The Ypsilanti Food Cooperative – A Solar PV Pioneer

Fifteen years ago the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative installed four 190 watt solar panels on the roof of their building and a 1800 watt Sunny Boy inverter. This was the birth of SolarYpsi, which would later help the City of Ypsilanti go from zero to 1.4 MW of solar power today. That initial system costs about $7.90/watt and was installed by volunteers. Today a solar installation cost as low as $2.50/watt when done by a contractor and even lower when done with volunteers.

The initial system cost $6000 and was funded by a grant from the State of Michigan. Not knowing what we we’re doing and in a bit of a hurry, we placed the panels right next to the chimney that blocks the sunlight on the right panel every morning.

Part of the grant was to give solar presentations to talk about the project and encourage others to install solar power. Later, we started to make a few dollars giving talks and that funded a fifth panel. With the fifth panel we also moved the panels in front of the chimney removing the shadow.

Winning a second and third grant from the State of Michigan we expanded the initial system to 12 panels, 2.3kW, added 6kW on the bakery roof and 2.5kW on the back of City Hall. With the addition of these seven new panels, we need to get a bigger inverter, so we sold the 1800 watt Sunny Boy on eBay and bought a new Sunny Boy 2100 watt inverter. A typical system today is 5kW or larger, so this initial system on the Ypsi Food Co-op is quite small in comparison.

Here’s Dayna flipping on the solar installation. The solar DC disconnect is on the right, the 1800 watt Sunny Boy is in the middle and one of the store’s breaker panels is located on the left. In these early days we were also using energy viewers to measure the power entering the store, leaving the store, and being generated with live displays on a wall in the store. Customers enjoyed “seeing” the solar power being generated. Later we figured out how to read the utility meters directly and made real time graphs of the power.

Another thing we learned along the way is that inverters (at least the older ones) make a slight buzzing noise when operating, so when we expanded the system we put the new 2100 watt Sunny Boy outside. Here’s a picture of the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative store manager, Corinne Sikorski, next to the DC disconnect and inverter as they sit today. At the time we were not sure about how rain would effect the inverter so we built a cute small copper roof to keep the rain off.

It’s a bit hard to read, but here’s the display showing the 5.6 years of runtime on the inverter. The manufacturing tag shows it was made in January of 2007.

SolarYpsi has had a wonderful 15 years helping people understand solar power, designing solar installations, and organizing volunteers to install many solar installations around town. It all started at the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative with four Sanyo panels and an SMA Sunny Boy inverter. SolarYpsi still calls it home today.

Here a short review of some of our accomplishments.

Videos
Time lapse and aerial videos of solar installations around town
Video that Google made about SolarYpsi
TEDxEMU talk about solar power in Ypsilanti
Final video from the Solar in your Community challenge

Articles
Building a Solar Community at a Michigan Fire Station
Finally Walking my Solar Talk
Anonymous Donor Funds Six Solar Installations
Harvesting Perpetual Light
Let the Sun Shine In, Cemeteries Turn to Solar for Power and Income

Awards
City of Ypsilanti selected for Smart 50 Award
City of Ypsilanti awarded SolSmart Gold Designation
Ypsilanti shining the Way for Solar Power

Podcasts
Review Deja vu – Solar Ypsi

Solar presentations
Presentation at Landline Creative Labs
Presentation at The Ypsi
Presentation at the Ypsilanti District Library with Spanish Translation





SolarYpsi Turns 100

SolarYpsi started around 2005 with four solar panels installed on the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative. Over time more solar was installed in the city and we started the SolarYpsi.org website to showcase these installations and to start tracking the amount of solar power. As of today the SolarYpsi website has 116 solar installations from California and the Upper Peninsula, but the bulk of them in the Ypsi/AnnArbor area and 72 solar installations in the City of Ypsilanti. While SolarYpsi did not have a hand in all of the installation, they have helped from just planting the idea, giving solar presentations, making quotes, connecting home owners to contractors, all the way to designing and installing several of the systems. I was actually surprised when I asked the city for a list of all addresses that pulled a permit for solar power and discovered that the SolarYpsi.org website was missing 16 installations! A little solar detective work using permits, google maps, and driving by the homes and I’m confident that we have them all accounted for now.

The solar installations in the city range in size from a single panel to power some outdoor device to 2520 panels installed in the Highland Cemetery. On average, Ypsi has installed about 92 kilowatts per year and about 5 installs per year. In2005 with the system on the Ypsi Food Co-op, the panels cost $1000 and generated 190 watts of power, $5.26/watt. Today we can buy 320 watt panels for about $200, $0.62/watt. That’s an 8.4 times improvement in the past 15 years. In 2005 we would fret about a phone line that might cross in front of the panels and shade them a bit. Now the majority of the costs is in the labor and we want to figure out the fastest way to install the panels.

Ypsilanti has come a long way in 15 years with 1.3MW of solar capacity. The city has been published in several magazine touting their solar achievements, been on TV, the internet, podcast, and won several awards. Unfortunately we’re not going to make our goal of 1000 solar roofs by 2020. If we say an average solar roof is 5kW, then we have about (1.385MW/5kW) 277 solar roofs in the city, less then a third of our goal. I’m still pushing to get a megawatt of solar installed on the old landfill near the Huron Street exit on I94 and to put solar on 100 low income homes, but still lacking the funds to make either happen. What we really should be proud of is that if you divide our solar capacity by our population we’re currently at 66 watts per person, that makes us better that San Francisco, CA and Austin, TX.

So we’re not done yet. The Federal renewable energy tax credit is still in effect for two more years and maybe longer depending on who gets elected. The price of solar panels continues to drops and solar power still has a positive return on investment. If we could find some funding, we could make the landfill and/or low income home projects happen and double our numbers.

Call a solar contractor today and get a quote to put solar on your home, church, business, or non-profit. Call your philanthropic friends and organizations and ask them to talk with the “solar guy in Ypsi” and lets make some big projects happen. Not sure we could ever beat Honolulu (840 watt per person), but we could easily double or triple our numbers and get in the top ten.

University of Michigan Energy CLUB install solar on Educate Youth club house

After learning about solar power from SolarYpsi, the Michigan Energy Club at the University of Michigan were motivated to accomplish their own solar installation. Reaching out to several non-profit organizations in Ypsilanti they connected with Gail Wolkoff, Founder and Executive Director of Educate Youth, an after-school program to increase graduation rates. “This project is a gift which will keep on giving for the next 30 years” said Gail Wolkoff. “Not only does the club house have solar panels, but the students who attend Educate Youth programs will learn about alternative energy and experience the benefits of solar power”.

After months of research, the Energy Club was able to design a system, collect quotes for the project, pull building, electrical, and historic district permits, and find the funding to make the project a reality. The solar contractor Distributed Power agreed to work with the students and together they successfully install the panels in January of 2020.

“This project is an excellent example of what can happen with you stop talking about what needs to be done, and just do it”, says Dave Strenski from SolarYpsi. The students took on the many challenges and worked with several outside parties to make this project happen. The project hopes to inspire others to install solar on their homes or businesses today. If you don’t have the funds or your roof is not suitable for solar power, then help some else put solar on their roof like the Energy Club accomplished.

Ypsilanti’s Educate Youth mission is to provide programming for Ypsilanti teens which will promote positive outcomes in all areas of life. We are committed to increasing the number of Ypsilanti students who receive a diploma, and for each graduate to have a post-high school plan, one student at a time.

The Michigan Energy Club is established to create a university-wide club that encourages and facilitates collaboration and education regarding technical aspects of energy developments. Through a variety of activities (projects, discussions, seminars, outreach events, competitions etc.), the Michigan Energy Club provides participating members with meaningful project-based learning and an atmosphere of edification and communal support for those individuals that share an interest in Energy and may furthermore hold long term goals of making an impact in this field.

You can find more information about this project on this SolarYpsi page.

Ypsilanti in American Cemetery and Cremation for the second time

Back in November of 2018 an article about Ypsilanti’s solar array in Highland Cemetery was published in American Cemetery and Cremation magazine. You can re-read that article here. Harvesting Perpetual Light http://www.solarypsi.org/CemCremArticle.pdf

Well it appears that Ypsilanti is not only a leader in solar power, but also a leader in solar power in cemeteries. American Cemetery and Cremation magazine wrote another article about solar in cemeteries and featured Highland Cemetery as a success story.

Let the Sun Shine In http://www.acm-digital.com/acm/january_2020/MobilePagedReplica.action?=undefined&pm=2&folio=16#pg19

SolarYpsi interviewed by ESAL

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (esal.us) is a national organization dedicated to increasing local engagement by professionals with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). My co-worker at Cray, Arti Garg, is the founder of ESAL and when I told her about SolarYpsi they decided to interview me for their blog. You can read it here. Enjoy.

SolarYpsi: A Grass-Roots Approach to Renewable Energy https://www.esal.us/blog/solarypsi/

Damn Squirrels!!!!

So I’m looking at the solar panels on our roof and notice a bunch of twigs, leaves, brush clumped up under the panels. I’ve seen this before in 2013 when we first installed the panels. A squirrels had built a nest under the panels. Not sure how long the squirrels stick around, because it can get quite hot under those panels. Thinking it was a squirrel nest, I got the ladder out and climbed up on the roof to evict the little critters. After clearing the nest I saw this.

Those buggers did some recreational chewing on my wires!!! Back down the ladder to get some electrical tape and zip ties. As I taped up this chewed wire I looked at the next panel and saw some more. I taped that one and found some more.

And then I saw this just laying on the roof.

They had chewed both ends and the wire (and connector) was just laying up there. Well now I know that at least one panel is NOT working so I pull out my phone and fire up the Enphase monitoring app and check the system. Damn!!! four panels are not working. I quit for the day, check my inventory of M4 connectors and wire, and made a plan to fix everything . After 5 hours of up and down the ladder on a Sunday afternoon, removing panels and micro-inverters carrying them down to the ground, splicing on new connectors and wire, and carrying them back up to reinstall, everything is working again. Here’s the extent of squirrel damage and my repairs.

The squirrel seem to enjoy chewing the negative wire more than the positive. Maybe just a coincidence. Since they are chewing only one wire at a time and likely at night, I don’t think they got a shock. Maybe if they had a wet tail and chewed the positive on a sunny day. There was one place where they chewed the trunk line and might have gotten to taste a few electrons.

We’re back to full power and I tried to zip tie the wires closer to the rails/panels to make it harder to chew. The nest is gone and I’ve been checking everyday for any signs of them coming back. One tip that saved some money is that I cut the leads of broken/bad micro-inverters/optimizes when I replace them. That gives me a 3 foot wire with one connector. Add a new M4 to the other side and makes a nice jumper cable for panels with chewed off wires!

Ypsilanti used as a case study for leading solar in Michigan

In 2017 the City of Ypsilanti was awarded a SolSmart Gold designation for its efforts in promoting solar power. You can read about that award here. Later, Ypsilanti also achieved special awards for our solar permitting, planning and market development. Being the first and only SolSmart award winner in Michigan the Solar Foundation has now made a case study about Ypsilanti to encourage other communities become solar ready. You can read about that here. Ypsi continues to strive for a 1000 solar roofs and becoming a solar destination.

Ypsilanti a “solar Leader” in Environment America report

Imaging my surprise when I opened the latest Environment America Shining Cities 2019 report and searched for Michigan. I wanted to see which Michigan cities were doing well in solar power and who did I find? Ypsilanti Michigan!

I’ve been saying for quite a while that Ypsilanti has been doing a great job with installing solar power and ranked in the top 20 of solar cities nationwide on a watt per capita basis. We’re still not listed in the top ranking found on page 7, but wait, we got our own paragraph on page 27 in the “Smaller Cities and Towns Are Going Big on Solar Energy” section.

While our watts per capita continues to grow, currently at (1,177,555 watts / 21,076 people) 55.6 watts/capita, the competition continues to install solar at a faster rate. If we were on today’s list, we would have dropped to 21st place. Bummer….. Come on follow Ypsilantians, let’s installing more solar!

Enjoy the report and see how we rank against other major cities in the US. We’re currently just behind San Francisco. If we could get the landfill project to move forward we would double our solar capacity. There are many large roofs on South Mansfield that could also easily double the amount of installed power. There are thousands of residential homes that could go solar. We may not get to 17 MW of solar power and make it to the #1 slot, but we could easily be in the top 10. Install solar on your home or business today.

Ypsilanti mentioned in Environment America’s Shining City 2019 report.

Department of energy recognizes Ypsilanti as a low-income solar empowerment zone

About two years ago the City of Ypsilanti partnered with Chart House Energy and SolarYpsi to enter the Department of Energy Solar in Your Community Challenge. While not winning any money from the challenge, Ypsilanti was recognized as a low-income solar empowerment zone.

https://mailchi.mp/95466c248a96/winners-announced?e=b78fba2d5c

Starting with 170 teams nationwide, 5 teams were awarded money and 12 teams, including Ypsilanti, were acknowledged for their efforts.

Low-Income Empowerment: Helping Communities Most in Need

  • Solar Pioneers (Brooklyn, NY) – This team increased local education and improved customer acquisition in two low-income communities, creating a training curriculum and empowering youth with the knowledge to be community ambassadors for solar. They installed 307 kW of solar.
  • Solar Destination Ypsilanti (Ypsilanti, MI) – This team deployed over 600 kW of solar, with 44% of it benefiting LMI, and plans to install almost 3 MW by late 2019 in an area where median household income is well below the U.S. average. Local residents were trained to perform solar installation and worked on projects.

This another great example of Ypsilanti on the national map for their efforts to become a Solar Destination. The city and local community has been tremendous in their support for solar power and the number of installations continues to grow. With over 55 watts per capita putting us in the top 20 in the nation for solar power.

Here’s video about our project. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-wbrxGES14

SolarYpsi would like to thank Chart House Energy for their support and helping to make this project successful. We also continues to seek funds to grow solar power even faster and bring it to the residents that need it the most. Let us know if you have any ideas.