Posted: Sep 29, 2011 at 12:41 PM [Sep 29, 2011]
By Dave Strenski, Founder of the Ypsilanti Solar Project
Over the last few years, if you did an internet search on the greater Detroit area, you’d see bad news. Companies were closing and houses were being foreclosed upon. However, it’s not all doom and gloom -- there’s also opportunity. Here is one story of how a loosely knit group of volunteers in Ypsilanti saw an opportunity to make a difference -- armed with little more than a laptop and a search engine.
Six years ago, my friend Corinne who manages the Ypsilanti Food Cooperative suggested that we look into putting solar panels on the roof of the store. I am a geek and regularly help out with electrical projects, but knew nothing about installing solar panels or writing grant proposals. Luckily, all of that information was already out there somewhere on the internet, I just had to go search for it. Poking around, I was able educate myself about solar power and found a $6,000 grant from the State of Michigan. We drafted a proposal and to our great surprise, they selected us.
Then my searching began in earnest: I started digging into all the technical information available on the web to learn how to design a system, buy panels, and put it together. On a Saturday morning, volunteers and friends rallied together to help with the installation, and four solar panels were quickly up on the roof and wired into the building’s electicity. That was our first system. Who would have guessed that six years later you might see me in a TV spot by Google talking about a cool solar project in Ypsilanti.
As part of the grant, we gave talks to educate the public. We developed a presentation on how solar power works, how it compares to other energy sources, metering, and the importance of efficiency. Every meeting I would get questions about something I didn’t know. I would note them, and go back to Google for the answer, and be a little smarter for the next presentation. Over six years we’ve presented to over 1400 people and I’ve turned into the local solar “guru”.
We won more grants, two back to back in 2008, and installed more panels to the food coop, as well as systems on the back of Ypsilanti’s City Hall and on River Street Bakery. The bakery is now 100% solar powered. Since then we’ve been helping other local buildings such as the Adams School and the Corner Brewery install solar panels.
As we installed more panels, we wanted to monitor the effects in real time, so we invented a way to read utility meters with old laptops and software we wrote. A college student from Eastern Michigan University produced eye-opening graphs from our data that quickly convey how much power the panels generate, how much we consume and the surplus we “sell” back to our utility company. This provided an instant feedback mechanism that changed people’s behavior and saved a lot of power that would have been wasted.
When I started searching, I had to look for information all over the internet. Now we’ve collated all this information into one website, and we’ve become the source for other people searching. My wildest dream is to have a hundred locations in Ypsilanti on SolarYpsi, all being tracked in real-time. It’s amazing to think that a snowy, cloudy corner of Michigan could become a “Solar Destination.”
Just knowing that you can search the internet and find all the answers you need has been invaluable for making all of this information accessible to our community, but the key to SolarYpsi’s success are all the wonderful people here that have rallied behind the project and volunteered their time and talents to help out. My suggestion to any community is this: Think big, start small, and go for it. You can find your answers along the way.