Not the Center of the Renewable Energy Universe

I live in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. It’s not exactly the center of the universe for renewable energy but it is full of creative energy. One of the best and most unusual examples of that energy is the March Madness Marching Band. It’s a crazy community marching band whose members range from eight years old to eighty. It’s hard to describe how crazy the band looks coming down the street. Everyone creates their own uniforms, they have lights on their instruments, there’s a hula hoop corp, there’s a guy that marches on stilts.

March Madness Marching Band
March Madness Marching Band at HonkTX! in Austin.

I used to play guitar in the band. I built a backpack out of junk that held a battery-powered guitar amp above my head. When you see the band marching down the street, dressed like maniacs, it looks like pure spontaneous fun. But a lot of work goes into it. They practice every week and they recently became a 501c3. In the second part of the show I’ll talk to Derek Wingfield, founding member, sousaphone player and treasurer of March Madness Marching Band to learn about the process of becoming a 501c3. I am really hoping I don’t have to form a non-profit for my clean power community project.

My first guest is Jack Barnett, president of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society. This is the second part of my interview with him. In episode one he told us about the state of solar energy in Kentucky and some of the regulatory challenges that face us. This summer he is moving to Pennsylvania, which is far less restrictive. He has spent the last several summers there and he will tell us what he’s been up to.

JB: We’re going to be moving this summer after my term ends as president of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society. We’ll be relocating but because we’ve been there for several years now I’m already doing certain things there already. I’ve been on the board of a non-profit for the last five years, and the non-profit has been doing a bunch of energy efficiency and renewable energy promotions.

DB: So tell me a little bit about the non-profit that you’re involved with in Pennsylvania and your new project there.

JB: The non-profit is called Sustainable Energy Education Development and Support or SEEDS is the acronym. It’s really a neat group. The interesting thing is they started doing renewable energy by bringing in professional trainers to train the local contractors on solar installations. That is one of the first projects they did back in 2007.
And the good news about that is there were several new solar installer businesses that got started as a result of that training. They got their NABCEP certification.

DB: NABCEP stands for North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners

JB: So that’s been fun. We got a grant last year for that non-profit to put a solar thermal system on a habitat for humanity home and we got an installer there to donate their labor and the grant covered all their equipment. We had to go around and do a survey of about six of the homes that had previously been built by habitat to figure out which one was the best orientation and physical layout for a solar thermal system.

DB: Is that something that Habitat for Humanity does across the country or do you know was that kind of a one time thing?

JB: I think it depends on the local organizations. Habitat for Humanity has done a great deal of work around making energy efficient homes. So I think most Habitat people will say when they build a home it is better than code in terms of its insulation, its heating load and how it’s constructed. And so when we approached the local community in Wayne county they were excited about it and loved the idea of adding solar to one of their homes.

DB: And that was solar thermal systems or photovoltaic?

JB: It was. Solar thermal for hot water. Domestic hot water is, other than heating and air conditioning is the second largest load in an electric house, or energy load period. Now these days I might not recommend solar thermal anymore because with hybrid heat pump water heaters you can probably put a PV system on the house, use the net-metering credits as your “battery” and store up a lot of credits that allow you to heat hot water on the electric side with the hybrid water heater at a lower cost than if you just did a direct thermal system with its large amount of copper.

DB: Really? It was a little disappointing to hear this. During my brief attempt to become a solar installer I did a total of four installations. Two of them were solar thermal.

JB: Yeah, economically it appears that is the cheapest way to do hot water systems for residential scale. If you’re doing space heating or if you’re doing large business applications for heating hot water. That might not be as good, but for residential scale.
They cost more than a traditional hot water tank, like $3,000 vs. $1,200, that includes installation but because it’s so much more efficient for heating hot water from electricity than an element type of tank, then you can generate that electricity from your solar PV system at a much cheaper rate too if you have a PV system.

DB: I’m sure a lot of installers will do solar domestic hot water and PV and maybe do you think they’re seeing fewer of those hot water installations?

JB: Yeah, I saw an article and I passed it around to a few installers in the state and almost all of them said, “yeah that was logical.” I think there’s still place for solar thermal. Pool heating is still a big place to do solar thermal. Some of the industrial or commercial applications where hot water is needed and a lot of it, it still makes sense to do solar thermal. If your roof space is constrained, you can get a lot more energy per square foot of collector from a solar thermal system compared to a PV system. So if you have a limited exposure to the sun and you want to collect as many calories or kilowatts as possible then thermal is a great way to collect more energy in less space for the same amount of energy. But, the thing with solar thermal systems is you’ve got moving parts. You’ve got pumps, valves, controllers, that can fail and need more maintenance, whereas a PV system has no moving parts and the failures and issues when it breaks are much fewer and you don’t have to worry about freezing like you do with solar thermal systems, which can freeze in really cold weather. You’ve got to maintain the system’s antifreeze to the point where it won’t lock up.

DB: I suppose that would make PV systems even more attractive for a scenario like a habitat for humanity house where you don’t want the residents to have to deal with the maintenance or risk of freezing with a hot water system.

JB: Yeah and the warranties on PV systems can be 20 years for the panels, 15 or 10 years minimum for the inverters, so the warranty parts of a solar PV system are just much better than a solar thermal system. SEEDS has done several summer projects and educational programs but we wanted to do the next step up and we couldn’t figure out how to do that as a non-profit.

DB: So they decided to form a cooperative.

JB: And to make the cooperative a separate legal entity and to make it eligible for federal grants we needed it to be a for-profit business rather than a non-profit.

DB: They got together, filled out the paperwork, and launched the Clean Energy Cooperative,

JB: based in Pennsylvania, that is eligible to apply to the USDA grant program called Rural Energy for America Program, REAP. And REAP is a really neat set of grants and loans, available in rural areas of the country, or any agricultural business regardless of where it’s located. This year, 2015 they’ve got 100 million dollars of funding for grants and loans which is twice the normal amount. Rural businesses, agricultural businesses anywhere, small businesses in rural communities can apply to if for efficiency program improvements for their business, or farms can get solar energy systems installed. The grants will pay for up to 25% of the system cost to install and I don’t remember the loan conditions but our cooperative in Pennsylvania will be using that grant to install a 30 kW system on a non-profit building.

DB: They looked around for a non-profit to work with and found a community center in Homesdale, Pennsylvania that hosts music performances and plays and family game night and a farmers market and all kinds of things. It’s an old cooperage building where they used to build barrels like we see a lot around Kentucky for bourbon…

DB: Here’s a little known fact, In Kentucky we actually have more bourbon barrels than people.

JB:…but they built barrels for other purposes there. But that cooperage building had been vacant for many years until somebody bought it and renovated it as a community center. We’re going to put a 30 kW PV system on it financed by the cooperative and this 25% grant from the USDA hopefully.

DB: That’s pretty exciting.

JB: Yeah, it’s a totally different way of funding things. It’s because in Pennsylvania they do allow for these third party power purchase agreements, known as PPAs which we can’t get here in Kentucky.

Kentucky is one of the states where retail power purchase agreements are not allowed due to the utilities’ monopoly rights. Basically no one is allowed to sell power but the utility.

JB: We can finance the system from grants plus we can offer to our co-op membership the ability to buy a preferred share in the co-op for probably $1,000 each. Sales of the preferred shares will fund the remainder of the system cost. If things work out we will be able to pay back those preferred share dividends at 2%, maybe as much as 3% plus pay back the underlying $1,000 capital over a 25 year PPA with the host. So we’re excited about it as a way of financing solar systems for non-profits that has not been easy to do in other places.

DB: So the co-op essentially becomes it’s own little utility and the co-op members are utility investors.

JB: In a way. We don’t think of it as a utility and we don’t want to be regulated as a utility and there are electric cooperatives in lots of places so we’re not going to be a utility per-se but we are in a sense a community that’s self-funding solar systems to benefit the local non-profits and other community organizations. So we might fund one for the hospital, even though it’s a for-profit hospital. We might fund it for cities and municipal buildings. We’re just excited about the ability to say we’re going to take control of our own destiny, put our money where our morals are if you will and spend the money to put solar systems where we live and make a difference with our money locally invested, returns coming back to local people instead of going to utility headquarters and maybe somewhere getting spent by some shareholder benefit that we don’t see much of.

DB: Jack has also built a really highly insulated house in Pennsylvania.

JB: We’re targeting a net-zero environment and we are net-zero but we’re only living there three months of the year so it doesn’t really count. I did a math projection of how much we would spend and we’re not quite there. So it has a 5.5 kW PV system on the garage and has a large, over 230 square foot of thermal collectors to do the radiant floor hydronic heating and domestic hot water so yeah it’s 12 to 14 inch thick walls, most of which is a double studded wall with cellulose insulation, densely packed. The walls are approaching R40+ insulation value. The ceilings are almost R60. I think they’re R58. It’s variable depending on which part of the roof. We did blower door tests to make sure it was well sealed because air flow loss, ventilation issues, unintended ventilation is probably the biggest loss of heat even in well-insulated homes. So I think our calculation was it would take over 11 hours to change out the air volume due to leakage through the walls when we did the blower door test, so that’s better, like 4 to 5 times better than most homes.

DB: Yeah, I’m thinking about my 100 year old house and the windows in my 100 year old house and I’m thinking that number might be like 11 minutes.

JB: Yeah, a lot of the older homes leak really badly and you lose a lot of energy through that leakage, both in the summer for air conditioning and in the winter even worse for heating. So, almost always the most capital beneficial thing you can do for your next dollar of spending on your home is to insulate it or seal it. That’s the first thing to do and it’s always going to be a better return on your money to do that before you do anything with solar. And then efficient appliances, efficient lighting. These days LED bulbs are getting much less expensive. I think last time I was in Home Depot they had a sale on 60 watt equivalent LED bulbs for $8.

DB: Wow that really is cheap.

JB: And when you think about how much that repays that can pay itself off compared to a traditional incandescent in less than two years if your using it 20 hours a week. It’s just amazing how quickly you’ll get repaid.

DB: Yeah and it’s an easy way to start.

JB: Right, right and if you just do the math the payback is just amazing whereas PV systems are still payback of more than 10 years.

DB: Well thanks so much Jack it’s been great to talk to you today. I really appreciate you spending the time with us and good luck getting ready to move to Pennsylvania.

JB: Thanks David. It’s been great being here and I really appreciate your helping to get the word out and spread the news.

I also spoke to my good friend Derek Wingfield, sousaphone player and treasurer for March Madness Marching Band, about the process of creating a 501c3. Wow. That is a lot of work. Check out the episode for the interview.

Music Credits (in order of appearance)

  • Riff Raff – performed by March Madness Marching Band, composed by Tripp Bratton
  • Chatham County Line – Carolinian (Free Music Archive)
  • It’s Almost Over (instrumental) – Isaac Fink and Avery Reidy
  • Lord of the Hoops – performed by March Madness Marching Band, composed by Tripp Bratton

Special thanks to our featured musical guest March Madness Marching Band and Tripp Bratton, their Minister of the Groove. Here are some links to learn more about MMMB.

I would love it if you would share your renewable energy on the “Your Renewable Energy Story” tab. Let’s flip the switch.

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