KALAMAZOO, Mich. — "When I've been out in the summertime, mowing my lawn for example, people will stop and ask about it, so others are interested,” said Mary Ann Renz.
Renz had solar panels installed on her roof on the last day of 2016. Since then, she said, she's already reaped the benefits.
"So, there are months when I don't pay for any energy use at all in the summertime,” she said. “Even this past month, I think about half of my electricity bill was paid for by solar, and that's winter time, when the production from my rooftop solar is more limited."
Renz paid $11,446 to have her system installed. It's projected to pay for itself in seven years. Renz said she thinks it’ll be sooner; but to her, saving money is secondary to saving the earth.
She’s active with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group working to get Congress to pass legislation that would incentivize development of renewable energy.
An interest in renewable energy is the same reason Helios Solar, the Kalamazoo company that installed her system, got into the business 10 years ago, when things were completely different.
"Solar 10 years ago was not economically viable at all,” said Sam Field, who is the co-owner of Helios Solar along with his son.
Field said the solar panels of today are 50 percent more efficient, and cost 15 percent of what they did when he started. (The president of Michigan Solar Solutions, Mark Hagerty, said panels cost 25 percent of what they did 10 years ago.) Field said inverters that convert the DC power the panels produce into AC, the kind that powers an average building, cost 10 percent of what they did 10 years ago.
He said solar has been jump started by government incentives and mandates, and has gone from a cottage industry to worldwide. Solar is now economically viable, according to Field.
"We're past the inflection point. We currently are able to provide people with solar equipment at a cost that is lower than what they would pay, certain people, lower than what they would pay the utility for the electricity that the solar provides,” Field said.
He said panels are becoming more mainstream in Michigan. Field said it’s a misconception that solar can’t be viable in cold, cloudy climates. He said Michigan gets 15 percent less power from the sun per panel than a sunny state like Arizona. However, Field said, solar panels are affected by heat, and produce less power the warmer they get. Field said being cooler mostly offsets the lack of sunshine for Michigan.
With the advances in productivity, and the equipment costing less, Field said business has been booming.
“We are so busy this year. we can't keep up with the work we have,” Field said.
Not every house is a good candidate for solar, however, according to Field. In fact, he estimated maybe one 10 meet the requirements.
He said houses must have good sun exposure, and little shading, to be good candidates. South-facing houses work best.
Hagerty said advances in technology have made meeting certain requirements less of an issue for houses going solar. He said when he started in the industry 10 years ago, east and west facing buildings going solar didn’t make financial sense, but it does now. He said northwest and northeast facing buildings are even starting to be viable, and he said north facing houses will eventually.
"My house is eastern facing, and it's shaded, and I haven't paid an electric bill since mid 2015,” Hagerty said. "In the last couple years, the industry has grown leaps and bounds. With the ever-increasing cost of electricity, and the technological innovations of what we do, it now makes complete sense to proceed doing solar in Michigan.
Field said, for houses that are good candidates, every dollar spent on going solar is an eight to 10 cent reduction in someone’s electric bill (in other words, a solar panel installation can pay for itself on average in eight to 10 years), and people who go solar qualify for an investment tax credit that’s 30 percent of the installation price.
He said the more that is spent on solar projects and the bigger they are, the more efficient they become, but he said even smaller scale projects are now viable.
"I'm obviously biased, but I feel like there are certain kinds of buildings that are built in Michigan that it ought to be the law, you have to put solar on it, because it makes so much sense,” Field said.
Beyond financial savings, both Field and Hagerty said there are plenty of environmentally conscious reasons people should go solar as well.
"There's no emissions. There's no fuel. There's no noise, unlike wind. Solar doesn't move, it doesn't make noise. It doesn't vibrate. It doesn't kill birds. You know, and frequently, people don't even know it's there,” Field said.
A modernized version of the solar panel is the solar shingle, which instead of sitting on a roof, replaces the roof.
They're more expensive to install, and Field said not yet economically viable. He said the panels his company use today are very similar to the ones used 50 years ago, because it’s a proven technology that has been fine tuned, and is long lasting.
Hagerty, whose company is based in Wixom, agreed the shingles are not quite viable just yet. His company is just starting to sell and install the shingles, and he said they'll be a niche market starting out.
"They're not quite as efficient as the solar panels, yet,” he said. "As the technology increases, and the factors can continuously pump them out, 24/7, 365, like they do traditional panels, the price will start falling, and when it starts falling, the builders will start adopting them, and they'll be much more mainstream."
Hagerty said he sees a day where all portions of buildings hit by the sun will be built with material that produces power.
As the industry continues to evolve, both men say collaboration between solar companies and utilities will be vital.
Currently, there is contention over net metering, which is the exchange of power between customers and utilities when they produce more or less power than they need.
Field pointed out that many utilities argue they're not getting fair value for the fact they are providing backup power to people with solar installations.
However, Field argues there is a time value to electricity. He said at 2 a.m., nuclear and coal power plants produce power that few people are using. The price of that power on the wholesale market is very little compared to peak hours. He said solar only produces power at peak hours during the day, and that should be factored into the exchange between customers and utilities.
Field again acknowledged his bias, but said he sees going solar continuing to become more commonplace. In the meantime, his company will continue to live by its motto.
"You know, try every year to install as many solar panels as we can before we die.”