HANCOCK COUNTY — Residents searching for simple ways to join the clean energy movement might soon have a solution.

NineStar Connect, a Greenfield-based nonprofit utility provider, is preparing to unroll a new program allowing customers to begin leasing solar panels. The solar farm — comprising 230 panels packed into narrow rows on a single acre property sitting just off county roads 600N and 600E — represents the company’s first foray into alternative energy, a movement that’s gaining momentum as interest in clean energy climbs and costs shrink.

Power collected from the panels, which all face south for maximum sun exposure, travels from the solar farm to several NineStar substations. From there, the power is transported to both homes and businesses throughout the community.

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Solar energy, once seen as a fad reserved for the wealthy, has established a foothold in the consumer market, but high upfront purchase prices and installation fees are simply too high for many, said Brad Henderson, facilities and special projects manager for NineStar.

Participants in the new program, which is optional and reserved for NineStar electric customers, will pay $1,250 to lease a panel for 20 years. The panel remains at the solar farm — it is not installed on the customer’s house — and NineStar will perform maintenance as needed. Customers will receive a small credit on their monthly bills based on the array’s output.

The cost savings are nominal — an estimated $5 or $6 monthly — meaning it will take the customer 16 to 17 years to cover the cost of the panel. But some are eager to commit, saying the benefit to the environment is worth the long-term investment.

Environmental activists long have heralded alternative energies as the means for a sustainable future. While more expensive and less efficient to produce than coal and nuclear power, solar power puts off no carbon emissions and has very little impact on surrounding land.

Jack Goss of McCordsville was one of the first to sign a wait-list for the new program, which officially rolls out on Earth Day, April 22.

Goss said he and his wife had been looking for an avenue to ease into alternative energy production, and NineStar’s program fit the bill.

“We’re starting small, but this could be the beginning of a great project that could benefit the whole community,” Goss said.

And despite the initial investment, the panel’s value will likely increase from year to year, as the amount of power it produces remains consistent, even as electric rates continue to rise, Goss pointed out.

In 2010, the average cost per kilowatt of energy statewide ran at roughly 7.7 cents compared to 10.5 cents today, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The company’s projected savings during a 20-year period are about $1,600. If a customer moves during their lease, the company can transfer the credit to their new property provided it is located in NineStar’s service area.

If a customer leaves the service area, they will receive a partial refund for the panel; Henderson said.

Members of NineStar’s board of directors have been interested in exploring alternative energy production for years, said Steve Vail, chairman of the board.

Depending on response from customers, the program could become a catalyst, potentially leading the company to consider expansions and additional solar arrays, Vail said.

“Interest is rising, and it’ll just continue as the technology advances and we learn more,” Vail said.

In all, the solar field cost approximately $310,000 to purchase and install, Henderson said, adding that the whole outfit requires minimal maintenance.

Though Greenfield Power and Light doesn’t offer its customers a panel program, the utility receives a portion of its power from a series of solar stations scattered across central Indiana, said Mike Fruth, director of utilities for the City of Greenfield.

As costs continue to decrease, alternative energies will become an increasingly attractive option for the city to consider, Fruth said.

How solar power works

Power collected from the panels, which all face south for maximum sun exposure, travels from the solar farm to several NineStar substations. From there, the power is transported to both homes and businesses throughout the community.

Author photo
Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.