Hidden Solar Panels on Decorah Businesses

If the sun shines on a solar panel but no one’s there to see it, does it make a watt?

Ok, so that’s not so much an ancient proverb, but I think it’s fitting in our current day and age. Solar panels are being installed at a tremendous rate these days with fewer and fewer in high visibility locations. One might never know that there are over 80 kilowatts (kW) of installed solar photovoltaics (PV) right in downtown Decorah. In fact many may never know about the solar installations downtown.

In our minds we picture solar panels prominently displayed on angled residential rooftops, shroud in the mysterious aura of science tech blue. Rarely do we think of a solar array on a commercial rooftop, lonely, hidden and quietly at work escorting solar electrons onto the grid. Yet, the expanse of sun drenched roof space downtown holds some of the best potential for solar, and as prices continue to plummet, that’s perhaps where we will be seeing the largest growth of solar installs.

Many are aware of the solar panels recently installed on the roof of Decorah Bank and Trust. The Energy District has on multiple occasions mentioned this and other wonderful projects inline with the bank’s commitment to sustainability. What many may not know, however, are that three new solar projects have gone up on downtown Decorah buildings this past year, two in the last few months? Dr. Brad Schwartz of Oneota Valley Eye Care, John Dambek of Pizza Ranch and Lee Zook owner of the Central Block building, have all made the decision to get a significant amount of their electric power from the sun.

Oneota Valley Eye Care built and moved into their Water Street location in the later months of 2012. The large system that sits out of sight on the roof top wasn’t exactly drawn into the plans of the new building from the get go. “During construction we needed to remove a few trees.” Dr. Schwartz recounts of the day he decided to move forward with plans for solar. “Looking at the building one day I started pondering if solar might be a nice fit and moments later I received a call from Joe Grimstad asking if I had considered the option. It seemed like divine intervention.”

It was relatively easy for Dr. Schwartz to add plans to include the necessary build out for the solar addition. Efficiency improvements were also made to increase the percentage of total energy use provided by the solar system. “With all the glasses displays we have a lot of lighting so we went with LEDs.” Dr. Schwartz also noted that the new building uses roughly the same amount of electricity as the old facility even though it has three times the footprint.

“It’s a perfect fit,” states Dr. Schwartz when asked why he chose to install the solar system. “We were looking at making the building eco friendly anyway, we had the roof space, the system would be out of sight and the economics penciled out. To me it was a no brainer.”

For the Central Block building, Lee Zook’s goal for the 2.5 kW system will be to match the annual electrical consumption of building’s second floor residential space. The addition of the 10 panel solar array is actually phase two of the many energy improvements accomplished by Lee over the past year. Lee participated in the Energy District’s cost-share program, which helped him define cost effective efficiency practices for the building, and assisted in identifying sources of financial incentives. After the accomplished efficiency measures, Lee was able decrease the overall size of the solar array to meet the goals of the system.

Like so many others who have made the leap to solar, Lee’s decision falls right on the point where environmental awareness meets economic sense. “I’m fortunate to be able to make the investment and I believe sustainability is important,” he says before adding, “saving money is fun and I also have two son’s that push me.” Lee relates the decision to install solar PV with the decision to own a hybrid vehicle. “I really enjoy playing the game of energy savings,” he says. “I enjoy driving my car because I like the game of trying to ‘best my score’. I know that I’ll enjoying watching my solar production and electric savings in much the same way.”

Lee was also quick to jump into solar because he’s well aware that a major contributing factor to bottom line economics of the decision will be going away at the end of the year. Alliant has announced that they will be pulling the plug on their solar incentive. Alliant customers (nearly everyone in the city of Decorah) thinking about solar have until the end of the year to capitalize on a roughly 30% rebate for all installed solar PV systems. Once Alliant pulls this incentive, there is very little chance that the opportunity will come around again. For Lee, taking advantage of Alliant’s rebate along with other state and federal incentives, dropped his out of pocket costs by more than $6k and dropped the payback period from 16 years to just over 5 year; a ‘no-brainer’ on all accounts.

As opposed to these well-hidden never-to-be-seen systems, the Pizza Ranch solar array is actually hard to miss. The 22.44-kilowatt system (enough solar to power about 4 Decorah homes) takes up the entirety of the south-facing roof. “Already, many customers have taken the time to comment on the new look of the building,” owner John Dambek mentions. “One person even came in and just wanted to say he appreciated what we’re doing.”

When asked why he decided to put up the solar system, John smiles and says, “I’d like to say that putting up solar was for altruistic reasons but really it was more of a business decision.” Much the same as the Central Block building process, John made many efficiency improvements to the Pizza Ranch building before taking the step to included Solar. It comes down to cold hard economics. At current electric rates, the 88 panel system and all the efficiency improvements are expected to payback in just over 8 years with electric savings around $4,500 each year.

The solar system’s visibility is something that John seems to have grown fond of from a marketing perspective. “It certainly grabs your attention, he says.” In fact, John is already pondering the addition of wind power to his renewable portfolio. “I’ve been thinking about a small wind turbine in the back lot and maybe a couple small vertical wind towers. I think they could look pretty cool and attract attention.”

Monitor Pizza Ranch’s online live solar production dashboard. Here you’ll be able to view how much solar energy Pizza Ranch has produced today, over the past week or month and the total production to date.

Keep tabs on a few other solar energy systems in and around Decorah by visiting the Energy’s District’s new solar online dashboard at tools.energydistrict.org/rmap.

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