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Geothermal and Solar Installers: Get to Know Your Municipal Utility (It’s not a Waste of Time)

“Municipal utilities are more open to trying new things than investor-owned utilities.”

This is the lesson I took away from my visit to the Wyandotte Municipal Services as part of a delegation from the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association.  They’ve implemented one of the nation’s first geothermal utility programs (details below), taking the view that each ground loop is a mini power plant they own.  The owner pays a low monthly fee to access that power plant.  They also embrace PV, biomass, wind, and hydro as complements to their coal, tire, and gas plants.  I took this awesome picture of a solar garden next to their coal plant on the tour – check out the mountain of coal behind the PV array.

Solar Garden in Front of a Pile of Coal

Check out the big pile of coal behind the Solar Garden!

Here’s the story for contractors, installers and entrepreneurs:

Wyandotte’s renewable energy program is run by a small handful of approachable people.  Pamela Tierney and Melanie McCoy are part of a small team that evaluated and implemented these programs with help from industry and the local community.  It was obvious that they’ve been involved with every installation project, and they took a full day to show us around and talk about what they’ve learned.  They are real people from the community who you can talk to.  They listen and think about what you say.  There are 251 municipal utilities in the United states (here’s a list), and if your business operates near one, then you have a huge opportunity to educate and influence policy in your area.  Set up a meeting to meet these people, figure out what they’re thinking about and find a way to be useful.  It can be a small investment of time with a big payoff.

Here’s Melanie’s explanation for why they’ve embraced geo: “Reduction of peak demand is why we do it.  It’s not just because we’re green.  When we have to go out and buy power on August 15th at 4pm, those are the most expensive megawatts we can buy.  We take a hit on that.”  They also believe that the 56 installations they’ve done to date have big economic benefits for the town.  Drillers, contractors, manufacturers, and designers are spending more time (and money) in their community as a result of these modest, but forward thinking programs.  Think about how this story might resonate with your local municipal utility and start whispering in their ear.

Here are the specific rates and details for Wyandotte’s geothermal utility program.  I took a lot of notes on lessons learned for other cities and utilities that I plan to share in a foll0w-up article.  The data on how many customers opted to finance their loops versus buy them outright is definitely interesting and worthy of it’s own discussion.  I’m always up for talking more about this stuff, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Posted in Geothermal Heat Pumps, Noteworthy News, Solar Photovoltaics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Made in Detroit: Do you Have a Customer with a Thermal Problem?

A hybrid solar panel made in Detroit using automotive components, with investment from an EPC contractor in Florida.  Interesting.  Interesting enough that I spent two hours this week along with other members of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association touring the Power Panel manufacturing facility.

Inside Power Panel's Detroit Facility

Power Panel was founded in 2007.  Their PVT panel combines 125W of PV with a thermal output of 1,530 BTU/hr.  This is accomplished by running water through a polyethylene tray on the backside of the PV layer to peel off BTUs in a closed loop drainback system (video below).  I’m not smart enough to evaluate the merits of all the design features – but I took a lot of pictures to help you get a feel for it.  I can say that the tour left me impressed, and it seemed like the product has a lot of potential.

The big question: Does this product open up new opportunities for solar installers? 

I think the answer is maybe.  Here’s the most important quote I heard on the tour, from Power Panel’s Adam Stratton:

“We developed this product with the residential market in mind, but the people who will really give us a listen these days are institutional and commercial clients with a thermal problem.  Our most compelling value is in solving problems for big thermal users – efficient PV production on top is what sets us apart, but it’s not driving the conversation.”

This made a ton of sense to me, and helped me visualize some concrete opportunities to sell this product where other products couldn’t deliver.  If you ballpark installation costs at $1,600/panel and start talking to customers that use a lot of thermal energy, you can start to gauge demand without spending too much time debating whether the design is perfect or Power Panel is the right product for you.

At the moment, most of Power Panels systems are installed in Michigan by Power Panel and their partners.  The products have been submitted to UL and SRCC for certification, which is expected but pending.  The long term vision is to have the certifications in place and move away from fully packaged systems and proprietary installation techniques.  They want to facilitate easy installations for any solar installer – without the need for a lot of specialized training.

My take is that if you feel there’s room in your local market for a solution like this, it would be worth talking more with Power Panel to get into the minutae.  Start with your customers – if the response seems positive, circle back and connect with Power Panel.  Go to them directly, or fill out this form and I’ll make an intro – either is fine.

I May Have a Customer With a Thermal Problem!

Complete this form if you're interested in connecting with Power Panel to hear more about the products.


More about Power Panel:

Power Panel, a Detroit-based solar panel system manufacturer, has been
selected as one of 2012’s innovative building products and will
showcase the next generation solar panel system at the Architecture
Boston Expo (ABX) Innovation Pavilion 2012.  Power Panel systems are
designed to circulate water though the panel in a non-pressurized,
drain-back system.  This process collects thermal energy within the
panel while actively cooling the PV cells, which increases electrical
output.  Thermal energy is stored by Power Panel’s patented modular
thermal storage tank.  www.powerpanel.com

Posted in Featured Designs, Products, and Suppliers | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment