From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 8: Overcoming Solar Power Barriers

Reader Contribution by Adam D. Bearup and Hybrid Homes
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Photos by Adam D. Bearup

Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.

The horse barn was steadily taking shape to become the owners’ vision. However, we needed to overcome the bump in the road for installing solar power (detailed in the previous installment). This meant working with the Zoning Administrator on ground-mounted solar options.

Exploring Solar Tax Credit

Thankfully for us, there was another project in the Township whose developer had requested a ground-mounted solar array, and those people had already gone through the multiple meetings required to get the zoning changed to allow ground-mounted solar arrays. Our meeting was a few months away — after the first of the year when a 30-percent federal tax credit for solar was set to begin. We needed to make a decision whether we were going to pre-order everything for the solar installation.

When the owners asked me if we should take the chance and pre-order everything for the solar array without knowing the outcome of the Township meeting, my reply was like it is with many tricky decisions: “Let’s look at it from another angle.”

Neither a yes nor a no — not even a maybe — I asked the owners to check with their tax preparer to see how much the ederal tax credit decreased in the new year and if there was a way to take advantage of the 30 percent tax credit by pre-purchasing. I would give them my answer to the pre-ordering question only after we knew everything that we could know about the tax credits

It was a big gamble to pre-purchase everything before the Township approved ground-mounted solar systems. If the decrease in cost made possible by the federal tax credit was only a few percent, which may be worth it when considering the risk of pre-ordering 66 solar panels and not being able to use them.

Utility Engagement on Solar

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang. It was the solar installer. “The utility company kicked our application back,” he said, going on to tell me that they couldn’t justify the amount of kilowatts that we wanted for our solar array. This utility company used past electrical bills to see how much electricity the house used (in the case of a horse barn, not much) in order to determine if the solar array was justifiable. The utility will not allow any amount of solar energy over the justified amount. We’d hoped to install a 20-kilowatt system. The utility had countered with 6 kilowatts.

By this point, we were building the barn was taking shape as a wellness center, and all of this work with the solar array and Township was still a few months ahead of when we actually needed the work completed. Regardless, the frustration was starting to mount as a result of all of the hurdles in the process.

I normally choose determination over frustration and that motivates me to stick with the process and see it through until the end. But telling the owners of each of these hurdles was very difficult. I try not to lead with the “now don’t get upset, but…”  It is not my favorite part of the job and I have discovered that if we start the design process of a project with good communication, then when the difficult stuff happens, it is easier to bring bad news.

Before I told the owners, I wanted to make sure that I understood everything about why the utility company denied our request. I asked the solar installer for the contact information for who he submitted his application to. I left a message for the contact person to call me back and sent a message to the owners requesting a year’s worth of their electrical bills.

The owners did not have a year’s worth of electric bills, because they had purchased the property the previous fall after the property had sat vacant for a number of years. This was going to be a tough sell. How could we justify the 20-kilowatt solar system now?

My phone rang. It was the representative from the utility company. “The application is incomplete,” he said. The justification for the size of the solar array was missing. There were no pictures or write up to tell the people sitting on the approval committee about our project. “Put it all together in a PDF file and email it back to me and I will review it.”

But how I should handle the fact that no one lived on the property for the past few years?

They would accept invoices, receipts, estimates, and anything else that would show the committee what the wellness center and the house would use for electricity. He said that I should include anything that would justify the energy usage on site.

My mind went to the wellness center’s proposed mechanical systems and its many electrical components needed to heat and cool the structure — we should have no problem justifying the large solar array.

I questioned whether this should be the solar installer’s job to assemble this information and then I brushed that thought off. I got this. Besides, he would be asking me for this information anyway, right?

I continued the process of working during the day on the building of the wellness center and assembling the solar-electric information in the evenings. In the end, I had an 18-page PDF report for the utility company which included several pictures, a very detailed list of proposed electrical usage, and a detailed project scope. During this process, I did contact the solar installer and let him know that I was going to handle the issue with the utility company. He didn’t object.

Strike While the Iron’s Hot

The next day, the representative would print it out and take it to the committee, who was meeting that afternoon. The amount of time from when the solar installer learned of the application getting sent back to this new PDF file going to the committee was just over three days. We have a saying around my house: you gotta strike while the iron is hot!  I have learned in life that this is one of the secrets to success.

My phone rang the next morning.. “Hi Adam,” the representative said. “The committee approved the large solar array.”

I was excited. The solar installer would need to resubmit his application online and follow the procedure there. All we needed now was for the Township to allow the ground mounted solar array.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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