Interest in solar power surging in Iowa

State has devoted fewer funds to projects

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Fields brimming with corn and the spinning blades of wind turbines tell the story of a state well invested in the renewable energy industries of wind and ethanol, if not in solar. But advocates say that solar energy is on the brink of a breakthrough in Iowa.

Despite a lack of state incentives, electrical technicians, distributors and installers say they are preparing for a surge in solar projects.

The restoration of the Cedar Rapids flood-damaged New Bohemia Solar Project is one visible examples.

Project manager Rich Dana said the 7,200-kilowatt photovoltaic solar energy system is “once again generating energy and interest from the community.”

The system was funded partially through a grant from the Department of Energy and installed on the roof of the Kouba Building, owned by the Thorland Co., in the art-oriented New Bohemia neighborhood in 2005.

The floods of 2008 destroyed the system’s inverters, but the manufacturer, SMA-America, donated new ones in 2010, restoring the 60 panels to full functionality.

Over the last decade, Iowa has become a leader in wind energy, sourcing 20 percent of its energy from wind, ranking Iowa second in the nation. But Iowa has left it to other states to lead the way in solar energy.

According to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association, the United States solar sector grew by 67 percent in 2010

to reach $6 billion. And while California used to represent 80 percent of the market in 2009, states such as New Jersey, Arizona and Pennsylvania saw large gains.

That’s why Van Meter Inc., an electrical equipment distributor in Cedar Rapids, began stocking a solar line earlier this year.

“It is one of the few sectors in the American economy that is expanding at an impressive rate,” said Karmen Wilhelm, director of energy services and solutions at Van Meter.

Wilhelm believes that adopting local distribution models like Van Meter’s will help the solar industry to grow in Iowa. Wilhelm said the company offers lines of credit, easy access to parts for installation, and education for contractors.

Van Meter will hold its first solar training workshop this October in partnership with the Center on Sustainable Communities, I-RENEW and the Iowa Solar and Small Wind Energy Trade Association. “We consider ourselves a really proactive company,” said Wilhelm.

Growing demand

One of Van Meter’s contractors, Stan Pfoff of Mount Vernon, added a new employee to his workforce at Pfoff Electric this year to take on a rising number of solar projects.

Pfoff said concerns over aging energy infrastructure and high utility costs were attracting people to solar energy. That’s what spurred Pfoff to install 12 solar panels on the roof of his home in Mount Vernon.

“You don’t know how much utilities will be in the future,” said Pfoff. “It’s a good way to hedge your costs.”

Dennis Pottratz of Go Solar! in Decorah, has also experienced a growing demand for solar in the past two years. He believes the cause is twofold — rising electricity bills, and the rapid decrease in price of solar equipment.

According to the solar association report, the cost of solar fell by roughly 20 percent in 2010 alone.

“At the moment there is such a huge increase in production worldwide,” said Pottratz. “It’s pushing prices down.”

According to Pottratz, Iowans who use a variety of incentives can see a return on investment in six or seven years on a system that would otherwise take 30 years to profit from.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who wasn’t interested in solar,” said Pottratz. “The difference now is the number of calls I get from people ready to do something.”

Rebate program

Pottratz said Alliant Energy’s Efficiency First, Renewable Rewards rebate program is the state’s most alluring incentive. The rebates can cut costs by more than 20 percent. Alliant has been offering rebates for businesses since July of 2010. Starting Aug. 1, Alliant expanded the program to residential customers statewide. MidAmerican Energy does not offer a rebate program for renewable energy.

“Customer-owned generation … puts the power in the hands of the customers to control and reduce their utility bills,” said Jackie MacLaren, product manager in Alliant’s Energy Efficiency and Renewables department.

Pottratz believes that the residential rebate will transform the industry in Iowa.

“This Alliant incentive is going to be huge,” said Pottratz.

Few state incentives

There is also a 30 percent federal tax credit available for residential and corporate renewable projects.

However, state incentives remain low.

“The state of Iowa has done next to nothing,” said Pottratz.

The state’s Office of Energy Independence, recently absorbed by the Iowa Department of Economic Development, did fund Iowa’s Sun4Schools program, which awarded solar equipment to five schools across the state in 2010. The office also devoted more than $1.5 million in solar research at Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa, and an Iowa solar manufacturer, PowerFilm in Ames over the past four years.

But the office devoted roughly $40 million to biofuels. “We didn’t purposefully ignore solar,” said Don Tormey, public information officer of the department.

David Osterberg, former state representative and founder of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, helped to pass a law more than a decade ago mandating that utility companies produce 2 percent of energy from renewable sources. He believes the law has been instrumental in making Iowa second in the nation for wind energy production.

Osterberg would like to see the state adopt the same utility mandate for solar, or to give tax credits for small solar projects. So far, none of these bills have passed.

“If you stay around long enough, ideas you had in the 1980s start to happen,” said Osterberg. “Solar is about to take off.”

Pottratz of Go Solar! said the industry is already in flight.

“If the state were to do something, that would just add to it. But it’s happening anyway … solar is growing very quickly.”

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