Local businesses going green

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Monday, September 13, 2010
— At age 81, Jim Erickson has gone green, at least with the commercial office building he owns on Janesville’s west side.

More than four years after tenants moved into the building at 3618 Ridge Drive, Erickson threw the switch on a rooftop solar panel system that should produce 90 percent of the building’s electrical needs.

Erickson and his son Andrew, a tenant with Antek Marketing Corp., freely admit that they’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks watching the dials on monitors inside and outside the building.

“When the meter spins backwards, it means we’re selling power back to Alliant,” Andrew said. “It’s pretty cool.”

At least in Janesville, the Ericksons are among the first commercial business owners to convert to solar power, which is by far the Earth’s most available energy source.

“There are a few, but we’ve seen many more installations on the residential side,” said Gale Price, Janesville’s manager of building and development services. “I do think, however, that these installations will become more prevalent in the future.”

By its nature, solar power—the conversion of sunlight into electricity—is an intermittent energy source. It is not always available and is normally supplemented by storage or, in the Ericksons’ case, another energy source such as Alliant Energy.

The only significant problem with solar power is installation cost, although that’s been decreasing because of technological efficiencies.

For Erickson, the total cost of the 48-panel roof-mounted system was about $66,000, which was reduced by rebates from the federal government and programs such as Focus on Energy. While the payback will be 10 to 12 years, he expects an immediate reduction in his monthly energy bill.

“For me, though, it’s really a legacy,” Erickson said. “Eventually, my family will sell this building and benefit that way.

“But the goal is to get to where we’re producing 100 percent of what we need, and one of the ways to do that is stress energy conservation with the tenants.”

The Ericksons aren’t alone in their commercial application of solar power.

When it opened its new store on Lodge Drive in 2008, Basics installed 16 solar panels that produce enough electricity to power the co-op’s lights.

Initially, Basics expected a seven- to 10-year payoff for the system, but General Manager Lynette Wirth said it would be much closer to seven.

“We’re very happy we put it in,” Wirth said. “We’ve had a pretty good summer as far as the sun goes.”

Dennis Fugate owns AgSun Corp. in Janesville, a certified electrical contractor that installs solar power systems.

Fugate installed 60 panels that produce 10.2 kilowatts of electricity per hour for his own renovated building on Jackson Street. Excess energy is sold back to the grid, and Fugate gets a monthly check for $300 or $400.

Not only is he saving money, he’s using his installation as a showcase for potential customers. AgSun will participate in the Wisconsin Solar Tour on Saturday, Oct. 2, which is sponsored by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association

AgSun installed a similar system in 2009 for Midwest Prairies in Milton. Rebates reduced the project cost from $76,000 to about $35,000, and payback projections are ahead of original estimates. In addition, the company is seeing an annual return on investment of more than 10 percent, company co-owner Marti Martin said in a testimonial for AgSun.

“We didn’t do this for the payback or the return on investment,” Martin said. “We did it because it is the right thing to do for our environment.

“We are proud to be part of saving the environment by using a free source of energy—the sun.”

Nearly all of AgSun’s solar installations have been residential, but interest is growing on the commercial side as the economy improves and the price of solar panels drops.

“The problem is that we just don’t have a solid energy policy for solar,” Fugate said, noting that Germany has one that’s created dramatic demand, and China has virtually cornered the market on supply with the production of solar panels.

“Still, I’m excited about it in this country,” he said. “A lot of businesses are just sitting on money, afraid to spend it.

“But it’s going to happen. Electric rates are going to go up, and the prices of panels are coming down. I’m not sad that it’s going slow. These things last for 40 or 50 years, so we better be sure we’re doing it right.”

While it’s still early, Erickson is convinced he’s done it right with his office building on Ridge Drive.

“I just wish I would have thought of it when I built the building,” he said.

Last updated: 2:59 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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