Making solar energy more efficient, affordable and easier to install

By Tom Parker

The last thing Cheri Harper wanted to do was to stand in front of a group of semi-strangers and talk about renewable solar energy. It wasn’t due to any lack of knowledge or experience or technical proficiency, or passion, for that matter, because she practically vibrated with intensity when rattling off prices and tax credits and kilowatt hours and returns on investment, but more that she was used to the doing-of-things rather than the telling-of-things.

And yet here she was, a slight, soft-spoken 66-year-old social worker holding the microphone as if it might bite, her voice quavering from nervousness.

“I’m afraid of electricity and I never learned to program a VCR, but I like to be on the roof with my tool belt,” she said. “I like doing things, but I really like putting up solar panels. I’m a social worker, I’m a psychotherapist, but I can install solar panels, and you can, too.”

Harper, vice-president and cofounder of the Flint Hills Renewable Energy and Efficiency Cooperative, Inc. (FHREEC), addressed members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual state convention held mid-December in Topeka. With her were Bill Dorsett, also of FHREEC, and Bill Wood, project developer for Cromwell Solar, located in Lawrence. Patty Clark, State Director for USDA Rural Development in Kansas, also spoke on the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for the purchase or installation of renewable energy systems or energy efficiency improvements.

FHREEC has a unique approach to marketing renewable energy based on neighbors helping neighbors. The company has no paid staff but consists entirely of volunteers who educate and, in many cases, assist homeowners with installing solar panels in what Harper described as an “old-fashioned barn-raising.” In order for homeowners’ insurance policies to provide coverage, volunteers must be invited onto roofs to help in installation. Overall costs are reduced by buying in bulk. “Our goal,” Harper said, “is to make renewable energy and efficiency affordable and available to as many people in the Kansas Flint Hills as possible.”

The cooperative started out by installing solar panels on their own roofs and expanded outward from there, often going house to house and in the process making new friends and new solar energy advocates. In less than three years they have helped others install 42 systems.

Today’s solar technology is not like that of a decade ago or even five years ago, Harper said. Supply costs keep dropping while efficiency keeps rising. An average ten-panel solar system costs around $5,900 before the 30% federal rebate, and with energy utility prices expected to keep climbing, there has never been a better time to install solar panels.

Clark agreed. “This is really, really important for our rural areas,” she said. “Solar makes a huge difference for peak load on the grid. It allows businesses to cut their utilities costs and reduce operating expenses for grocers as well as farmers and ranchers. That could mean as much to operating expenses as commodities prices or an increase in revenue from other sources.”

The REAP program is notably effective for rural grocers, Clark said. It provides grant assistance up to 25 percent of the total cost of eligible projects, and also provides guaranteed loans to small businesses that employ less than 50 employees or have less than a million dollars of capital.

Centralia’s Haverkamp Grocery Store applied for a $31,000 grant for new energy-efficient coolers, and the cost savings in utilities have been substantial, she said. “When they can cut their utility costs, they don’t have to worry as much about increasing their grocery sales,” she said. “One of the toughest challenges our grocery stores have in rural areas is meeting the minimum purchase they have to meet to get their groceries from wholesale suppliers.”

Livestock producers and farmers can also gain from REAP grants, she said. Foster Dairy in Fort Scott applied for a $13,000 grant to upgrade fans in their milking and feeding barns. The grant allowed the business to replace 24 36-inch fans with six news fans, three of them 12-foot and three 16-foot. “They’re new, they’re more energy efficient, and they’re making the barn itself a lot more compatible for the animals when they’re milking,” Clark said. “The environment for the livestock is better.”

REAP grants offer financial assistance toward the purchase, installation and construction of renewable energy systems for eligible agricultural-based projects such as solar generation or anaerobic digesters, and for energy efficiency improvements such as high efficiency HVAC systems, insulation, lighting, electric, solar or gravity pumps for sprinkler pivots, or switching from a diesel to electric irrigation motor. Grants offer up to 25 percent of eligible project costs, and guaranteed loan assistance offers up to 75 percent of eligible project costs. Loan guarantee applications are taken throughout the year, but the next deadline for grants or grant-loan requests is April 30, 2016, Clark said. More information can be found under Programs and Services at the USDA’s Web site.

The future of solar is now, Clark said.

“Solar energy isn’t something that only hippies do,” she said. “It’s something we should all be doing.”