An effort to encourage Columbus residents to use solar energy as a residential power source is resulting in the installation of five new systems this month.

Combined, 136 solar panels capable of generating 36 kilowatts of electricity are being installed. The number of panels on each home ranges from a low of 14 on one to a high of 38 on another. The other three installations are planned to have 28 solar panels each.

The Columbus Community Solar Initiative sponsored a public information session in June to encourage local residents to consider installing solar panels as a way of pursuing clean-energy options.

The initiative now has 15 homeowners and one church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Columbus’ west side, at one of the stages in a six-step process that begins with an intention to install solar panels to the actual installation.

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Working with Third Sun Solar of Athens, Ohio, residents go through an application process that includes evaluating whether the home or business receives enough sun to allow panels to generate energy and how much in federal tax credits could be realized by installing a solar system.

Each applicant receives an individual proposal, but installation is a group project with a single installer, which helps participants shave off as much as 20 percent of the cost.

This month’s installation will represent about 13 percent of the initiative’s goal of 1,000 panels and 270 kilowatts of capacity that it hopes to meet by the end of this year.

Installation underway

Michael A. Mullett, who had 12 solar panels installed on his garage in the 700 block of Lafayette Street in 2010, is having as many as 28 new panels installed on his house this month.

He is also working to have an energy efficiency inspection done with Duke Energy as part of the process, as the solar panels are installed.

As the installation continued last week, Mullett was working with Sun Solar installation crews to determine if all 28 new panels could be installed, or if only 22 would fit. The 28 panels would have offset 90 to 100 percent of the home’s energy load, but losing six of the panels could take that down to 75 to 80 percent, he estimated.

Mullett said he and his wife Patti March were thrilled with the first 12 panels installed in 2010, and turned the panels on that year as a special birthday gift to their daughter, Megan. They plan to repeat that process as a birthday present to their daughter with this installation, he said.

Dennis Baute, who co-chairs the initiative on behalf of the Energy Matters Community Coalition, is also having solar panels installed this month.

“I am excited personally to have solar panels installed in my own roof to generate clean energy for my own use and to share any excess with my neighbors,” he said. “And I am definitely looking forward to seeing my electric meter run backwards that first time the electricity generated by my panels exceeds that consumed by my appliances and other electrical equipment.”

Environmental groups back effort

The Community Solar Initiative grew out of two separate groups, the Energy Matters Community Coalition and the Winding Waters Group of the Sierra Club, Mullett said. The initiative has about 70 people on its mailing list, one that has been steadily growing.

Part of the timing of the initiative is that federal tax credits for renewable clean energy have been extended, resulting in about 30 percent in discounts for those considering going solar, said Michael Smucker, Sun Solar’s director of growth, in an earlier interview.

The cost for a residential homeowner to install a 5-kilowatt system, involving 18 to 20 solar panels being placed on a home’s roof, would cost about $14,000, Smucker said. But with the installation discount and tax credits, it could be under $10,000 for the system.

As installation work continues, Mullett said some people who initially expressed interest dropped out after learning about details of requirements to install the panels.

After inspections, several solar-panel prospects learned that they had too much shade around their homes. Ultimately, they decided against taking down the trees, which would have been necessary to proceed, Mullett said.

Another potential stumbling block for homeowners has been that many must reshingle their roofs before installation — to avoid having to reinstall the solar panels — and some homeowners aren’t prepared to do that now.

Despite those obstacles, Mullett said the initiative is confident that as the installations continue around Columbus and in Bartholomew County, other homeowners will seek information about the clean-energy alternative.

Two solar projects

Allen Gifford, who is chairman of the Unitarian church’s building and grounds, is overseeing two solar projects — one for the church and one for his own home.

Gifford said installation of 38 solar panels are going on a garage building with a south-facing roof at his home in west Harrison Township, where his family has lived for about 20 years. The structure had been built three decades ago for a possible solar hot-water installation that never materialized, he said.

The 38 panels will generate more than 10 kilowatts of energy for the Gifford home and he estimates it could supply 40 to 50 percent of the home’s power needs.

“We’ve had a total electric house — well, almost total electric, and the winter heating costs are high,” he said.

Gifford said solar companies have complicated formulas they use to calculate individual return on investment for their installations. Utility companies also have formulas for compensating homeowners who are producing more power than they are using, he said.

Since solar users will offset their own usage, some of the recouping from investments comes in savings on energy bills, Gifford said. He estimated for his own home, it may take up to 10 years to recover the cost of installing solar, but that isn’t the entire reason he’s investing, he said.

While energy savings are a consideration, the environmental factor is also important, he said.

“We’re an early investor,” Gifford said.

He explained since his electric consumption is high, it will take longer to recoup costs than perhaps other homeowners.

While Gifford’s home is having its panels installed this week, the church is still in the first phase of adding more solar panels to its facility on Goeller Road. Church members are considering adding 34 more panels to the church roof, in addition to the seven that were installed five years ago.

The additional panels would bring the church to about 10 kilowatts of power, supplying about half of the facility’s power needs, Gifford said.

Church members are in the first phase of consideration, and have a proposal for the project that has not yet been approved. Church members are still considering how to fund the estimated $25,000 investment for the panels, he said.

Since the church is a nonprofit, it is not eligible for any of the tax credit incentives, but many church members feel strongly that “it’s the right thing to do,” Gifford said.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.