RPI explores solar feasibility

HOUGHTON – The Regional Prosperity Initiative (RPI) is conducting a study on the feasibility of solar energy as an alternative power source through grant funding administered by the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region (WUPPDR).

The study is two parts, said Jerry Wuorenmaa, WUPPDR executive director. One part is an energy availability study. The second analyzes the use of solar energy. Together they will form a comprehensive look at solar energy as a viable alternative power source.

The mapping project will look at existing power and accessibility based on several factors, including documenting physical and economic barriers to energy upgrades in solar efficiency.

“The mapping project will also include interviews and studies involving the rest of the U.P. regions,” Ahbi Kantamneni of Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center said. “If you want to think of them in terms of focus groups – how do the residents in Houghton feel about energy? Do they know where it comes from? Do they care? Do they care as long as the rates are low? What is the family motivation? Is it lack of information? Or do they just not have the capital?”

The project is also looking at cost factors and the mapping of information and human resources.

“In Houghton, given how high our electric rates are, it will pay for itself in three-and-a-half months, probably one of the best (returns) in the country,” Kantamneni said. “But not a lot of people do that, because of the barriers. But, how do these barriers differ across the footprint of the U.P.? If the people of Houghton needed help, where would they go?”

In addition to mapping, the project will also help fund small pilot projects that can be prototyped, scaled and replicated in other areas of the U.P., Kantamneni said.

“And part of what we’re investigating here – through a partnership with the city, WUPPDR and the Alternative Energy Enterprise, which is a student-run small business at Michigan Tech – is to see if we can find a way to help downtown businesses find ways to cut down on their energy costs by using solar,” Kantamneni explained.

The Alternative Energy Enterprise will also investigate the technical aspects of solar power, including what may be the best locations for panels and whether there could be a sharing from “the building across the street,” Kantamneni said.

“The Alternative Energy Enterprise will be talking to owners of businesses,” he added, “asking them what their long-term plans are, asking them, ‘OK, how much are you willing to invest?’ and giving time to customers to evaluate and discuss specifically what their barriers are to commercial solar adoption.”

Kantamneni said high energy rates, energy usage and access to solar power are some additional objects of the study.

“The variable of this would be if downtown businesses and places like this are going to face an evaluation, given a calculator that they can say, ‘OK, if I pay this much, how fast can I pay it off?'” he said. “Typically, a residential home, in Houghton, because again it’s one of the best places because of its high energy rates, seven- to seven-and-a-half years. It changes a little bit with commercial rates.”

Kantamneni said the intent is “giving them a calculator that they can play with and enlist an evaluation from.”

WUPPDR would package the findings of the project into a useable format that could serve as a model for other communities, Kantamneni said.

“It might be that we might experience that even if all roots are gray,” he said. “People just really don’t feel too comfortable with going solar,” he said. “There are a lot of documented barriers to solar in research, but we’d like to find out for ourselves what people think, and then document that ourselves.”

He added the project could be used to help other areas looking to tap into solar energy.

“So, if Sault Ste. Marie wants to do a solar project downtown, they don’t have to start from scratch. They can just take what we’ve done in Houghton and use that as a model,” he said.