Couple vote with bucks; install solar system
Alece Carrigan and Gary Milczarek, who live south of Eureka Springs, have talked about putting in a solar power system for years. They were concerned about climate change, what that is doing to wildlife and the implications for the future of humankind.
Then American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) announced plans to put a huge transmission line through some of the most scenic and environmentally sensitive areas of Northwest Arkansas. SWEPCO said the project was needed to provide reliable service, while opponents have challenged the need for the project, stating the line would provide eight to 16 times more power than is needed in Carroll County.
Carrigan and Milczarek were very concerned about the Ozark Mountains being sacrificed to clear a right-of-way 150 ft. wide from Shipe Road in Benton County to near the Kings River north of Berryville, and felt it was time to demonstrate with their pocketbook.
“We decided to proceed with solar power to channel our outrage and frustration into a positive action,” Carrigan said. “Every time I turn on a light or use any electricity, I know I am using a clean, non-toxic form of energy. And that is a great feeling. We have to do whatever it takes to change the way we generate energy or we won’t be able to live on this planet. Every day I look at my grandsons and wonder what it is going to be like for them. I grew up in a golden era, a wonderful time. My grandkids are not going to have that. That seems really criminal. We are in for a bumpy ride.”
Milczarek has been researching solar for years, as well as learning from two brothers and a nephew who have installed solar in the past decade. He decided the best option was a ground-mount solar panel system that cost them $13,378, which may be reduced to as low as $9,365 after an IRS tax rebate of 30 percent. It is designed to generate enough electricity to power their entire home.
“Each year since moving here I’ve explored solar and wind technology for generating cleaner alternative energy,” Milczarek said. “Because utility rates are low in our area and technological advances continue bringing down the cost of solar energy, the cost analysis always favored waiting another year. We just couldn’t overcome the anxiety of committing a large amount of our limited financial resources when it seemed to make more sense to wait.”
Milczarek credits his wife with providing the impetus to go ahead.
“I’m the one who does the research and gathers data about alternatives, then she points the way,” Milczarek said. “When the SWEPCO issue came up, it affected her attitude about electricity and where it is coming from. She felt we had to do something. I have always trusted her instincts.
“What was really clear to me personally is that by buying electricity generated by coal coming through the grid, we were voting with our dollars for companies like SWEPCO. The only vote in the end that seems to matter in this culture is the dollar. How we choose to spend money reflects our values. The biggest ‘No’ we could give to SWEPCO would be to stop voting for them with our dollars.”
Instead of just considering their personal financial situation, they looked at the bigger picture: what were the costs to the planet, to Northwest Arkansas and the health of people?
“It became clear that since we could do it, we wanted to do it,” Milczarek said. “We don’t want to do things that have damaging consequences for ourselves and the future. This seemed like the best way to say ‘No’ to SWEPCO.”
Their roof doesn’t have a southern exposure, so a rooftop installation was a problem. They considered putting the panels over the patio or using panels to shade windows.
“I did drawings,” Milczarek said. “I did calculations. I looked at sun angles. I was going in circles trying to design something that would give us shade, but had no confidence they would stand up to the winds and ice storms we get. In the end we chose a commercial ground mount system already engineered for our wind speeds and snow loads. The panels are all together in one place, you can clean them and push snow off standing on the ground, and there was a price we could get a handle on.”
They ordered the equipment package recommended by GoGreenSolar.com in the summer of 2013. It turned out there was a learning curve and their electrician had them send back about $450 of the materials they ordered resulting in a $90 restocking fee.
“So bring your electrician in at the beginning!” Milczarek said. “I knew I was jumping off a cliff, that there would be mistakes, but this is the kind of thing I thrive on. My mind loves figuring how things work. I love to learn and explore. The bottom line is I cut my cost in half of what it would have cost to hire a local company to do it for me, and I probably only spent a couple hundred more than I needed in the end. I figure that is cheap tuition.”
Their electric provider, Carroll Electric Cooperative Corp., ties their system to the grid. When they are generating more electricity than they use, the excess kilowatt-hours are credited to their account. When the sun is not shining or they need more electricity than the panels are generating, the kilowatt-hours they draw from CECC are charged to their account.
Milczarek was pleased with the cooperation of CECC. The entire system was installed and ready to turn on the day before they were to leave town for more than two weeks.
“It’s quite a story of them coming through at the last minute with flying colors,” Milczarek said. “They were really nice, making a special trip to install the new meter just before we left on our trip. The system generated 450-kilowatt hours while we are gone. It has been really exciting. We’ve generated 6.3 megawatts of energy since last October. We have about 1,500 kilowatt hours credit in the grid for air conditioning season coming on, enough on average to cover two of the four months that get heavy air conditioning use. Our system is designed to generate close to the average energy as we use in a year. So far we seem to be on track, but we’ll know for sure come October 11.”
For more information including photos of the project from start to finish, see Milczarek’s blog at www.johncarrigan.wordpress.com.