Solar thermal plot project finished

The project was a grassroots initiative to cut carbon emissions.

Caitlin Cornelius

Taking a long shower won’t be a problem for Carla Urban, a Prospect Park resident who participated in the Southeast Como Solar Pilot Project.

A large, thermally powered water tank provided enough hot water for her family to use, Urban said.

“We did it for the principle,” she said.

The project, organized by the Southeast Como Improvement Association, was a grassroots initiative to cut carbon emissions and conserve natural resources by buying and using solar thermal energy in residences. The project was completed in March.

While it originally targeted the Como neighborhood, a need for more participants expanded it to other neighborhoods.

Although the project, which implemented the technology in 18 residences beginning in February 2006, was an overall success, there were several problems along the way.

Justin Eibenholzl, environmental coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said getting the city permits was a challenge, especially because the project required more than one.

“The city didn’t have a permit process for solar water heaters,” he said.

In addition to permit problems, the program also incurred several unexpected costs, he said. A structural engineer had to inspect each home’s roof for structural stability, costing between $400 and $800 per home.

The homeowners were already paying $6,000 out of pocket for the system and installation, project participant Connie Sullivan said. Residents in older homes needed their roofs reinforced to support the solar panels.

Urban said she paid almost $2,000 to have her roofing reinforced.

Some of the residents’ costs will be offset by a federal tax credit of up to $2,000.

Despite the costs, system owners are seeing the payoff. But Eibenholzl said most of the data collection was “anecdotal.”

Chad Skally, owner of Skally Management, installed a solar thermal system in one of his 24-unit apartment buildings.

“We’re saving about $1,000 a year right now, and that will go up with inflation,” Skally said.

Skally said he expects the system to pay for itself in about 15 years.

Eibenholzl said future plans for the project are vague, but it will definitely continue.

He said SECIA is seeking grants and other outside funding for additional projects, including an outreach program with public buildings and a solar thermal demonstration in Van Cleve Park.

The University would be an ideal location for a solar thermal program, Eibenholzl said. The panels could be installed on several buildings, potentially making the campus self-sustainable, and could eventually save the students money on housing.

Although some students have shown interest in the project, many remained uninformed.

“I didn’t hear anything about the program,” said junior Sean Salmi, a resident of University Village apartments. “I would like to get involved, though.”

Until the next phase of the project is actually conceived, the association is working on collecting data from the pilot project in cooperation with the Green Institute of Minneapolis.