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The Sky Factory meets 'net zero' goal with huge solar array

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Dave DeWitte

A unique Fairfield firm is one of the first Iowa businesses to go "net zero," generating at least as much solar energy as it uses.

The Sky Factory of Fairfield activated a solar installation believed to be the largest at any private Iowa business on Thursday.

With 230 solar panels covering 3,500 square feet, the installation will generate 54 kilowatts of DC electricity.

The system was installed by Ideal Energy of Fairfield using a Enphase Microinverter for each solar panel rather than larger inverters for a series of panels. The inverters will convert the direct current to 47.6 kilowatts of AC output. Using the individual microinverters improves the accuracy of power control, improving the power output of the entire system, the company said.

The Sky Factory specializes in ceilings and windows that create an illusion of nature with scenes that resemble the sky and natural features. The decision to go net zero was part of a commitment to sustainability that also includes a new 11,000-square-foot high-efficiency building, a total recycling program and an organic greenhouse and garden with a composting system.

Bill Witherspoon, the founder of The Sky Factory, credited employee Jack Eastman, a longtime Sierra Club leader that he described as the company's "own eco-conscience," for keeping the project moving over the past several years.

The project used an assortment of state and federal tax credits and incentives, including a $25,000 Alliant Energy rebate. It will pay for itself in energy savings over a period of 10-12 years.

"If there's any value in talking about this little company in southeast Iowa going net zero, it's that it's easy," Witherspoon said.

Going net zero is something a small number of Iowa households have done, but few if any businesses, according to Dennis Pottratz of Go Solar! in Decorah, one of the state's first commercial solar installers. He said the system is likely one of the five largest in Iowa, and could be the largest private solar installation.

The incentive to use renewable energy in Iowa is lower than in most of the nation because electricity produced here is relatively inexpensive.

Witherspoon credited The Sky Factory employee Jack Eastman, a longtime Sierra Club leader that he calls the company's "eco-conscience," for bringing the project to fruition after employees agreed on the goal about five years ago.

The financial payback and the possibility of presenting a greener image to customers were not part of the motivation for the project, Witherspoon said. Above the company's door is a sign that reads, "The purpose of our business is to enrich and sustain life."

"I don't expect us to get one more piece of business because we're solar," Witherspoon said. "We didn't do it for that."

The solar array provides about 104 percent of the energy currently used by the company, but because of growth the 35-employee company is going need more power in the next year. It will probably look to wind energy. Witherspoon said a small wind installation didn't pencil out for the company's first go at a net-zero system, but the technology has improved.

About 90 school children attended a ceremony and tour Thursday, pledging their own commitments to create a more sustainable world.

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