Catching up with SolarYpsi

Tomorrow evening (Tuesday, July 17) at 6:00, Dave Strenski, the founder of SolarYpsi, is going to be in our conference room at Landline Creative Labs to discuss how solar power works, and the local resources that exist to help you get started, should you decide to join the ever-growing number of Ypsilantians who are attempting, at least in some small way, to explore the potential of renewable energy. So, if you’re at all interested in learning about how solar might be right for you, or if you just want to hear the story of how SolarYpsi grew from its first installation of four solar panels at the Ypsilanti Food Co-op back in 2005, to the incredible force it is today, feel free to come out and join us. I’ll be sure that someone is outside 209 Pearl Street at around 6:00 to let people in. [For those of you who can’t make it out, you’ll find Dave’s TEDx talk, which I imagine might be somewhat similar, online.]

[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.]

Following, for those of you who might be interested, is a short discussion between Dave and I about the current state of YpsiSolar, what what he intends to be discussing tomorrow evening at Landline. Enjoy.

MARK: Since the beginning of Solar Ypsi, how many installations have you and your team done?

DAVE: According to the running tally on the SolarYpsi website, there are a total of 75 installations, mostly in Washtenaw County. 39 of those sites are in the City of Ypsilanti. SolarYpsi has installed some of those with volunteer help. We’ve also helped coordinate grant money or donations for contractors to do some of the installations. And some of them have been done by homeowners and their installers with our encouragement and education.

MARK: So, when you add all of these together, how much power are we talking about?

DAVE: From all of our installations, which are mostly across Eastern Washtenaw County, we’ve got a solar capacity of 1.36 megawatts (MW). And most of that is here, in Ypsilanti. Within the City of Ypsilanti alone, it’s a total of 1,106,285 watts, or over 1.1 MW. So, given that we have about 20,000 people in the City, that means we’re producing around 55 watts per capita. This, by the way, puts Ypsilanti in the top 20 nationally for watts produced per capita.

MARK: How much have the prices of solar panels, batteries, etc, fallen since you launched SolarYpsi?

DAVE: When I started in 2005, and put those first 4 panels on the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative, they were about $1,000 per panel, and generated 190 watts of power ($5.26/watt). A panel today that is about the same size cost about $215 and generates 295 watts ($0.73/watt). That’s a 7x drop in price! I have yet to install batteries and don’t recommend that for people that are connected to the grid.

MARK: How are your installations now different than those that you did early on? What have you learned?

DAVE: The basic design of an installation has not changed. For a typical asphalt shingled roof we use a metal flashing that slides under the shingles and is lag bolted to the roof rafter. Aluminum rails are then placed on these attachment points and run the length of the roof. Wires and optimizers are then attached to the rails before the panels are placed on top and hire everything. The process is the same, but we’re always learning how to do it faster and cheaper.

For the racking, we’ve used UniRac and SunRail, but we’re mostly using Iron Ridge now. You can visit the installation page of SolarYpsi.org and select solar installation based on the type of panel, inverter, installer, etc.

MARK: In addition to doing installs yourself, as you mentioned earlier, you also talk with local Ypsi residents about doing their own installations. Do you have any way of knowing how many households in Ypsi now have solar panels?

DAVE: The SolarYpsi page has 39 solar installations in the City of Ypsilanti. These ranged from one or two panels on homes to over 2,000 panels at Highland Cemetery. But I also know of a few installations in Ypsi that are not yet on the SolarYpsi website. So, it’s more than 39. If anyone would like their system on SolarYpsi, just let me know, and we’ll set up a page.

MARK: How many Ypsilanti homes, based on your calculations, would be feasible for solar power?

DAVE: Great question! Being a bit of a geek, I figured out how to dump all the Ypsi addresses from the property look-up page and found 6,300 addresses. Solar can be put on an East or West facing roof, but you get your best return on investment with a South facing roof. If we assume all of Ypsi streets run east-west or north-south, then about half of these properties should have a South facing roof. Many of those will have trees shading the roof, so my best guess is a couple of thousands roofs would be good for solar. I’m actually writing a program to push all the addresses through Google’s Sunroof Project and rank all the building from best to worst. I have found a couple of homes that are completely surrounded by trees, not very good for solar power.

I’ve already done this process manually and just picked out 50 of the biggest commercial roofs Ypsilanti. When I added up the solar potential of these roofs, it came out to 7 Megawatts, so just greeting those would make us number one in the nation for solar per capita! I’ve worked with the City to send them all a letter encouraging them to consider solar for their roofs.

MARK: What’s the state of legislation now in Michigan? Am I correct that, while people can’t sell power back to the grid, they can receive credits of some sort for the excess power which they produce?

DAVE: Michigan currently has net-metering which means you can push out power to the grid and get full credit for those kWh, and then bring them back in for the same prince. Essentially this means free power storage. There was an effort last summer to change this, but it was defeated. The threat to net-metering continues, so I would suggest that anyone considering solar should act now and hopefully get grandfathered into the existing program if the rules do change.

There is still a 30% Federal Renewable Energy Tax credit available that starts to expire in 2019. I believe that this summer is the time to act, because I’m guessing all the solar contractors will be booked up with work next summer as everyone races to get their systems installed before the tax credit expires.

MARK: OK, so that’s why you were saying earlier that you haven’t given much thought to battery technology… it’s because, in Michigan, at least right now, legislation exists that essentially let’s you bank your power on the grid.

DAVE: I like to seperate renewable power from uninterruptible power. Those are two separate problems. If you want uninterruptible power I would suggest getting a gas power generator and a transfer switch. When the power goes out, flip the switch and power up the generator. While batteries are a great solution if you’re a cabin in the woods, there no reason to have them when you’re connected to the grid. Batteries will add thousands of dollars to the cost, lowers your efficiency because all the power has to be transform to go into the battery and transform again to come out of the battery, and have a lot more maintenance. They also only last about 7 to 10 years, so you’ll have to replace them about 3 times during the life of the solar installation.

MARK: So there are no state laws and incentives being considered, at least that you’re aware of, that might encourage more people to explore solar here in Michigan?

DAVE: That’s right. I’m not aware of any state incentives in the works, just the Federal tax credit that is set to expire in 2019. I would love to find a bucket of money for the city to offer solar rebates. Lowering the price by a few thousand dollars would really lower the barrier for people to go solar.

MARK: What’ll you be talking about at Landline on the 17th?

DAVE: I will be explaining how solar power works, the economics of solar power, and how it attaches to your home or business. Bring your electric bill and address and we can make an estimate of what it would cost to install solar power and an estimate of the return on investment.

MARK: So what are you and your SolarYpsi volunteers working on these days?

DAVE: While we’re still doing volunteer installations – and we’re doing four of those right now – we’re mostly trying to influence businesses and homeowners to contact their own solar contractors and put panels on their roofs. As mentioned above, we surveyed Ypsilanti’s roofs and picked out 50 of the largest roofs, all of which were above businesses. Then, working with the City, a letter was drafted and sent to these businesses encouraging them to go solar and to attend an information meeting much like what we’re doing on Tuesday. Out of the 50 letters, two seem interested and we’re working on making it happen. I’m also doing something similar, and trying to identify the 100 best residential roofs for solar power.

We’re currently working on a Department of Energy SunShot “Solar in your Community” challenge. We’re completed two projects so far and looking for more large roofs for solar installations. This challenge has a grand prize of $500,000! It would be great to win that prize and put that money toward more solar projects in the city.

I’m always looking for people and/or organization that want to donate money to put solar on a non-profit in Ypsilanti. The project I would really like to get funded is putting solar on 13 Habitat for Humanity homes. I’ve surveyed the 44 homes they have built over the past 30+ years and found the best. I have quotes for new roofs and to install solar and a pledge of large donation toward this project, but still short on funds to make it happen. This would be a great project because by installing solar on a low income home, you’re effectively putting $50 in the homeowner’s pocket every month for the next 30 years. If we could train and hire local people to do the installations we would be creating jobs. How great would that be!

Drop me an email if you have any ideas how to get this funded.

MARK: And you’ve won some awards since we last spoke too, right?

DAVE: Yes. SolarYpsi has worked with the City to win two solar awards. We won a Gold SolSmart award from the Solar Foundation (the first and only in Michigan), and we won a Smart City award. We’re also written up in the current issue of the Michigan Municipal League magazine for a Community Excellence award.

[Solar presentations are offered by SolarYpsi every month at a different location around town. You can also find recordings of past solar presentations on the Ypsi Live facebook page and a version in Spanish on the Contacto Michigan facebook page.]

This entry was posted in energy, Landline Creative Labs, Michigan, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Comments

  1. Posted July 16, 2018 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Take a virtual tour of the solar installations around Ypsilanti.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdUutYtkCNY&list=PLMPOLQxIWWawGCIOiCTMy2o8sMpvnWKKM

  2. rusk
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Instead of investing in solar, the US under Trump wants to open more coal mines. Think about that.

  3. Lisa Bashert
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    If Beth wins her election in November, Ypsilanti will have had two consecutive solar-powered mayors! It could be the beginning of a beautiful trend.

  4. Sad
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Is it true this log used to feature stories like this? Things about Ypsi and real people and local stuff?

    Did it really change in the run up to the 2016 election?

  5. Iron Lung
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    If you don’t like it, you can write your own blog.

  6. Sad
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    It was just a question? I thought someone might know.

    Oh well….. sorry I asked.

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