County couple reaping benefits of solar
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series looking at solar usage in Perkins County and the surrounding area.
By Becky Uehling
July will mark the first year that Dennis Demmel and his wife Ruth added a solar power source to their rural farmstead northwest of Grant. As the first year comes to a close, Demmel is anxiously awaiting to see the total savings this new power source has provided.
Always interested and involved in alternative energy sources, Demmel saw an opportunity to add solar power to his farmstead when he and Ruth moved to Ruth’s parents’ house in 2016.
By July 2017, the couple had a solar power system consisting of 40, 3x6 solar modules, or solar photovoltaic modules, helping to power the farmstead and house. Demmel’s solar system produces 12.8 kilowatts of maximum energy output. The modules are mounted together on aluminum racks and are located just south of their house facing south. The array, or area that the modules cover, is 60 feet long by 12 feet high. The Demmels’ solar panel system was completed by GC ReVOLT out of Omaha.
SOLAR PHOTOVOLTAIC CELL
Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab’s website, PV gets its name from the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage), which is called the PV effect. The PV effect was discovered in 1954, when scientists at Bell Telephone discovered that silicon (an element found in sand) created an electric charge when exposed to sunlight. Now solar powers a variety of things from space satellites, to calculators and watches. The technology and demand for solar, however, is increasing at a rapid rate, a rate that Demmel says rural America cannot ignore.
“The future is here when it comes to solar energy,” he said, commenting that some states, like California, are considering requiring that all new houses are equipped with solar power ability, and the technology for solar vehicles is increasing at a breakneck speed.
“The Trump administration has put tariffs on all imported solar collectors, which would raise the price for them. However, the Rocky Mountain Institute (a renewable energy think-tank) says that the solar industry is climbing the learning efficiency curve so fast that it will be able to offset any increase in price because of its efficiency and volume,” he said. “The solar world is exploding.”
Demmel stated that his project cost $40,000, but was partially offset by a renewable energy tax credit in the amount of 30 percent, which will end in 2019. He also said there is federal assistance to establish ag solar projects through the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant, and that such systems may also qualify for accelerated depreciation, increasing the rate of return. Demmel anticipates that he will save around $2,000 per year on electricity because of his solar panel system, but said he will have to wait until July to determine this. Additional analysis has suggested an eight-year payback on investment.
Although there is funding available to help people establish solar projects, Demmel said as the technology becomes less expensive, and as electricity rates go up, customers may not need as much support to set up their own solar projects.
WHERE DOES THE POWER
DISTRICT FIT IN?
Although solar has many benefits, it also has some drawbacks, especially for those who do not store the solar energy as it is produced to be used when solar energy is not present. Battery storage technology is still very costly and is something that Demmel does not have. If no collection source is available, the consumer still must tap into the power district’s source at night, on cloudy days, if the solar panel system breaks down, or if it is down for maintenance.
Because the Demmels do not have a battery collection system for their solar energy, they are tied into the Midwest Electric grid, where they are participating in what is called net metering.
According to Jayson Bishop, IT Manager for Midwest Electric, how net metering works is that the meter will spin forward when the customer is buying power from the public-utility power grid and it will spin backwards when the customer is selling power to the utility. At the end of the month the public-utility, in this case Midwest Electric, looks at how far the meter has spun both directions and the customer is billed on the “net” of the two numbers, kilowatt-hours purchased minus kilowatt-hours sold, Bishop said.
“If the net is positive, they are billed for that number. If it is negative, meaning they’ve sold more to us than they’ve bought from us, they are issued a credit for what it would have cost us to buy those kilowatt-hours from our regular power supplier,” he said.
Bishop said the customer gets the biggest incentive from their system if they have a system sized so they approximately offset their own usage for the month.
“That way, they are avoiding buying kilowatt-hours from us at the retail rate. When Midwest buys their excess generation, they are paid at the same wholesale rate that we usually buy power. So there isn’t a huge impact on Midwest, as we are buying power at the same kilowatt-hour rate either way,” he said.
Bishop said Midwest does lose out on some kilowatt-hour sales, but as a cooperative, they are only looking to recover their costs.
However, personal solar generating facilities, like the Demmel’s, do have a drawback for public utilities, Bishop said.
“The biggest issue for Midwest, or any public-power utility, is that we do have fixed costs that we need to pay for, everything that goes into having reliable power available to our members all the time. Even customers that want to generate their own power still need to buy power from us at different times due to the intermittent nature of solar and wind generation or when their equipment needs maintenance. This is an expense to Midwest that we need to collect revenue to cover even if the customer isn’t buying kilowatt-hours from us for a given month,” he said.
He said that Midwest has been working for several years to find the right amount for a fixed monthly customer charge to help ensure that all customers, even those with generating facilities like solar, have power available when they need it. Demmel said that Midwest Electric has been great to work with and helped him with the paperwork to establish the system.
According to Bishop, Midwest Electric has a total of three residences with wind generation and six solar installations, counting Demmels.
Those with questions can call Demmel at his home or can call Bishop at Midwest Electric at 308- 352-4356