Got sun? Local residents will heat water with solar power

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The latest fashion in home remodeling, despite a discrete profile, makes a provocative statement. A glassy roof panel that glints in the sun says “We’re living green on the grid. We’re Kyoto compliant and saving money on our energy bill.” Thanks to a novel pilot program launched by the Southeast Como Improvement Association (SECIA), 39 homes in Southeast Minneapolis and adjacent neighborhoods, including St. Anthony Park and Lauderdale, will soon be sporting solar roof panels that power residential water heaters.

The Solar Pilot Project was conceived in early 2005 by SECIA environmental staff. Housed in a brick office building at 15th Ave. and Kasota, SECIA represents the pie-shaped neighborhood north of Dinkytown and along Como Ave.

SECIA’s idea was to pull together a group of 20 or so residents to get a discount on solar hot water equipment. Innovative Power Systems, one of the few solar equipment installers in the state, is located in the Como neighborhood. One goal of the project was to promote the benefits of solar energy and to make it more available locally.

To reach their goal of at least 20 participants by the end of 2005, SECIA opened up the program to adjacent neighbor-hoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul. By the deadline last December, 39 people had signed up.

Negotiating a group price with Innovative Power Systems resulted in a savings of $1500 per system. The program also helps buyers take advantage of a federal tax credit that’s available until December 2007. Finally, the program helps buyers find low-interest local financing.

Combined, the discount and tax credit reduce the usual cost of a solar thermal heating system by almost half. In addition, the Minnesota Legislature recently passed a measure that exempts solar thermal systems from state tax, resulting in several hundred more dollars in savings.

According to Justin Eibenholzl, environmental coordinator for SECIA, most residential water heating systems use gas or electricity, which is mostly generated by burning coal. Natural gas and coal are finite and expensive resources, Eibenholzl pointed out, while solar energy is abundant and costs nothing.

There is no drilling, mining, processing or transporting of material. Best yet, he said, solar energy creates no air pollution and there is no waste to be disposed of.

Surprisingly, Minnesota gets the same amount of solar energy as some parts of Florida and Texas. Solar panels work well in many urban settings, Eibenholzl said, adding that locations shaded by trees or other buildings are less successful.

Solar thermal water heaters are designed to work with existing water heaters. That backup insures adequate hot water in every season.

Participants will see their systems installed this spring and summer. The program will follow up with surveys through 2008. Participants may also choose to be part of the Minnesota Solar Tour, an annual self-guided tour of homes and other buildings using renewable energy.

Tamiko and Brian Saame, homeowners on Fulham St. in St. Anthony Park, are looking forward to their solar thermal system. The solar panels will sit on a sunny dormer of their Craftsman-style house, built in the early 1920s. Tamiko Saame expects that it will provide plenty of hot water to meet the demands of their family, which includes two young children, and frequent visits from out-of-state family.

“Our number one reason for doing this is we feel it is the right thing to do,” she said. “We believe in alternative energy. In an ideal world we’d like to have a solar electric system too. But it is so expensive that it’s not cost effective right now.”

Saame sees the thermal system paying for itself in savings at current gas prices. Solar heaters are designed to last for many years. They require maintenance every five to ten years.

Saame said she sees no downside except the up-front costs, which she estimates will take 8–10 years to recoup. She also thinks their new solar thermal system will add value to the home because it reduces energy costs.

The Saames found the program appealing because it was presented in a package that included costs and all the information they needed. Tamiko Saame said she would like to see programs like this multiply. “As energy costs go up and the price of the systems comes down, solar energy will catch on.”

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