Above: Ken Zebarah, Harvest Solar's director of commercial sales for Michigan and Indiana. DON'T MISS: Tune into Groundwork's Facebook Livestream, 3pm, Thursday, September 19, 2019, for a live conversation with Ken to learn more about this dynamic company.
Ushering in a Clean Energy Transformation on Michigan Farms
This year’s Harvest at the Commons (October 12) could be called “Harvest, to the second power” because Harvest Solar has signed on as the Harvest event’s top “Providing Sponsor.” The company is one of Michigan’s leading solar installation firms. You can see their handiwork right now in a 2.2 megawatt solar field being constructed just west of Traverse City on M-72—power for the customers of Traverse City Light & Power. We are honored that Harvest Solar is partnering with us to put on Michigan’s largest farm to table dinner event. We met up with Ken Zebarah, director of commercial sales for Michigan and Indiana, to get inside Harvest Solar’s solar business a bit and find out what drew the company to Harvest at the Commons
Share a little bit about Harvest Solar’s roots.
We started in 2006 doing wind turbines for farms in the Midwest. And the company grew, but then it really took off about 2010, when the solar market started to grow and we shifted to that direction. The market really drove us to sell medium scale solar installations to farmers in the Midwest.
A number of reasons. The financial benefits are clear to farmers and there are grants and tax breaks available. And farmers have both a sustainability mindset and an independent mindset. They grow their own crops. It makes sense to them to generate their own electricity. So we found that sweet spot selling solar to farmers. But also, the owner of the company, Mark Olinyk, at one time back in the ’80s, was a farm manager on one of the largest farms in Michigan. He loves the farming community and really wanted to stay involved. We are now also doing a lot of larger scale projects with utilities and we have a residential branch as well, but medium scale projects for farming will always be important to us and is still our main business.
It seems solar has especially had success on farms in northwest Lower Michigan. What do you think explains that?
There is a lot of sustainable farming here, as Groundwork knows since you helped build that market. There is a lot of farming in the whole state, but outside of northwest Lower Michigan it is mostly commercial row crops and not so much of the specialty crops and organic farming and the local community part of farming. Plus here you have a lot more farm to table, farm to school, and organic, and you have families who are more health conscious. All of that, that mindset, matches well with solar because it’s about creating your own energy, and it’s clean energy that’s good for the environment. Combine that with the grants and tax incentives I mentioned and it just makes a really good fit.
The first rows of solar panels at the Traverse City installation reflect a late summer sky. Installed by Harvest Solar.
What kind of changes have you seen in the past five years that have led to the remarkable momentum we are now seeing in clean energy?
Well, there have been a number of things. First, there are changes in the industry. Solar panels are a bit more efficient and the prices have dropped a bit. But really, the biggest change is in the mindset of the customer. Today there is a willingness to go solar even when there is a lukewarm return on investment. A while back, people wanted a payback in less than five years. But now when we are looking at an eight- to 15-year payback, it’s a completely different reaction. As long as the customer sees money back during the life of the solar panels, they will consider it. They think, I’m no longer polluting. And that means a lot to a lot more people today. There is a growing awareness of climate change. Plus, there are a lot fewer unknowns in solar today. People see their neighbors went solar and it’s working. Today’s panels have a warranty to produce 80–85% of original productivity at the 25-year mark. You legitimately have a 30-year productive life and well possibly beyond.
My sense is there is a big disconnect between what is possible today with solar and what the general public understands is possible. What are you seeing?
Yes, there is an enormous disconnect between what industry knows is possible and what the public thinks is possible. I sometimes feel 90% of my job is just educating people about how this all works. The questions are always the same. Does the energy go into a battery? Does it work on cloudy days? What about when the power goes out? People still think there’s not enough sun in Michigan to make solar work—of course there is! But I am always willing and happy to clarify all of these details and paint a clear picture of how solar would work (or in some cases might not!) for anyone's situation because every situation is different.
So Harvest Solar came in as the top sponsor of our wonderful Harvest at the Commons dinner. Thank you so much for that. I’m wondering if you can shed some light on how that support came about?
Sure. I attended the event last year, and I saw three or four existing happy customers. And I saw the large portion of people involved with local farming, local food, local sustainability, and I saw how perfect of a match it would be. The people at the dinner are the people—farmers and others—who support that whole mindset I described earlier. Self-sustaining, farm to table, farm to school … that whole self-sustaining, community-based is what we want to be involved with and attached to. And we are extremely grateful for all the work that we have been blessed with in northwest Michigan in recent years, so this was one way to say thank you.
Newly installed supports await solar panels in the 2.2 megawatt solar field that's part of the renewable energy infrastructure that will be needed to hit Traverse City's 100% clean energy goals: Carbon-free by 2040.
LISTEN IN! Radio host Christal Frost invites Groundwork's event guru Miriam Owsley and farmers Bailey Samp and John Dindia, of Lakeview Hill Farm, to talk Harvest at the Commons and the local food heart of this AWESOME event!
Volunteer Shifts and Tickets Online!
Harvest at the Commons tickets available online! KICK IT UP! Reserve a table for 8!