NIRPC Rolls Out Program to Reduce Solar Energy “Soft Costs” in NW Indiana

Posted by Laura Arnold  /   November 26, 2014  /   Posted in Net Metering, Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO)  /   No Comments

Program to help residents use solar energy nears reality

November 11, 2014 9:00 pm • Lauri Harvey Keagle, (219) 852-4311

PORTAGE | A program that would make it more affordable to use solar energy in Northwest Indiana is scheduled to roll out in the spring after more than a year of planning.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission in November 2013 received a $90,000 Solar Ready II grant from the U.S. Department of Energy aimed at making solar power a cost-effective option in the region.

NIRPC was one of nine municipal planning organizations in the nation to receive the funding.

Kathy Luther, environmental director for NIRPC, is leading the project. Luther said the cost of solar installations has decreased substantially, but still run about $30,000 for an average home.

The program aims to reduce what Luther calls "soft costs" such as permitting, customer acquisition, marketing, financing and inspections.

"We're not moving the needle on it administratively with soft costs," Luther said. "We're trying to change that."

Studies show streamlining the permitting process can reduce costs by 12 percent and cut the time needed to issue permits by nearly half, she said.

Luther is working to draft a solar-ready zoning code that can be adapted and adopted by local municipalities.

Gary, Hobart, Beverly Shores and Munster have all expressed interest in the program, Luther said.

Luther's goal is to get 10 local governments to adopt best management-practices policies to coincide with NIPSCO's open enrollment for the utility's net-metering program in March.

NIPSCO's net-metering program allows customers to link solar energy operations to the public utility company's grid. Users can then tap into NIPSCO's electricity when solar power is low, and sell energy back to NIPSCO when solar power is generated in excess of their needs.

Not your father's solar panels

Luther said she is working to dispel the myth that the technology is still in its infancy and is not aesthetically pleasing.

"It's been around 30 years," she said. A California-based study found homes with solar panels sold 20 percent faster and had 17 percent greater values than those without them, she said.

"They can make solar panels almost invisible in classic, historic downtowns," Luther said, saying some resemble shingles.

The project can also help the local economy, she said.

"We have Fronius USA right across the street from us, the leader in the U.S. in solar panels," she said. "They want to see installations in our region so they can do studies and research."

The Fronius USA facility in Portage builds inverters.

Group purchasing can help drive down the costs, which is a key goal of the program. Luther hopes to present to local chambers of commerce to see if banks might become partners to assist with financing.

The first step, Luther said, is to select an installer. NIRPC plans to issue a request for proposals for an installer soon and to have one selected by January, she said.

Marketing and workshops, enrollment, site assessments, decisions and installations would follow selection of the installer.

Luther said many wrongly believe Northwest Indiana does not get enough sun to effectively generate solar energy.

"Yeah, we're not Arizona, but we're not Alaska either, so we should be able to do something," Luther said.

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