Solar power proves steady investment for Janesville man

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Monday, October 4, 2010
— So you want to invest.

Stock? Too wobbly.

Interest at the banks? Scant.

A rural Janesville man has found an investment that appears to work in any economy: the sun.

The sun, which is not expected to burn out for billions of years, spills massive amounts of energy onto the Earth every day. It also puts cash into Chuck Niles’ pocket.

Niles, a retired General Motors worker, said he’s been thinking about solar power for 25 years. He got serious about it three years ago when he learned that improvements in solar technology have reduced the cost per watt considerably.

Then he heard about government programs that provide huge discounts in startup costs.

Here’s how Niles does the math:

The 90 panels on the roof of Niles’ pole barn and nearby shed on Murray Road south of Janesville cost $130,410, installation included.

A federal program known as Section 1603 of the Recovery Act paid him $39,600. The state Focus on Energy program paid him $32,603.

Niles uses about $35 worth of electricity a month in the barn. The rest goes to Alliant Energy, which pays him monthly. The checks vary with sunshine, but Niles estimates conservatively that the checks will average around $440 a month.

In the meantime, Niles is also getting a federal income-tax break from the depreciation on his investment.

When all the costs and benefits are accounted for, Niles figures his payback period is just five years. He figures his return on investment is about 12 percent.

“It’s unreal,” he said.

Even without the two grants, he figures his return on investment would be 4.5 percent, not a bad return these days.

“I don’t have to worry about the stock market crashing,” Niles said. “I joke around and say the only thing I have to worry about is the sun not shining.”

Seriously, Niles figures the only possible down sides are two unlikely possibilities: The cost of electricity goes down, or someone invents a technology that doesn’t require electricity.

While sunshine is free, Niles did a lot of hard work to get his operation up and running. He figures 40 to 50 hours on filling out government forms online. He had to resubmit one set of forms three times. But the payback was the $39,600.

His advice for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps is to find a good electrical contractor. He went through three contractors before he found one he liked, American Power of Janesville.

The first three either charged too much or wouldn’t guarantee their work, Niles said.

Focus on Energy requires contractors to be certified, so some of those who are certified seem to think they can charge high prices, Niles said.

Niles called a contractor in Colorado who told him the quotes he was getting were too high.

Quality of work is also a consideration: “You’ve got to be careful about finding an installer that knows what they’re doing because you want this up on the roof for 40 years.”

Equipment in Niles’ barn registers data continuously. He can find out every day how many kilowatt hours his panels are cranking out. He even knows how much of a dent his clean electricity has made in his carbon footprint: From May 5 when the first of the panels went online through midday Saturday, he’s accounted for 22,849 pounds of the sooty stuff.

Niles hopes some day to make the information available to anyone via the Internet and to show off his operation to schoolchildren.

Niles, 59, thinks of those south-facing solar panels as an investment, to be sure, but he’s also thinking about more than money:

“I have three grandkids, and the bottom line is, I’d like to leave them something—more than a trillion dollars in debt and dumping oil into the Gulf.”

For more information
-- Chuck Niles was one of many across the state holding open houses Saturday to show their solar, wind and geothermal energy solutions. The Wisconsin Solar Tour was sponsored by The Midwest Renewable Energy Association. Information is available online at www.the-mrea.org.

-- Niles said he’s willing to advise anyone interested in getting into solar power and will show off his operation, by appointment. He’ll even share copies of the government forms he had to file. Call him on his cell, (608) 751-1460.

Last updated: 3:19 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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