It’s hard to know when you are a home owner or small company whether the benefits of rooftop solar power are worth the risk. Last December, SafetyWear, a small company in Fort Wayne, Indiana opted to install a rooftop solar system on its roof. Brian Steele, chief financial officer of SafetyWear, says the goal was to to install enough panels to produce more than enough electricity to meet the company’s needs.
The company they hired to install the system was from San Diego, where the sun shines 68% of the time. In Fort Wayne, is it sunny just 59% of the time. “It’s hard to know when you’re a rookie” how well the system will work, Steele says. The plan was for SafetyWear to generate about 107% of its electricity needs from the system, which would allow it to bank a small amount of excess energy with the local utility company. In the past six months, the company has consumed 65 megawatts of electricity, but its solar-power system has generated 70 to 72 megawatts, meaning it has generated seven megawatts more electricity than it has used.
Steele says the culture of his company is to conserve energy. He goes around turning off lights that aren’t being used. He even turns off the light in his office when he goes to lunch. During the day, the company opens the windows in the warehouse to let light in. He monitors the solar system closely and has learned a few things that surprised him.
For instance, good days sometimes aren’t as productive as days that might not seem ideal. On a cloudy day, the system can generate more electricity than it can on a hazy day. Bright sunny days are not as productive as he thought they would be if it is very hot outside. The best days, Steele says, are when it is about 50 degrees outside.
The company will never be able to get completely off the grid, Steele says. There aren’t reliable batteries to store excess electricity, so the company has to rely on the utility for electricity at night. But over the course of years, the hope is to bank enough credits from excess electricity generated to keep net electric consumption at zero, even as the solar-power system loses efficiency as it ages. And, Steele says, “What we’ve learned as rookies is that there’s no such thing as a zero bill. There are bunch of tariffs and service fees and peak charge fees that add up to $20 to $40 a month.”
Last year between June and December, the company used between 4.7 and 5.9 megawatts of electricity a month. After the solar system was installed, it purchased 2.7 megawatts in January and only 1.4 megawatts in February. Since March, the business has officially bought zero kilowatt hours of electricity from Indiana Michigan Power. At an annual rate, Steele said, the system is generating about $8,000 worth of electricity per year, before tax credits. That means it will pay for itself in about half its projected life span.
SafetyWear doesn’t have solar panels on its roof because it wants to be trendy. They are there because they make economic sense for a company that watches its expenditures closely. We all want to save the earth, of course, but business cares most about the bottom line. SafetyWear is proving that the bottom line is where solar power makes the most sense.