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Central Electric looking for member input on next step with sun power

Is solar power right for you? Central Electric Cooperative tried to help some of its members answer that question Monday evening during a solar power workshop at its office west of Mitchell, where co-op employees discussed system costs, tax credi...

Central Prairie Solar, a solar voltaic generation system by Central Electric Cooperative, is pictured Monday evening outside the cooperative's offices west of Mitchell. (Jake Shama / Republic)
Central Prairie Solar, a solar voltaic generation system by Central Electric Cooperative, is pictured Monday evening outside the cooperative's offices west of Mitchell. (Jake Shama / Republic)
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Is solar power right for you?

Central Electric Cooperative tried to help some of its members answer that question Monday evening during a solar power workshop at its office west of Mitchell, where co-op employees discussed system costs, tax credits and data garnered from more than a year of operating its own solar panels.

Patrick Soukup, Central Electric's manager of marketing and member services, said this was the first time the co-op held an informational meeting about a specific source of energy, but the cooperative wanted to ensure its members received good information about a big topic.

"Small solar, there's a lot of potential," Soukup said. "We didn't want them to hear half truths."

Soukup showed an audience of about 100 people information collected from Central Prairie Solar, a solar voltaic generation system that was installed in summer 2015.

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Production from the system varied greatly throughout the year, stretching from 2,149 kilowatt hours in June to 634 kilowatt hours in December. For comparison, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average monthly consumption for a residential home in South Dakota was 981 kilowatt hours.

In addition, the system produced the most energy in the middle of the day, when few members are home, and tapered off as they returned home and needed power.

Solar panels are expected to last 25 years, Soukup said, and he's seen some that are still operating strong after 30 years.

Interested parties have a few options. Only about 30 percent of roofs are compatible for solar panels based on age, direction and other factors, Soukup said. He explained roof systems take up less space than ground-based systems, which can be more expensive, but also allow better airflow to cool the system, a necessity to maintain efficiency.

Solar shingles are another option, and while they are expected to resist up to golf-ball sized hail, extreme weather in South Dakota could cause issues.

Even after choosing a solar system, the person still must choose one or more inverters, which convert direct current garnered from sunlight into alternating current that can be used in a home, and it would require a costly system to produce all the energy necessary to power a home and go "off the grid," in which no electricity is brought in from power plants.

"You better change your ways at home. Better get used to a cold shower," Soukup said. "You'll be a lot healthier going that way because you'll probably have to chop wood again."

While purchasing a solar system to produce all of a home's electricity is impossible for many, Soukup encouraged Central Electric members to identify a percentage of electricity they would like to produce, budget and talk with their energy provider to develop a plan that works best.

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But before considering a solar purchase, Soukup said Central Electric members must work to cut down on electricity use, especially when no one's home or awake.

"Your house has to find a way to sleep. That is really important," Soukup said. "If your house is not sleeping, you need to focus on why it's not and find out, 'How do we trim this?' "

But solar technology can pay back some of the expenses for anyone who installs it. Central Electric General Manager Ken Schlimgen said the cooperative is required to buy electricity produced by its members if the members want to sell it. And if everyone decided to go off the grid, there wouldn't be much need for an electricity cooperative.

"As far as the business model goes, this does everything but help the business, but again, we're owned by the member owners, and we feel it is part of our cooperative principles to inform our members about electricity and energy in general," Schlimgen said after the meeting.

Solar producers also receive green tags, which allow producers to sell energy at a markup so the buyer knows it came from a renewable source. Of course the owner of a solar panel may choose to keep all the energy for him or herself, as well.

Courtney Deinert, Central Electric's manager of communications, discussed tax credits that may also cut costs for prospective solar panel owners, including a federal investment tax credit to deduct 30 percent of the cost to install the system and property tax relief from the state. The property tax relief is based on land assessment, so Deinert urged anyone interested to talk with their local county's director of equalization.

Schlimgen and Soukup said more people than expected showed up for the informational session, so there must be some interest in solar energy in the area.

The Central Prairie Solar system could power an 8,000-square-foot home, Soukup said, but it was installed as a test to share information about solar energy with Central Electric's members.

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