Posts Tagged: solar power

Making Cents of Electric Vehicles in the Driftless!


“Electricity is really just organized lightning…”  -George Carlin

Story and photos by Benji Nichols, except as noted

Imagine pulling out onto the street as your foot leans into the accelerator. You move forward – silently – off on a trip to work, school, errands, or across the region. Now imagine not using a drop of gasoline to do it. Too good to be true? It’s not!

Electric vehicles (EVs) are not a new concept, but technological evolution and incredibly efficient operating costs are making EVs more realistic than ever for many households. Here at Inspire(d) HQ, we’ve been enjoying the rewards of our own solar PV array for the past year, and we’re constantly engaged in what technologies are coming on line to help lessen our immediate impacts on fossil fuel use. Sure, there’s an immediate ‘feel-good’ effect, but increasingly the technology is actually making economic sense as well. Ride along as we cruise through our latest road-trip into electric vehicles.


(Decorah resident George Hagen shows us the Nissan Leaf charging ports.)

Most EVs (only electric – not hybrid) have a rough average of 30 to 80 miles available without a charge, and Hybrid EVs that also operate on gas have ranges widely expanded  beyond that. According to recent US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration surveys, well over half of commutes and daily-use car trips in the US are under 30 miles roundtrip. Even with a sizable amount of commutes averaging 40 miles, there’s huge potential for EVs. Just think: All your quick trips can be done in a vehicle that requires no gasoline, and can charge anywhere a standard plugin is located – we think that idea is pretty cool!

(Photo courtesy of Honda Motorwerks)

Many of our readers are familiar with Chris Schneider (aka The “Hybrid Guru”) of La Crosse’s Honda Motorwerks. Chris has been fueling the alternative vehicle movement in the Driftless Area for years and is an incredible source of information, and of course vehicles. A recent adventure included a trek across the state of Wisconsin to deliver a fully electric Nissan LEAF EV, which is quite an adventure considering that the LEAF has average range of about 80 miles. To top it off, the vehicle was being delivered to Milwaukee, so it was decided that a natural gas vehicle (NGV) would chase for the return trip – just to up the alternative fuel vehicle fun! With the range in mind, the trip required four stops for charging, three of which were about the standard amount of time for a coffee or lunch break. The trip was a grand success, and proved that EVs, although still having limited ranges, can make longer and longer trips as charging technology increases as well. Honda Motorwerks has been a regional and national leader in the use of alternative energy vehicles for years – and Chris is quick to point out that the Decorah area is full of early adopters. In fact, seven of the first 10 EVs that Motorwerks brought into the region years ago all went to the Decorah area. 


(Electric Charging Station at HyVee, Iowa City – free for customers!)

Most of the major car manufacturers are now making, at the very least, a hybrid electric/gas vehicle – and many are making strict EVs like the Nissan LEAF or Ford Focus EV that run on electricity only and, as mentioned, can be charged on a standard household plug-in (usually taking a few hours to overnight to reach full capacity). But many vehicles are charged more rapidly by different “level” chargers, which are becoming more common across the country – even in places along Chris Schneider’s Wisconsin road trip like Middleton, Madison, and Waukesha. Level 3 charges can bring charging times down to under half an hour for many models.  Some commercial recharging locations require small fees for electricity (a couple dollars) while companies like Tesla are creating their own networks of charging stations that provide the power for free – as an incentive to buy their EVs.


(Tesla Model ‘S’ on display on the Iowa City PedMall during EntreFest, May 2015)

There are a lot of pro and some con points that could be made when considering EVs – from range to environmental to battery technology, and of course, that a large part of the electricity supply still comes from fossil fuels. But we think there is a unique place in our society right now where electric vehicles can truly help “bridge” the road to energy independence. Here at Inspire(d) HQ, we installed a small solar system (eight panels – about 2kw) just about a year ago. We’ve seen a really nice decrease in our monthly electricity bills, but more importantly, it has also helped us to be even more aware of our electricity usage – and the really cool fact is that when we walk out to our garage and the sun is shining – we know we’re making electricity! It really is an amazing experience to know you’ve lessened your dependence on fossil fuels by any amount. As we think about how many miles we drive – and especially those local miles running kiddos around and doing errands, we can see where an electric vehicle could make a lot of economic sense.


(George Hagen showing us the interior controls of the Nissan Leaf)

Decorah residents George and JoAnn Hagen agree. They have been big supporters of alternative vehicles for several years. George cites his background working as an engineer on conservation projects for Chevron in the late 1970s as sparking his personal interests. A 1980 Datsun was the first vehicle he owned that reached 40mpg, and that sparked a string of vehicles over the years that strived for economic impacts, including the Honda Insight – one of the first hybrid vehicles available in the US around 2000.

IMGP6837George still proudly garages their 2000 Honda Insight and is quick to point out that it was also one of the first four to make it to this part of the country via Honda Motorwerks in La Crosse. A Toyota Prius followed in 2005, and in October of 2014 the Hagens acquired their Nissan Leaf – the first 100% electric hybrid they’ve owned. Despite varying experiences on range of trip with the Leaf (both George and JoAnn comment that NE Iowa’s Hills take a toll on the EV’s range!) its clear that the vehicle is fun to drive and certainly does well on local trips, with plenty of power and take-off for around town as well as short highway trips. The Hagens also have a large Solar PV array on their garage and home, so again, the ability to produce one’s fuel for driving comes full circle with the Nissan Leaf.

IMGP6631Meanwhile in Decorah, more than a couple families have invested in the Chevy VOLT – a hybrid gas/electric vehicle that allows for a smaller electric-only range which is then assisted by a gas powered generating “engine” that enables further distance. Ben and Padrin Grimstad were kind of enough to give us a few minutes to check out their VOLT, which they – and their high-school aged daughter – enjoy driving. The electrical charging system allows for a nice around-town range, but isn’t necessary to use the vehicle, which still obtains excellent mileage without regular plug-in charging, as most hybrids do.
IMGP6638Ben says the car is fun to drive, with plenty of pick-up and acceleration, and fun on-board tools and design to let the driver see what is going on with the vehicle. As a local business owner, he also enjoyed being able to purchase the car from an in-town dealer, and that the family’s additional investments in solar power are paying off in multiple ways, like partially powering their VOLT.

Personally, one of my biggest surprises in researching EVs has been both the performance, and surprisingly good ride of these vehicles. They really do have a different ride and solid feel because of the additional weight of batteries and generally shorter wheel base. Combining their low-to-no-gas mileage ranges with the fact that many Driftless Region residents and businesses have installed solar arrays, EVs are becoming a more practical choice every day.

As more EVs hit the market, expect to see local businesses offering EV Charging stations and specific parking spots as well – we’ll be on the lookout to see who leads the way! We love the EV concept here at Inspire(d) HQ. Granted, like any vehicle, the investment is not small, but the benefits are certainly beginning to stack up. Who knows – we may be delivering magazines in a Solar powered EV soon! Vrrrrooom vrroooom!

Solardarity: Solar Powered Community


By Aryn Henning Nichols

When things go south, it’s generally a bad thing.

But when your garage roof goes south, better slap some solar power on there, quick!

“You gotta look south – literally, look south – and see if you have the sun for this thing to work,” says Decorah resident Scott Bassford.

After installing their 18-panel 4500-watt solar array late last year, Bassford’s family (pictured above in 2013) joined the rising number of folks looking south – and then up – to harness the power of the sun. Residential (and commercial) solar projects are gaining popularity in the region (and world) – and not just within the environmental-soap-boxers crowd.

“We did it because it’s fun and I feel like it’s the progressive thing to do,” Bassford says, “and also for the longest time it’s been so out of sight. But 2013-2014 were these magical years where these three funding sources were perfectly aligned. You were looking at payback in six to seven years if you plan it right.”

What sources, you ask?

  1. The price of solar (or photovoltaic) panels has gone way down – it’s less than half the price it was just five years ago, and a small fraction of the cost back in the 70s when the technology was still quite young.
  2. Government tax credits: Federal (covers 30% of the cost of project) and state (for Iowa, an additional 15% off).

And, if you’re a lucky Alliant Energy customer: 3. Alliant Energy rebates (25-30% more; ending now – end of 2014).

Add on to that the general population’s rising awareness about all things environmental, and you’ve got a whole lot of sun catching going on. It really is one of those times where good environment and good economics ride the same train. When people like super-investor Warren Buffett get behind solar in such a big way – his MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company floated an $850 million bond offering for the world’s largest solar project, California’s Topaz Solar Farm – it’s hard not to take notice. That was the first time a public bond offering for a U.S. photovoltaic power project had been deemed “investment grade”, making it seem that greening the world can actually, well, make some green.

There’s even a company called Mosaic that implements crowd-funding, allowing small, non-accredited investors to earn interest financing clean energy initiatives. It’s first offering, four solar projects that projected a 4.5 percent return, had loans starting at just $25. 24 hours and 435 investors later, the projects were sold out.

So what is it about solar that’s so great?

Well, it’s been around awhile – more than 50 years – so a lot of the kinks are worked out. It pays back 10 to 30 times or more it’s environmental cost, it’s adaptable to most any sized project as long as there’s good sun, and it’s widely available throughout the world. And, since there’s not much to the panels in terms of mechanical parts, there’s not much to break.

“Our panels are ‘guaranteed to work 80% as well for 25 years,’” Bassford says.“It’s hard to lose. Even if the technology is twice as good in five, 10, 20 years, the project still holds value.”


Besides good sun (the mantra is “shade-free from 9 to 3”), there are a few other things you’ll need in order to jump on the solar bandwagon.

“After you’ve identified where solar will fit spatially on your property, you need to have some idea how much solar you want/need,” says GoSolar solar installation business owner Dennis Pottraz. Pottraz was the first nationally certified (NABCEP) solar installer in Iowa.

“People often look at their current usage as a place to start. How much of that usage do you want to make for yourself? Almost certainly not more than you use. Though you may anticipate increasing your future usage,” he (sort of) jokes. “I hear an electric car in some people’s dreams.”

Once you’ve accessed your usage, you need to be sure your site can accommodate the system, and that your wallet can handle the investment, even with all the rebates and incentives.

Local environmentally-passionate bank, Decorah Bank and Trust – they have their own large array on top of their downtown Decorah building, in addition to a smaller one over their drive-thru banking area – has  launched an “energy loan” campaign to help people clear that last hurdle.


“We want to eliminate the roadblock for people who don’t have the cash or don’t want to spend the cash up front for the system,” says Decorah Bank and Trust co-president Joe Grimstad. “It’s a good investment in their future. Most of these projects will provide a return to the homeowner. We are seeing a lot of solar projects going up now that should pay for themselves in energy cost savings in five to seven years. After that, it is free electricity! We work to set it up so that the customer can complete the project with little or no additional need for cash flow. Once the system is installed and working, the homeowner applies the funds to the loan that they would have paid to the utility company.”

With the current “magical funding” in place (Alliant’s has run out, but federal and state credits continue through 2016), that’s an investment folks should consider. Andy Johnson, director of Decorah’s Winneshiek Energy District, breaks it down.

“Take a typical five kilowatt home rooftop system: installed cost may be $20,000 max. Take the Alliant rebate off first – potentially $7,000 – it brings it down to $13,000, take off 30 percent for federal and 15 percent for the state tax credit (AFTER the utility rebate comes off), and that brings it down to $7,150,” says Johnson. “If you’re paying 12 cents/kwh, it’s typically in the seven to nine year simple payback – comparable to the historical stock market and a WHOLE lot more predictable and stable!”

Winneshiek Energy District is great regional resource for all sorts of clean energy projects, solar included. Certified Midwest Renewable Energy Association solar site assessor Joel Zook consults on projects and helps wade through questions and paperwork, and is packed with links and helpful research from finding a local installer to understanding just how selling your solar works.


What? You sell it? Well, yes. Think of it like this – when you’re using grid-connected (i.e. utility-provided) electricity, you’re renting your electricity. But when your solar array has created energy, it goes back into the grid, purchased by the electricity company at retail value. That’s electricity you own. Your utility provider then credits it to your account. If you make more electricity than you need, you don’t start to make money (although excess summer energy rolls over and can ride you through darker winter months), though, so it’s essential – and makes the most sense – to only install a system sized for your needs.

Sadly, just “slapping” some solar panels on a roof is not really a reality – the process of approving and installing a system takes months, so interested folks better get on it if they want to take advantage of federal or state tax credits (both expire end of 2016) !

“Even if you’re NOT an Alliant customer, still think NOW!” says Johnson.

And lots of people are, indeed, thinking just that.

“Nearly anyone who has a place to install solar and apply the incentives is interested this year,” says Pottratz. “Solar sure looks like it is here to stay, and that it’s going to keep on growing.”


After writing this story, Aryn Henning Nichols finds herself looking south – and eyeing their garage roof wishfully – to see if they have the sun to “make this thing work.” Using the sun for electricity is pretty darn cool (er, hot, but you know what she means). UPDATE! We installed our small, 8-panel array on our garage this past fall (2014), and we’re making power! We’ll keep you posted on how the numbers all pan out.

Regional solar-lovers in the residential sector are in good company with their commercial-sector friends – Luther College finished “the largest single solar energy production facility in the state of Iowa” and it’s hard to miss the huge arrays that went up on Decorah’s Pizza Ranch this spring.


You can get a chance to learn more about clean energy projects such as these and any other clean energy project that is uploaded (by its owner) through a new tool on the Winneshiek Energy District website.

For other great solar resources, visit: