and gas industry, though, right? So, if you can’t sell back into the grad, what do you do with the power?

DAVE: If you want the long, 16-minute answer, watch my TEDx video. (Scroll down for Dave’s TEDx talk.) The short answer, though, is that Michigan has net-metering, meaning that any power that is pushed back into the grid, will earn you credit for that power. So, essentially, you can make your house 100% solar powered with no batteries – just over-produce during the day and bring it back in for free at night.

We don’t have feed-in tariffs, but we do have rules requiring that power companies produce a certain amount of their power from renewable sources. The current rules call for 10% by 2015, and the power companies are on track to hit that target. It’s because of these rules that power companies create programs like Solar Currents, through which they can buy your Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to put toward their goal. And, in the process, the home owner gets money to offset the cost of his/her solar installation.

Also, the 30% Federal tax credit will remain in place until 2016. So, anyone installing a solar system will get 30% of the cost back when they do their taxes.

MARK:: You and I have talked in the past about this idea of yours to get solar panels on 1,000 Ypsilanti homes, which is super ambitious. Have you walked around town with a map and determined that there are, in fact, 1,000 homes with suitable, south-facing rooflines?

DAVE: Environment Michigan contacted SolarYpsi early in the year and really pushed us to shoot for a much larger installation goal, a 1,000 roofs by 2020. It’s an ambitious number, but reasonable. I’ve looked at some demographic information and there are over 8,000 homes in Ypsi. If you make a very crude estimate and say half are facing north-south and half are facing east-west, there should be about 4,000 homes with a south facing roof-line. Say half of those have too many trees, and that still leaves about 2000 candidates for a solar installation. I’m assuming the typical home would need 5kW of panels, so if we get one or two large solar installations, like the DTE solar farm, that could count as a couple of hundred roofs toward the goal.

Professor William Welsh, from EMU’s GIS department, is working on a program to do a more accurate roof assessment for every home in Ypsi. We’ll share that information once it’s finished.

I think the goal is very doable, but we need the community of Ypsilanti to act. Everyone needs to call a solar contractor and get a quote or two for putting solar on their home. (You can find a list of contractors here.) Some companies, like Srinergy, are offering financing with zero money down. And A.J. Leo is a solar contractor living right here, in the City. You can see the solar panels on her house, on Mansfield.

Let’s get more solar panels installed, and make Ypsilanti a “Solar Destination”.

MARK: Roughly speaking, how much does a typical install cost for a 5kW system these days? And how long, given current energy costs and incentives, would it take a homeowner to break even on an installation of that size?

DAVE: I talk about the costs in the TEDx video. Solar panels are currently running about $1/watt. The inverter is under a $1/watt, and the same is true for your typcial racking material. So, if you did everything yourself, you might get the price in the $3/watt range. I’ve seen a couple of quotes for turn-key systems in the $4 to $4.5 per watt range. So, worst case, the cost would be around $22,500. (That’s 5000 watts at $4.5/watt.) But, remember, you’ll get 30% of that back on your taxes, giving you a real cost of about $15,750. And, if you can take advantage of DTE Solar Currents 2 program, you can knock off a couple more thousand dollars. At a current fixed electric cost of 16-cents per kilowatt-hour, it would take about 9 or 10 years to get your money back. And this would be shorter, obviously, if the price of electrcity goes up. Solar panels and inverters are typically warenteed for 25 to 30 years, so there will be a positive ROI… it’s just a long payback schedule.

The numbers for Solar Hot Water (SHW) has a payback period of about 5 years. It’s simple, using pipes instead of wires, but some regular maintenance needs to be done.

MARK: Any chance you might be branching out into wind, or are the numbers just not right for Ypsi?

DAVE: Wind has a great ROI, but needs to be big and high to be effective. The rule of thumb for wind is that the bottom tip of the blade needs to be 30 feet higher than anything with in 500 feet. Not something you want to bolt to your house.

I have my hands full with solar photovoltaics. If someone has questions I can help answer them, but not interested in installing either SHW or wind right now.

MARK: Anything else you’d like people to know about solar?

DAVE: Everyone should mark their calanders for the National Solar Tour, which will take place on October 5, 2013. We’ll have a local tour around Ypsilanti again this year.

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  1. Edward
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    I know different houses probably require different systems, but it would be great if the city could get involved and negotiate a set package price with a local vendor, so people knew what they were getting into. My guess is that a lot of people would do it if it were made easy, and all the expenses and initiatives were laid out in a clear way.

  2. John Galt
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I want to burn tar sands in an inefficient furnace built by child prison labor. Anything else is socialism.

  3. 734
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    If the DTE solar farm does happen, how much would it mean in terms of revenue to the city? And would jobs come along with the project? Would the site require a local manager?

  4. VU
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Who loves the sun?

  5. Murph
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Edward — take a look at the MI Solar Works program from WARM Training Center and SRInergy — the 0% down program that Dave mentions in the interview.

    They’re using a combination of financing guarantees from Michigan Saves (the State’s non-profit energy efficiency financing program) and economies of scale to do the installs at around $3/Watt installed, I think. Closest thing around to the “community rate” turnkey system you suggest. The financial summary on their webpage shows a “standard 5kW system” price of $10,500 after Federal tax credits.

    The economy of scale part involves them saving up multiple applications in a neighborhood so that they can do all the permitting, mobilization, and on-site work for an area in one sweep; I think their goal is 20 rooftops at a time, so give them a call and start hitting up neighbors.

One Trackback

  1. By Catching up with SolarYpsi on July 16, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    […] [The above image was borrowed with permission from my old friend Doug Coombe, as the photos that I have of Dave Strenski all date back to 2013, when I last interviewed him for this site.] […]

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