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Bright idea: How investments in solar energy make for better business plans in West Michigan

Tami and Jeff VandenBerg

What does sunshine have to do with the pint of beer on your local bar? Anya Zentmeyer explains how Alliance for Environmental Sustainability is working with SRInergy and the Michigan Saves Solar Works Initiative to help more West Michigan business and home owners afford rooftop solar panels.
When it comes to energy costs, brewing beer is an expensive business. 

“Brewing is actually a super energy-intensive process,” says Brooks Twist, head of operations at Brewery Vivant. “We’re basically heating and cooling liquids and then moving them, so we use a lot of natural gas to create steam to heat the liquid and we use a lot of electricity to run a huge refrigeration system to cool it back down.”

Each year, Brewery Vivant produces a sustainability report, which has included a goal of having at least 10 percent of its annual energy produced on-site for the past three years. 

“We haven’t moved the needle on that at all, so that’s why we’re now looking at a good way to do that and solar is looking to be the front-runner,” Twist says. 

Brewery Vivant wouldn’t be the first Grand Rapids business to cut back both its costs and environmental footprint with the installation of rooftop solar panels. 

The Pyramid Scheme and Meanwhile bars just installed solar rooftop solar panels in late June and Tami VandenBerg, who co-owns both bars with her brother Jeff, says the 72 panels on Pyramid Scheme and 24 on Meanwhile will offset 30 and 40 percent of utility costs, respectively.  

VandenBerg was initially approached about making the switchto greenhome remodeling practices Alliance for Environmental Sustainability (AES) for her nonprofit Well House, which works to provide safe and affordable housing for the homeless. However, with home improvements and conservation being the priorities there, she suggested Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme and AES took the reins from there.

AES, a local nonprofit that helps homeowners and businesses with greenhome education and solutions, operates in conjunction with SRInergy to install these panels on homes and businesses with zero upfront costs through a monthly payment plan on a loan issued by Michigan Saves Solar Works Initative.   

With total project costs coming out to $69,020 for Pyramid Scheme and $20,580 for Meanwhile, VandenBerg says AES and SRInrgy help to alleviate some of the biggest barriers for businesses looking at solar energy – money and time.

“The other really appealing thing about working with (AES) and SRInergy was that they coordinated everything,” she says. “It was sort of like, the barriers are the money and the time, but if you’re going to take care of this and it’s not going to take up all my time, where do I sign? 

Brett Little, executive director of AES, says he has been seeing a 7-10 year return on investment for homes and businesses with solar panels, which have a 25-year average lifespan on warranty. 

“Assuming you're planning on sticking around, after that point you’ll only make money and then you’ll save on your energy bills, so it’s really just an investment,” he says. “Businesses invest in things all of the time, so it makes sense to invest in solar for electric.”

Little says interest in renewable energy really took a hit during the Great Recession, when a lot of solar companies went under because costs were so expensive. And though he is seeing an increased interest with opportunities for financing and all-around lower costs, he said there’s still a mental barrier with some businesses and homeowners about the costs and benefits.

“You’re going to be in debt to the utilities company regardless, so if you can think ahead and say ‘I’m going to be in business for 20 years and I’m going to have to pay this bill no matter what,’ you can shift that debt away from utilities and toward a loan, pay that loan off and then have a reduced bill,” Little says. “I’ve been told it’s more financially lucrative than some stocks and bonds.” 

So far, AES works primarily with homeowners in the area – including VandenBerg – on energy audits, efficiency improvements, healthy homes and solar paneling, but after working with Pyramid Scheme and Meanwhile, he said he’s been getting more inquires from other businesses in Grand Rapids. Still, the interest level is still lower than they had hoped. 

“I think it’s mostly just a mental barrier that we have to get past,” Little says. “When people try to pitch solar, it’s usually pitched on an environmental feel-good level, it’s not pitched, as ‘this is a good investment for the future.’”
“I think we just have to change the way we talk about it,” he says. “And I think that’s happening.”

Anya Zentmeyer is development news editor at Rapid Growth Media and a Grand Rapids freelance journalist. Send her an email at at anya.zentmeyer@gmail.com for questions, comments or story tips or find her on Twitter @anyazeee. 

Photos by Adam Bird 
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