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Catching some rays: Solar power

Dede and Tom Laviolette with a solar panel. (click for larger version)
February 02, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- Tom Laviolette had to clear his driveway of snow this week, like hundreds of other residents in the township, and millions of Americans, after a massive storm moved across the country.

However, he also had an extra task due to the storm—shoveling the snow off solar panels attached to his roof. Even with a lack of sunlight in the winter, it's a chore that pays off in the end—Laviolette expects to save more than 75 percent annually off his former energy bills from the system he designed and installed himself.

"I made a special shovel, like a regular roof snow shovel, but with a special edge so it won't scratch the glass," said Laviolette. "After I shovel the drive, I do the roof. And if it didn't snow, we'd be completely maintenance free."

Laviolette, who has a 3,000-plus square-foot home with an indoor pool, was paying electric bills that were $400 per month.

"I thought it was ridiculous, and we decided to put solar panels up," said the certified engineer.

Laviolette is taking part in the DTE Energy program SolarCurrents.

According to the DTE Energy website, "the pilot program is intended to encourage customers to purchase and install a solar energy system, and at the same time help the utility meet renewable energy targets contained in comprehensive energy legislation. The Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act of 2008 requires Michigan's electric utilities to provide 10 percent of their electricity sales from renewable resources by 2015.

Solar energy systems generate electricity through the use of photovoltaic (PV) technology, which turns the sun's light energy into electricity. After passing through a component called an inverter, the direct current electricity generated by the solar panels is converted to alternating current - the type of electricity accessed through standard electric outlets.

A solar energy system for a typical 2,000 square foot home or business can cost about $18,000 to install. Under SolarCurrents, customers will receive a one-time payment when their system is installed. They then will receive monthly credits on their electric bill for the next 20 years for providing Detroit Edison with renewable energy credits associated with the system."

Laviolette said that the company pays residents and businesses $2.40 for every watt of solar cells that are approved and pays 11 cents per kilowatt of energy produced.

"They only charge 9 cents per kilowatt when they are selling it to you," he explained. "The goal is the homeowner generates 85 percent of the utility bill. We never make money off the program. If I have a negative balance, DTE keeps the money."

Laviolette, a certified engineer, designed and installed his 12,888 watt system in November. He paid all the costs upfront, but DTE sent reimbursed him for nearly half the cost after the system was completed and he will also receive 30 percent of the total cost back on his taxes this year.

"I use a lot more energy than a normal house," noted Laviolette. "A normal house needs a much smaller system. Someone with a typical house might only need a quarter of the system I put up and the cost goes way down."

The solar panels on the Laviolette home attach to the shingles. Laviolette estimates he makes 51 kilowatts of electricity on a sunny winter day, and in the summer, he hopes to make more than 100 kilowatts per day.

His electricity service is seamless, with no disruption in service or changes, with the exception of a lower bill.

"We wanted to become more green, we were trying to offset our carbon footprint," Laviolette said. "We will have a zero carbon footprint on our property now, and DTE gets credit for all that. We are not completely independent off the grid, but it's a nice feeling to know we are producing the majority of our electricity."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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