The Mid-America Regional Council has come up with a new interactive Web tool it hopes will keep people interested in solar power, even as the rebates offered in Missouri for those systems are beginning to wind down.
It’s an aerial map of metro area rooftops. Enter an address, click on a rooftop and up will pop a thumbnail list of what’s known as its solar potential — estimated system size, installation cost, per-year electricity savings and return on investment.
The Metro Solar Map can be located at www.kcsolarmap.org. It includes information for buildings in eight counties in the Kansas City area.
The idea is to create an easy way for people to start researching whether solar energy is right for their homes or businesses, said Laura Machala of MARC’s Solar Energy Project. The website is part of a larger project to promote solar energy funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Currently, the information is restricted to individual rooftops, but eventually tools will be added to find the solar potential of neighborhoods, building complexes or even parts of rooftops, Machala said.
In the meantime, the site is simple to use. A search on one address near downtown Kansas City, for instance, showed that it would cost nearly $1 million to outfit a particular office building with a rooftop system. Calculating in the federal tax credits the building owner might expect, the real cost dropped to about $675,000. Additionally, the power from the panels could trim electricity costs by perhaps $33,500 a year.
Those numbers are based on a few assumptions, listed on another part of the site. For instance, the available space for a system includes about 35 percent of the roof space except for the north-facing side, which is generally a poor choice for solar. That percentage was set because some set-back space from the roof line is generally required by cities and because many buildings have chimneys or rooftop structures that might put parts of the roof in shade.
The site’s technology is not advanced enough to figure in the shade from nearby trees or other buildings, said Machala. It also doesn’t list the local code and deed restrictions that may be in place in some cities. And it can’t tell you if your roof is strong enough to support the additional weight of the photovoltaic panels.
To get that next level of detail, it’s necessary to go to a contractor, she said.
“We see this website as a good jumping off point for a homeowner who’s interested in solar and wants to know what it would take to install it on their property,” she said.
Many people have been doing just that for the past few years, even before the Web application. Local solar installers say rebates from electric companies, required as part of the voter-approved Proposition C in 2008, have caused an explosion of interest in the rooftop panels.
“Interest has grown incredibly in the last four years,” said Andrew Homoly of Homoly Solar in Kansas City.
The best rebates, however, have already faded away as the program is phased out.
For example, a 25-kilowatt hour system of about 100 panels will bring a rebate check of around $37,500 this year. But as soon as the calendar turns to 2015, that same system will get a $25,000 rebate, Homoly said. And in some areas, the total amount a utility has to spend on rebates is capped, meaning that Johnny-come-latelies could miss out.
One customer who didn’t miss out was Tom Waters, owner of Corporate Copy Print. Waters’ building in downtown Independence has a flat, unobstructed roof. He got interested in putting solar panels there about five years ago, but he gave up on the idea because of the $125,000 to $150,000 cost of installation, he said.
When he checked again a couple of years back, the cost had dropped by half and Independence Power & Light was part of the rebate program. With the rebate equaling about $19,000, federal tax credits and less than a five-year payback time, “it was kind of a no-brainer,” Waters said. Plus, the solar power is also good for marketing his business as green, he said.
Waters put in the solar panels at the same time he replaced all overhead lights with LEDs. Those two changes have been saving electricity ever since he flipped the switch last January, he said. An average bill a year ago was about $1,100. Now it’s $800.
Generating interest in solar power also may encourage local governments to streamline their permitting process and building codes, Machala said. For instance, city officials could re-examine their permitting process and code language to remove things that were overly restrictive or outdated, said Duane Wood, of Santa Fe Wind and Solar.
Local governments have not all embraced solar power equally. Platte City, for example, is just beginning to adjust on building code issues concerning solar, but that’s partly because there hasn’t been a lot of new building, said D.J. Gehrt, city administrator. He said other smaller cities that are largely built out may be in the same boat.
Wood, owner of Santa Fe Wind and Solar in Gardner, said many codes and deed restrictions were drafted in an era of earlier solar technology. Solar power had a brief surge in popularity in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but the technology was clunkier. Homeowner association rules, especially, reflect that period.
“Most of them have been in place for a long time,” said Wood. “They put those things on people’s roofs and they were quite ugly.”
While old-school panels stood up on people’s roofs, panels today can be mounted flush with the roof, like shingles, he said. “They can be quite attractive.”
Independence so far only has eight solar installations, but John Delurey, organizing representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said his group is working to get more. One success came earlier this year when the city council voted to support more renewable energy sources. The goal is to have 10 percent of Independence Power & Light’s energy come from non-carbon sources by 2018.
Meanwhile, other governing bodies have been pushing ahead. Kansas City will eventually have solar arrays at 65 locations, including the city market, Gem Theater and Steamboat Arabia, said Colleen Doctorian of the city communications department. The city has the largest solar effort of a municipality in Kansas, Missouri, Idaho or Nebraska, she said.
Solar has been a little slower to take off in Kansas, where no rebates are offered. Once exception is Johnson County’s new Criminalistics Laboratory. Solar panels there have saved $3,340 in electricity since they began generating power in 2012.
The MARC mapping tool is still new enough that city governments and private companies may not have heard of it. But solar advocates say it will help get people more interested in exploring solar options, because it’s an easy way to get information tailored to their own property.
“This is an easier way for homeowners to get ideas without feeling the pressure of calling a company,” said Homoly. “Then, as soon as they’re ready for more details, they can call us and we can work it out.”