Interest in alternative energy options is growing in the northwest corner of Lower Michigan and solar power, in particular, is gaining more recognition as an exciting opportunity for homeowners.
More people are thinking about solar for a lot of different reasons. It provides a much cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels, such as coal, which is becoming harder to mine, more expensive to ship, and more strictly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The growing interest is also about cost. In fact, as the price of coal continues to soar, the average price of a solar panel has dropped 60 percent since 2011, making it a more viable option for many people.
Recently, a local electric utility, Grand Traverse County’s Cherryland Electric Cooperative, made a historic move toward solar power: The largely coal-based utility announced its Solar Up North (SUN) Alliance program, which gives its customers a significantly lower-priced way to generate and use solar energy by selling shares of its new “solar garden”— said to be the first of its kind in Michigan. Traverse City Light & Power quickly joined the project as well, and response to the communitywide project is remarkably strong.
Now a group of Benzie County citizens is working on another community-friendly idea.
The Benzie Solar Initiative began this past March when Emily Votruba, now vice-chair of the group, shared a link about the Cherryland solar project that caught the attention of similar-minded friends. This inspired them to form a community group that would allow them to purchase solar as individuals but offer a sizeable discount through group purchasing and, at the same time, provide expertise and project support to its members.
The group is just getting started. Jeffery Stratton, chair of the steering committee, president of J.D. Stratton Electric and veteran solar panel installer, said, “We’re kind of in the infancy stage, but we’re going to make it happen. I mean, it’s happening already.”
The small group has had three meetings so far and is slowly building membership. The initial plan is to grow to 10 members committed to making a bulk purchase together, hopefully by this fall. Those who have already committed are eager to get started; they feel it’s crucial to take their own steps toward using more clean, renewable energy.
“We’ve come to that critical point where we’ve boxed ourselves in,” said Sharron May, of The May Farm, about the United State’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels. “We’ve procrastinated as long as we could and now it’s becoming more critical.”
Benzie Solar Initiative
The concept driving the Benzie Solar Initiative is simple: It is a buying group. Anybody can join by paying a $100 one-time membership fee. When the group has enough members to make a large purchase, members will have three packages to choose from. A small, 1kw system (four panels) will have a 6 percent markup over the group’s wholesale price. For a 3kw system the markup drops to 5 percent; 5kw and the markup is only 4 percent.
The group estimates that the smallest package would likely save about $150 per year on an electricity bill.
The four-panel package will likely cost about $4,100, before rebates. All packages are very comprehensive; they include shipping, all necessary construction permits, the net metering arrangement with the utility—which will reduce the monthly power bill to reflect the amount of electricity the panels generate—sales tax, and the group markup. The panel owners can also apply for a federal tax rebate of 30 percent of the panels’ cost – cutting the predicted cost of the four-panel package to $2,870.
The group, however, wants to do more than just purchase solar together. Members say they will set aside roughly half the money the group collects from markups and membership fees for a community solar-focused project. Members will vote to select a project—it could be anything from scholarships or community education campaigns to funding for public-spirited grant proposals or installing solar on a local school.
The Benzie Solar Initiative also aims to educate others in the community about the benefits of sun power and encourage conversations in the region by reaching out through public awareness and education campaigns.
“I’m trying to spread the enthusiasm for the renewable energy of solar,” said Stratton.
Benefits of Being a Member
Being a member of the Benzie Solar Initiative provides benefits that purchasing solar as an individual doesn’t.
The simplest benefit is that buying in bulk saves money. Depending on how large the purchase is, the group may get significant discounts from the supplier, including on shipping costs.
In addition, Stratton, who lives mostly off the grid and is eager to share his knowledge and introduce solar to other people, will offer his labor to group members in Benzie at a discounted rate. He’s cutting his hourly rate for home energy installation services from $60 to $40, and is offering a site assessment to members for just $20.
“People are looking for a simpler way into solar,” Votruba said. “Even people who are really interested in solar energy find that it’s really confusing and when you’re going into it alone, you just see that huge dollar figure and you have no idea how you’re going to start thinking about your options.”
She said the Benzie group offers “a safe entry into alternative energy.”
May agreed, adding that a group is often more powerful than an individual because it builds a network.
“When you’re in a group you have more support with the different skills that people bring,” she said. “It helps with bringing more awareness to the community as a whole.”
Karen Roberts, another Benzie Solar Initiative member, said, “I do hope that the effect of this grows beyond the group who has been participating so far…I’m not sure what will materialize, but it would be great if it became more accessible to more people and institutions in the community.”
Zoë McAlear is an intern in the Communications department. She can be reached at [email protected].