Posted: Aug 01, 2016 11:58 AM EDTUpdated: Aug 02, 2016 3:50 PM EDT
By Shannon Dawson, INPower Editor
GRIFFITH -The owners of Midwest Wind and Solar in Griffith say they’re still realizing the benefits of taking part in a solarization campaign that linked them to residents and municipalities in the northwest part of the state.
The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) partnered with several other agencies on the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative Rooftop Solar Challenge in 2015, and Midwest Wind and Solar was chosen as the exclusive installer for the Solarize campaign going forward.
The SunShot Initiative was designed as a national collaborative effort to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade. NIRPC Director of Environmental Programs Kathy Luther says that translates into streamlining the process of accessing solar energy for potential residential, commercial and municipal customers.
“A lot of the grant we received for the initiative was actually focused on educating municipalities, increasing familiarity with solar and reducing the costs of solar by focusing on soft costs, or red tape,” explains Luther. “For example, it typically costs three times as much to install residential solar in the United States as it does in Germany, even though the equipment is the same. Those two-thirds added cost are in things like time, labor and permitting.”
NIRPC and Midwest Solar worked through seminars, workshops and other education programs to bring participants in four municipalities – Hobart, Gary, Dyer, and Valparaiso – up to speed on the latest technology in solar installations and, importantly, inspector training.
“We started meeting with local officials about permitting, zoning and unnecessary barriers,” says Luther. “Areas that are unfamiliar with solar might require extra steps, extra inspections or have zoning or code amendments. We had a lot of inspector training and workshops in all four communities and were able to offer a lower overall cost for interested parties through a single installer.”
Marc van Dongen is the managing director and co-owner of Midwest Wind and Solar, which serves not only Indiana, but also Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota. He says the company’s participation in the program revealed solid support and excitement for solar energy in northwest Indiana.
“We were able to take our best practices from other places in Indiana and from around the country to show that streamlined processes can be integrated in a way that is sound, reliable, safe and fast enough.”
Luther and van Dongen agree that solar energy, especially for residential customers, can be a tough sell. Electricity is still considered very affordable for most Hoosiers and the return in electrical savings on solar can take years. Still, van Dongen finds that while the initial number of installations was relatively low, they continue to pay off.
“We very much see a trickle down from all of it. It’s a wonderful surprise at times that people call us and say, ‘You installed for so-and-so. We are way down in Indiana, but after talking to those people, can you come down here?’ We’re also seeing residential customers that lead us to business customers, who lead us to other business customers.”
“We’ve had great partners on this project,” says Luther. “NIPSCO has been great as well, and having everyone working together really smoothed the way. It was great to see how some communities were surprised at the level of interest in adding solar.”
Van Dongen forecasts the future of that interest in municipal buildings, via even more partnership programs. Schools, police departments and fire departments currently cannot take advantage of the 30 percent federal tax credit for going solar. He sees finance companies and investors stepping in to facilitate programs that will bring solar into reach for public agencies as well.