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Wednesday, 15 January 2014 21:53

Energy initiative aims to install solar on the cheap in Michigan

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Despite claims that Michigan’s climate is less than ideal for widespread solar energy production, one new program aims to show solar is both possible and scalable in the state.

Making solar power affordable and cost-competitive with other forms of alternative energy production — as well as countering misconceptions about its viability — have been the biggest hurdles to making the technology accessible to more people.

But those challenges aren’t enough to deter Novi-based SRI Energy LLC founder Prasad Gullapalli from an ambitious goal to install solar photovoltaic systems across the state.

With the help of partners including Grand Rapids-based Alliance for Environmental Sustainability (AES) and Eco Works in Detroit, SRI Energy plans to install 6,000 individual commercial and residential solar installations across the state by 2016, including 1,000 in West Michigan.

“Our strategy is to solarize communities across the state of Michigan,” Gullapalli said. “That’s what this whole program is about.”

SRI Energy is branding its effort as MI Solar Works, which soft-launched last month.

Under the MI Solar Works program, homeowners and businesses interested in solar can have a system installed with no upfront costs. Special financing for the systems is also available for homeowners through the Michigan Saves home energy loan program, under which interest rates are fixed and can’t exceed 7 percent. Homeowners and businesses can also take advantage of the federal 30-percent tax incentive for purchasing a solar system.

The initiative is in part influenced by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Prize. “Race to the Rooftops” challenge that aims to spur low-cost rooftop solar installations across the nation. The competition offers a total of $10 million in cash awards to the first three teams or companies that repeatedly demonstrate that solar can be installed for an average “plug-in price” of less than $1 per watt. The plug-in price focuses on non-hardware costs such as permitting, interconnection and inspection.

To qualify, teams or companies have to install 5,000 new rooftop solar systems before 2015 and 1,000 more before 2016 while averaging $1 per watt for the plug-in price before subsidies.

Gullapalli said he understands the goal is ambitious and he acknowledges the company isn’t completely sure how it will reach the goal, but he is confident in the traction the firm is making around solar energy.

The company continues to work on an official launch as it has ongoing discussions with a number of additional project partners, including local organizations such as the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Gullapalli said.

“For people who want solar, here is a way to put it up and save money on installation,” said Brett Little, executive director of the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability. “If you’re building a new home or commercial business, it’s an opportunity to get involved without paying the high upfront fees.”

When MiBiz spoke with Little, the first 5-kilowatt installation was nearing completion on a home in Muskegon that would be used a model for the MI Solar Works program, he said.

There is some fine print associated with the program, which starts with a short application form found on the AES and SRI Energy websites. Namely, owners of existing buildings must show their utility provider 12 months of electric bills to prove the systems won’t make more electricity than the buildings currently use, Little said.

Proposals that would result in owners making more energy than they would use may be denied. If approved systems end up generating more electricity than the owner uses over the course of a year, the customer will just build a credit on the accounts, Little said.

For new buildings, the utilities need to see electric plans or energy models. 

In a nutshell, SRI Energy wants to offer people and businesses the opportunity to have easier access to clean energy, Gullapalli said.

“That’s the objective,” he said. “We want to set an example and eventually show that — even without incentives and support from the state — these systems work.”

Since he started SRI Energy in 2010, Gullapalli said he’s seen the price of solar systems come down 30 to 40 percent. While he isn’t sure if the market will see the same kind of drop in prices over the next three to four years, the soft costs associated with installations should continue to go down, he said.

“What we are launching here at $3 per watt is a turnkey solution,” Gullapalli said. “At an average cost of $15,000 and with federal incentives, we’re looking at typically an eight- to 10-year payback range.”

Over the next few months, SRI Energy is heading out to communities around the state to introduce the MI Solar Works program.

“Solar works in Michigan,” he said. “We’re looking to make this ‘Race to the Rooftops’ challenge an example of how it can work here.”

Read 7201 times Last modified on Wednesday, 15 January 2014 21:58