The Rapidian

David LaGrand: Harnessing the sun

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

After doing current research, I realized that solar power had had recent massive shifts in costs and efficiency that suddenly made solar power more attractive.
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David LaGrand was born in Grand Rapids and graduated from Calvin College and the University of Chicago Law School. After working as an Assistant Kent County Prosecutor, LaGrand formed a private law practice. LaGrand has formed several small businesses including Four Friends Coffeeshop and the Wealthy Street Bakery. In 2007, LaGrand was elected to the Grand Rapids City Commission. David lives near downtown with his wife Melissa and their four children. He is a member of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.

I became interested in solar power applications long ago, but back in the 70’s, there were good arguments against solar power: high costs, questionable durability, and the irony that the energy costs involved in creating the panels often exceeded the lifetime energy production of the panels themselves, to name a few.

In more recent years, I’ve been heavily involved in planning and analyzing wind power projects. The coast of Lake Michigan has huge potential for wind production, although wind power is only economically defensible in large scale operations.

Because of my interest in wind power, our family even went as far as to install a small wind turbine at our family cottage. The experience was fun, but served as confirmation that small wind production simply doesn’t make sense if your goal is to invest in order to reduce your own energy footprint. Those of you who want to see the math can go to my Facebook page, but the bottom line is that our turbine produces at best a .1% return on investment.

After doing current research, I realized that solar power had had recent massive shifts in costs and efficiency that suddenly made solar power more attractive. When I did the math, I realized that solar power is not merely attractive, but that a compelling case can now be made for residential investment in solar power. I now am convinced that we are primed for a huge rollout of investment in solar power, and that the primary impediment to that investment is simply that consumers don’t know how easy solar production can be for investors, whether those investors are home owners or business owners.

Solar panels have dropped massively in price in the past few years, and design and efficiency have undergone huge improvements in the past decades. In fact, panels are so reliable and proven that all major manufacturers offer long warrantees, and typically guarantee power production for twenty years.

Michigan is obviously not the best place in the world to capture solar power, but even so, we can expect the equivalent of 4-5 hours of full power per day from a solar system, allowing for snow and cloudy days.

The most conservative way to price solar power as a consumer is to compare the power produced as though equivalent in price to power bought from the power company. This is a real comparison in some sense, because you can sell solar energy at the price (about 12 cents per kilowatt hour). In Grand Rapids, Consumers Energy is our supplier. It is quite easy to go to their website, find the form, and sign up for an interconnection agreement. That agreement allows the customer to get a bidirectional meter, and then at times when the sun is shinning and you aren’t using the power, the meter rolls backwards and you get one-for-one credit on your monthly bill. When you’re using power, you simply use your own solar power.

Costs change all the time on solar projects, always in the right direction. As of now (Feb. 2011), here is the rough cost vs. income analysis on a 6 kilowatt installation.

The Math

Panels (235 W)                            $2.00 per watt

Rails to install on roof                   30¢  per watt

Inverter                                            50¢ per watt

Electrician                                      50¢ per watt

Roofer                                             20¢ per watt

Total Cost                                  = $3.50 per watt

Less 30% federal tax credit: net cost $2.45 per watt


System Output =  4 watt hours per day per installed watt x 365 days

=1460 watt/hrs per year

=1.5 kw/hr per year per installed watt


Approximately 7 ½ % return on investment

A few notes:

a)      This analysis assumes good placement on an unshaded south facing roof

b)      The federal tax credit is immediate, so comes off the bottom line cost of installation and is east to document

c)      Installation: Solar systems are not hard to install. Don’t listen to anyone who wants to make the process hard or mysterious so they can inflate these costs by selling you a “package.”

Any competent roofer can install solar panels quickly and cheaply. Usually two workers take about a day to put a system up.

Any competent electrician can hook the panels up to your electrical panel. These are the only two contractors you need, and with a couple of phone calls, you can hire them yourself. If you’re in the Grand Rapids area, I used Willink Construction and Ardmore Electric, so they know how to install a system now.

One final note: CELEBRATE! Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know that the benefits of solar power vastly exceed the conservative analysis I just supplied. Global warming is real. West Michigan electricity comes from coal. This is imported, poisons the air and water, and is finite. The true cost of coal power is far more than the 12¢ per kilowatt we pay on our bills.

The 9 kilowatts our family has installed make us net producers of electricity. Of course, once we get our electric car that will change, but by then I plan to have a least another 8 kilowatts on the roof.

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