Can Ypsilanti become a solar destination?

As the effects of climate change become more and more pronounced, communities are looking to develop more sustainable practices and policies. Concentrate chats with SolarYpsi's Dave Strenski about the current state of local solar energy initiatives.
Ancient Mesopotamians thought you could achieve eternal life by passing through its gates. Aborigines saw it as female - a woman who awoke in the east, lit her fire, and carried a torch across the sky. Egyptians worshiped the sun god, Ra, a creator of life. The sun has inspired countless ancient myths, which have long since faded with the ages. But the lure of the sun remains today, especially with folks like Dave Strenski, who is working to harness its energy for power.

Strenski is the leader of the Solar Ypsi Project, a grass-roots organization started 10 years ago when the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op sought funding to do a solar project on its roof. The group landed a $6,000 grant and installed four solar panels. Part of the project included a presentation about solar power, which attracted positive attention, which led to more grants and greater local interest. Solar Ypsi is still going strong a decade later, with Dave at the helm. Recently, he sat down with Concentrate to talk about his work.

I have a few Facebook friends who would say, “What happens when the sun doesn’t shine? Will I lose my power?” How does a solar energy plan account for that?
Michigan has what’s called net-metering…this allows people with renewable energies to push excess power into the grid and bring it back out at a later time for zero cost. Everyday our house makes excess power and our utility meter measures how much power we export. Then later at night I can bring that power back in. This allows us to make our home 100% solar power without any batteries. When we get our monthly power bill, we’ll see two readings, outflow and inflow. If outflow is bigger than inflow for the month we get a credit with the power company.

I read that solar energy prices keep dropping. So, what are the biggest obstacles that hold cities like Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor from committing to solar power?
Back in 2005 the panels we installed cost about $5 per watt; today I can get panels roughly the same size that produce about 40% more power and cost less than $1 per watt. Then you couple that with the 30% federal renewable energy tax credit and you get a positive return on investment that will take about seven years to pay for itself and last well over 30 years. The obstacle is that there is still a large upfront cost of about $15,000 to install a typical system.

Which of the two cities has been more receptive to the idea?
I don’t see it as a competition. I’ve worked with people throughout Washtenaw County and have not met anyone against solar power. The biggest issue is how to fund the initial upfront costs.

Ann Arbor loves to talk about how much we love our environment…has the city backed up those claims?
I don’t track what going on in Ann Arbor too closely--my hands are full just dealing with Ypsilanti! I will mention that the Ypsilanti City Council did pass a resolution for a goal of 1000 solar roofs by 2020 and I’m working toward that goal.

How does DTE figure into all of this? What sorts of challenges do they add or what sorts of help do they provide?
DTE is doing their part. They are on track to hit their target of 10% renewable energy by 2015. They allow the net-metering and have been helpful when commissioning solar installations. They had two renewable energy programs called SolarCurrents which helped reduce the cost of solar power.

My beloved Corner Brewery has a solar roof, and I remember that they had to get approval from the historic commission. How do you address the struggle of historical detail (which is often lovely) vs. modern sustainability?
As I said, Ypsilanti (and Ann Arbor) has been very accepting of solar power—they have approved almost all the projects. I mean, sometimes they might make a suggestion to put the panels on the roof instead of the wall to make them less visible but that’s it. So, we have solar panels on many historic buildings in Ypsi including the Ypsi Food Coop, City Hall, Corner Brewery, 323 Oak, 305 Maple, 206 Oak, 305 Washington, Grover House, Ypsi Library on Michigan Ave, and others.

What are some of your biggest successes?
Our biggest success was the $93,000 anonymous donation to fund six solar installations—it’s not every day that someone just calls you up and wants to fund some solar projects! The Google video was also wonderful, it gave SolarYpsi national exposure. Our TEDx video has also generated a lot of interest.

What would be your dream solar project in Ypsilanti?
I’d love to find a very large grant/donation to make local grants that we could give to the residents of Ypsilanti to help them fund a solar installation. A goal of mine is to make Ypsilanti a “Solar Destination” with a 1000 solar roofs within the city limits!

Solar Ypsi’s work carries on, as we look for ways to use the sun. So while we can’t pass through its gates and into immortality and we don’t worship a sun god anymore, we can harness its energy to make our planet a little bit cleaner and a little bit healthier. And that is something that would probably make Ra very, very happy.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was recently published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website, as well as at bookstores in the Ann Arbor area.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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