Solar sales are heating up

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am

A Brookfield electrician has found that solar energy can be a major part of the future of his business. Within the last year, Chuck Smith, president of Current Electric Co., has begun training with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) to become certified through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).

Within the next year, Smith and two of his technicians plan to become NABCEP-certified, which enables Current Electric to sell, contract and install photovoltaic (PV) systems to commercial, residential and industrial building owners. Applicants to the Focus on Energy program in Madison, which awards grants to aid in the cost of purchasing and installing renewable energy system, also require NABCEP certification.

The PV system is made up of silicon PV cells, and about 48 cells are typically placed together on a panel. The panels lay flat on a roof to absorb the sun’s rays and convert it into energy for electricity.

Smith said he decided to make this leap in his business strategy for personal and professional reasons.

“I have been in business since 1983 and provide innovative technology and solutions that work,” Smith said. “I feel this is a great way for people to be ecological and provide ways to create energy without harming the environment.”

As part of his training, Smith and his technicians will install a PV system on the roof of the Current Electric headquarters, located at 12625 W. Burleigh Road. The 18 kilowatts system will cost $180,000, he said. The Current Electric team will install the system with the help of Smith’s trainer, Jim Kerbel, owner of Photovoltaic Systems LLC in Amherst.

Smith will be able to afford the installation through various incentive programs available from state organizations and federal government tax credits, to the point that the system will pay for itself within 10 years.

Incentives include up to $35,000 in grants from Focus on Energy, for PV system installations; a federal tax credit that will cover 30 percent of the cost of a PV system and programs from local utilities, including We Energies, that buy back unused energy at an inflated rate.

Kerbel has been in the photovoltaic business for 28 years and has recently experienced an increase in customer interest, mainly due to a combination of technology becoming more affordable and the incentives available today, he said.

“We initiated the solar buyback about one year and a half ago,” said Carl Siegrist, solar programs manager for We Energies.

The solar buyback program involves a three year window of opportunity for customers to enroll and is capped at the first 500 kilowatt hour (kWh) of solar energy enrolled in the program, Siegrist said.

Once participants are enrolled in the program and have signed a contract, they have 18 months to get their systems installed, interconnected and operating, Siegrist said. From the time they are officially generating power, they will be able to participate in the program for 10 years, receiving a buyback rate of 22.5 cents per kWh from We Energies.

For regular We Energies customers, the estimated price they pay for electricity is about 10 cents per kWh of energy.

To be a part of the solar buyback program, customers must join the Energy for Tomorrow program, which combines different types of renewable energy that We Energies has on its grid to bring up to 100 percent of energy from renewable resources into a household or business. That way, when a customer needs to use We Energies power when the sun is not shining, they can still be utilizing renewable energy.

Customers of Energy for Tomorrow pay 1.37 cents more per kWH than customers not participating in the program, Siegrist said. Renewable energy systems that We Energies has in its grid include wind, solar, hydro and biomass energy.

“We are excited about the program and know customers like it,” Siegrist said. “It is definitely a program where everyone wins, and the nice thing about it is people like me who don’t have solar (systems installed in their homes) can benefit from other customers who are selling (energy) back to the grid.”

We Energies currently has about 50 customers approved or in the process of approval for agreements with systems totaling 400 kW, Siegrist said. The program has a 500 kW cap on enrollment.

The Urban Ecology Center, located in Riverside Park in Milwaukee, installed the largest PV system in the state at 44.5 kW last November. Since the Urban Ecology Center is a nonprofit organization, it would not receive all of the incentives for installation, but does participate in the buyback program from We Energies, said Ken Leinbach, executive director of the center.

“We are saving $15,000 per year on our energy bill,” Leinbach said. “We will end up with no electric bill because we make more money than the cost of the energy.”

The panels have a guaranteed lifetime of 25 years but are expected to last 50 to 100 years, Leinbach said. And afterward they can be recycled.

“The goal is to find an abundance of energy,” Smith said. “As PV systems develop, they will become a way of life.”

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