Solar power users in Elkhart County – many Amish – seek self-sufficiency, care of creation

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   April 24, 2017  /   Posted in 2017 Indiana General Assembly, Net Metering, solar, Uncategorized  /   No Comments

Solar power users in Elkhart County – many Amish – seek self-sufficiency, care of creation

Solar power users in Elkhart County – many Amish – seek self-sufficiency, care of creation


NAPPANEE — Brian Burkholder's customers use solar energy to power everything from electric sports cars to buggy light batteries.

Burkholder is president of Solar Energy Systems in Nappanee, which started with off-grid installations and soon expanded into systems that tie into the power grid. An electrician by trade, he was drawn to solar power by curiosity and liked the results enough that he decided to go into business.

His nine full-time employees regularly service an area that stretches from Detroit to Indianapolis, though they've also done installations in five countries and 24 other states. Their customers include schools, churches, businesses, farms and homes, he said during an open house for his company Thursday.

"Not one of my customers has said they regret switching to solar," he said.


Burkholder estimated that about a third of his customers are Amish, like himself, who often use solar power to replace or supplement gas-powered generators. He pointed out 12-volt refrigerators and freezers in his showroom that can run off solar panels, and noted there are washing machines available too.

About 200 of his customers in northern Indiana are completely self-sufficient, or nearly so, he said.

"It's very, very popular, because we're all about self-sufficiency," Burkholder said.

Amish families are the main customers for Wayne Eash, president of Photon Electric of Millersburg. He estimated that commercial customers make up about 10 percent of his businesses and agricultural another 15 to 20 percent, while all the rest are residential.

"There are no English people in the area who'll use a generator if a power grid is available," Eash said. "There are English people with agriculture barns, but a generator isn't their prime power source."

Wind and solar power adoption are common enough among the Amish that Chris Godlewski, Elkhart County planning and development director, said he sees them included in building plans from the start.

"It seems like when they do a barn project, they incorporate it rather than making it an add-on later," he said.

Eash said in a cost comparison of fuel to solar over time, the solar option makes perfect sense. He calculated that the initial cost of installing a solar system is made up in fuel savings after three to six years, depending on the price of gasoline.

"In the agriculture world, if you have to run a generator 24/7, a solar system is a no-brainer," he remarked.


For the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, covering a quarter of their energy needs with an array of solar panels is about more than just saving money. It's part of a larger responsibility of caring for creation by reducing the campus's carbon footprint, Admissions Counselor Janeen Bertsche Johnson said during a dedication ceremony Thursday.

Seminary leaders and attendees of the Rooted and Grounded conference under way at the time gathered to extend hands toward the 180 ground-mounted 330-watt panels on the south side of campus. They also received a blessing, which extolled them to be empowered by the sun and the Son, and sang a hymn, "Yonder Come Day."

The $121,000 project follows 10 years of green initiatives, from keeping beehives in the courtyard and planting wildflowers to cut down on lawn mowing, to making the library Gold Level LEED-certified with rain gardens, triple pane windows and a closed-loop deep well geothermal heat pump system. The solar array was a Master of Business Administration capstone project by seminary Director of Development Missy Kauffman Schrock.

It generated some interest among other members of the interdenominational Seminary Stewardship Alliance, who are all similarly dedicated to creation care, Bertsche Johnson noted.

"We care about how Christians think about the world, about how they act toward the world and about our witness. This is a way to say to the community, there are things you can do to be more sustainable," she said. "We believe part of a good theological education includes learning ways to relate to nature -- creation, I suppose we would say."


Indiana Senate Bill 309 squelches innovation on energy

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   April 24, 2017  /   Posted in 2017 Indiana General Assembly, Net Metering, solar  /   No Comments

As technology and finance leaders, we are bullish about many aspects of Indiana – its collaborative, hard-working culture, its first-rate universities, its low cost of living, its commitment to upgrading its infrastructure and its favorable tax climate.

We, however, have serious concerns about Senate Bill 309 –  a bill that has drawn overwhelming opposition from the public – becoming law. We urge Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto SB 309.

First, SB 309 would impose numerous roadblocks to customer-owned renewable energy, which would seriously hamper the growth of this promising sector. This bill would deter companies from using their own capital to invest in cost-saving, on-site renewables generation.

Second, SB 309 signals that Indiana is afraid of a vibrant, competitive marketplace when it comes to the renewable energy sector. This is not a good signal to send, when the U.S. solar energy sector alone employs more than triple the number of people in the U.S. coal sector.

Third, SB 309 sends a wrong signal to recent graduates, particularly those in STEM fields. It tells them that Indiana is willing to pass policies that restrict an innovating sector like renewables. That is not helpful in our quest to retain and attract talent to Indiana.

Last, the most important element of SB 309 – pertaining to the value assigned to customer-owned renewable energy that is exported to the grid – is, according to the author of SB 309, “arbitrary.” To seriously overhaul policy pertaining to a high-growth sector in an “arbitrary” way does not bode well for those business leaders, like ourselves, who value data-driven decision-making both with respect to our sectors and with respect to public policy.

We urge the governor to veto SB 309.

The authors

Don Brown, CEO, LifeOmic; founder, Interactive Intelligence

Christopher Baggott, co-founder, ExactTarget; co-founder, Compendium Software; founder & CEO, ClusterTruck

Sam B. Sutphin, managing partner, White River Venture Partners, LP

Jeffrey S. Ton, EVP, Bluelock, LLC

Mark E. Hill, managing partner, Collina Ventures, LLC

Pam Cooper, CEO, Boosterville

Jon Gilman, CEO, Clear Software

Richard D. Waterfield, managing member, Waterfield Capital LLC

Kelly Pfledderer, founder, former CEO, Apparatus

David Kerr, CEO, Octiv

Anthony S. Serianni, president/CEO, Omicron Biochemicals Inc.

Aman Brar, former president, Apparatus

John Maxwell Yoder, CEO, Lessonly

Eric Christopher, co-founder and CEO, Zylo

Bill Johnson, CEO, Salesvue

John McDonald, CEO, Clear Object

Solar proponents fear bill could hurt fast-growing industry taking hold in Elkhart County

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   April 23, 2017  /   Posted in 2017 Indiana General Assembly, Net Metering, solar  /   No Comments

Solar proponents fear bill could hurt fast-growing industry taking hold in Elkhart County

Solar proponents fear bill could hurt fast-growing industry taking hold in Elkhart County


Wayne Eash finds himself doing as many solar power installations per month now as he did in a whole year when he first started.

Eash is president of Photon Electric of Millersburg, which formed in 2014 with the merger of two other companies – though his experience goes back about 10 years. He said the company installs 12 to 15 solar power systems a month, which is as many as he used to do in a year when he started "from scratch."

"In the first five years ... we had a 10-time increase in sales, then three-times and two-times," he said, attributing the growth largely to the spread of positive word-of-mouth. "Right now it's not doubling, but I'd say we have a 50 percent increase in sales every year."

He also added about 12 employees in the last four years, who are now among the 2,700 people statewide whose jobs are directly tied to solar power. The state saw a 72 percent increase between 2015 and 2016 alone, adding about 1,130 solar industry workers, according to the advocacy group The Solar Foundation.

That puts Indiana at 28th in the nation for solar jobs and 30th for solar jobs per capita. It's a higher rate of growth in that time than Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, though Indiana's total number of solar jobs remains lower.


The industry's growth comes even as the Indiana Legislature moves to cut utility credits for wind and solar power. Senate Bill 309, awaiting a decision by Gov. Eric Holcomb, would revamp the state's net metering policy, lowering by 75 percent the rate customers are paid for pumping excess power generated by their solar devices into the grid.

Brian Burkholder, president of Solar Energy Systems in Nappanee, another solar power installer, has been to Indianapolis to speak against the bill. He said it would not only discourage the adoption of solar power by lengthening the amount of time it takes to recoup the initial purchase price, it could also raise food prices by hurting farmers who grow using solar.

Burkholder also fears it could signal a return to fossil fuels, which he said are responsible for health problems for southern Indiana residents.

"The bill is not anti-solar but pro-coal, pro-pollution," Burkholder said. "If it goes through, we'll have all kinds of pollution problems. I see it as a one-sided conversation. It's all about the utilities and nothing about the installer or customer. There's no true benefit at all."

Under the current net metering rate, Eash estimated that a solar installation tied into the power grid will pay for itself after 16 to 18 years. An off-the-grid solar system, typically used to replace or supplement gas-powered generators, pays for itself in fuel savings in three to six years, he said.

But Eash noted the initial cost is enough to turn some people away.

"Once they hear the price, some people say, 'Woah, we'll stay on the grid after all,'" Eash said. "Some decide it's easier to pay a fuel bill than to get a loan for $40,000 or $50,000."

He added that installing enough solar cells to power a large operation like a big chicken barn can cost as much as $150,000. He's only seen one of those in Elkhart County.

But Burkholder reasons that if you can afford a car, you can afford solar power.

"From an investment standpoint, nothing beats solar in payback,"  he said. "There are no ongoing costs after installation."


About 1,000 properties in unincorporated areas of Elkhart County currently have solar installations, estimated Chris Godlewski, director of county planning and development. He said a lot of that activity has occurred in the past 10 years.

Another 28 to 30 permits have been issued for solar installations in Goshen, many since 2011.

Nappanee has issued about five in the last five years, said Don Lehman with the city zoning department, including a 68.6-kilowatt system at McCormick Motors finished in 2016. He said most installations near town are just far enough outside the limits that they're permitted by the county instead.

Goshen and Nappanee are both trying to make it easier to install solar power arrays by meeting the guidelines of the SolSmart program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and awards gold, silver or bronze certifications. Nappanee Mayor Phil Jenkins said it would build on the community's interest in using alternative energy to reduce utility bills and potentially provide backup power.

"We believe the SolSmart program will ultimately make solar more affordable and accessible while strengthening local economic development and attracting solar developers to the region," he said in a statement announcing the effort in February. "Designation will reduce uncertainty for residents and businesses and signal to the solar market that Nappanee is 'open for business.'"

The process includes updating definitions for solar power systems in city code, which Lehman said were a little out of date.

"When it was written, solar was the farthest thing from anybody's mind," he said. "We're also taking roof mounts and ground mounts and looking at the difference between them. We want them permitted and inspected so they can be installed safely."

Preparations also focus on safety by training firefighters to respond to a photovoltaic system fires and training inspectors on building and electrical codes for solar installations, said Leah Thill, an adviser working with Goshen, Nappanee and South Bend city officials on their SolSmart preparations. She expects them to be ready to apply soon.

"Because Goshen and Nappanee are small communities, their permitting and inspection progress is generally faster and more efficient than larger cities," she said. "I expect Goshen and Nappanee will be ready to apply for designation within a month."


Thill said installers throughout Indiana are seeing an uptick in requests from residents, businesses and public K-12 schools because of deadlines in SB 309. Systems installed before Dec. 31, 2017, would still get 30 years of net metering under the current rate.

If SB 309 is signed into law, people who install solar systems by 2022 will have a 15-year grace period. After 2022, new net metering customers will only receive the lower rate.

Advocates also point to lower costs and greater efficiency in encouraging customers to consider solar. Thill said the price has declined 40 percent in the past five years, while Burkholder said solar panels produce more power per square foot and inverters, which convert direct current power from the cells into useable alternating current power, have reached 99.5 percent efficiency.

Godlewski isn't sure how much the potential loss in net metering is discouraging people from considering solar power. He noted the county recently heard two requests to allow solar arrays to be built, one in Jackson Township south of Goshen and one in Union Township northeast of Nappanee.

The county Board of Zoning Appeals heard Thursday that the 304 ground-mounted solar panels proposed for Brookins Farms in Jackson Township would offset their energy costs, while the Union Township property was "the perfect spot" for another ground array. The board approved both requests.

"Even with that discussion, we still have the two variance requests," Godlewski observed. "It's not stopping these two people."


Kokomo Tribune Editorial: Gov. should veto solar bill-SB 309

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   April 23, 2017  /   Posted in 2017 Indiana General Assembly, Net Metering, solar, Uncategorized, wind  /   No Comments

Editorial: Governor should veto solar bill

Kokomo Tribune Editorial Board

A bill which would make it less desirable to use renewable energy in our state, Senate Bill 309, is headed to the desk of Gov. Eric Holcomb. If he signs it, Hoosiers will be seeking to harness renewable energy will be stymied unnecessarily for years to come.

As CNHI Statehouse Reporter Scott L. Miley reported his front page story Saturday, the controversial bill has already passed both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly despite heavy opposition.

“Environmental groups have opposed SB 309 because it would disallow net metering for anyone installing solar or wind systems after July 1, 2022,” he reported. “Net metering is the system by which solar panel or wind turbine owners receive reimbursements after sending excess energy to local utilities. The process is seen as an incentive for more energy users to install solar or wind devices.”

The timing of this potential debacle on the same weekend as Earth Day is truly amazing. Climate change is real. Fossil fuels are a finite resource. We need to be doing everything we can to encourage people in this state to move away from the unsustainable track we’re on. Other states are taking steps forward, while we contemplate jumping backward.

 This isn’t just a tree-hugging, bleeding-heart issue. This is about jobs. As Miley reported over a dozen executives from the state’s technology and finance industry have pointed to the job killing potential of this bill, saying it would “impose numerous roadblocks to customer-owned renewable energy, which would seriously hamper the growth of this promising sector.”

We have to start thinking differently on this issue. Besides pacifying special interest groups with an agenda, there’s no reason to move forward with this legislation.



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