A bright idea in Bryn Mawr

Neighborhood launches a solar energy grant program

BRYN MAWR — For the Bryn Mawr residents on the fence about solar energy — still weighing the costs against the benefits of installing a home solar system — a new neighborhood program is designed to give them a push.

“You want to get some people who are on the fence and then just tip them,” explained Scott McLaughlin, a Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association [BMNA] board member.

The push in this case comes in the form of $1,000–$3,000 grants available to Bryn Mawr property owners who install some type of solar system this year. If the solar program is successful — and city leaders will be watching closely — it could serve as a template for other Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Not every building in the shady enclave known as “a neighborhood within a park” will be a good candidate for solar. Still, City Council Member Lisa Goodman [Ward 7] said if Bryn Mawr could increase its use of solar energy, so could the Downtown sections of her ward.

“If an individual homeowner living in a house in Bryn Mawr can do it, clearly, then, condominiums could do it, office buildings could do it,” Goodman said.

The neighborhood association dedicated $40,000 of its Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds to the project, enough to fund about 20–30 projects. To the neighborhood grant, neighborhood residents will add a number of existing tax credits and utility incentives for solar already spurring wider adoption of the technology.

While even a modestly sized solar electric system might cost several thousand dollars to install, BMNA estimates property owners will pay only half the final invoice, or less.

Board Member Andrew Kralig, who developed the project with McLaughlin, said Bryn Mawr “fits the bill” for adopting solar.

“A lot of people are very positive about green efforts and really have embraced the rain gardens, recycling … [and] the Hourcar,” Kralig said.

The right time

Marilee Tuite was one of about 40 Bryn Mawr property owners who turned out for a solar project kick-off meeting June 17 at Bryn Mawr Community School. Tuite said she and her husband, Paul, had been considering solar for some time.

“This is a major thing if you look at it from the cost perspective, so it’s not one of those little changes you can do overnight,” she said. “But, I think it’s something we feel we might be able to leap into in the next year.”

Xcel Energy reported Minnesotans installed a record number of solar electric systems in 2009, bringing the state’s total solar electric capacity to just over 2 megawatts. That capacity was predicted to double by the end of 2010.

Those figures under-estimate the prevalence of solar systems in the state by not including solar thermal systems used to heat air or water in the home. Bryn Mawr residents and commercial property owners may apply for either solar thermal or solar electric grants.

Doug Shoemaker of the non-profit Minnesota Renewable Energy Society said solar incentives, and the dropping cost of solar technologies, already were bringing solar within reach of more homeowners.

“The next two years are probably the prime time to get into solar there has ever been,” Shoemaker said.

A ‘personal choice’

Some skepticism surfaced as representatives from six area solar system companies answered questions from Bryn Mawr residents at the June kick-off event.

Some wondered about the solar potential of a state with long, dark winters, but they were assured Minnesota gets as much sun as regions like Jacksonville, Fla. and Houston, Texas. (One thing they don’t deal with in Florida or Texas, though, is snow covering solar panels in the winter.)

Others asked about the chance for solar technology to make a leap in coming years, rendering existing systems outdated or obsolete. Several vendors said slow, steady progress was the more likely scenario.

Solarflow Energy CEO Gerardo Ruiz, whose company leases solar voltaic systems, compared the decision to go solar to buying a computer — some will opt in, while others will wait for the next best thing. Ultimately, Ruiz said, going solar is a largely “personal choice.”

Beyond the grants and incentives, there were strong personal feelings that brought some Bryn Mawr residents to the meeting. Bryn Mawr resident Dan Cate said the environmental disaster unfolding 2,000 miles south in the Gulf of Mexico was the best reason to explore renewable energy sources like solar.

“It’s alternative energy, that’s what we need,” Cate said. “… Not the oil floating around in the Gulf.”