DES MOINES — Michael Arkwright recently checked the solar panels on the barn behind his home outside Waukee.
Even without receiving any direct sunlight, they were producing enough electricity to power his entire house — including his air conditioner — on a warm July day.
Arkwright, 66, had the solar panels installed two weeks ago after joining Solarize Waukee, the first solar panel group buy-in program in central Iowa.
Launched in April, the program offers discount startup costs for residents and business owners who install solar panels on their rooftops.
Initially limited to property owners within the Waukee school district, the program was recently opened up to anyone with a home or business in Dallas County, and the deadline to sign up extended by one month, to the end of August.
“This has been the best-kept secret in this area,” Arkwright said. “I talk to people about this and they just look at me with blank stares — the majority of people don’t know this thing exists.”
Nine properties in Waukee have signed up for solar installations through the program. The properties together have surpassed its first “kilowatt goal” producing 50kW. Hitting that goal lowers the start-up costs for participants even more. Costs will continue to decrease if the group can reach additional benchmarks of 100kW, 200kW and 300kW using the new solar panels.
Even with state and federal tax credits, the initial cost to install solar panels can be a deterrent.
Andrew Fisher, a solar energy specialist for 1Source Solar, an Ankeny-based solar company, said the average start-up cost for a Solarize Waukee customer is $21,384. After tax credits, the cost ends up at about $11,700.
The amount’s about 9% below the retail price someone outside the program would pay, he said.
An average solar system in Iowa can produce about 10,250kWh per year, which could save customers up to $1,100 annually in electrical costs, allowing the system to pay for itself in about 10 years, Fisher said.
Solarize Waukee is a collaboration between the city of Waukee, the Waukee school district’s APEX program, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and The Nature Conservancy in Iowa.
Peter Murphy, the solar program manager for Midwest Renewable Energy Association, has helped run similar programs in Illinois, Wisconsin and eastern Iowa.
Linn County had the state’s first solar buy-in program in 2017. It resulted in solar panels being installed at 102 properties. A similar program in Johnson County last year resulted in panels at 180 properties.
“We want to make sure we are reaching out to communities that maybe don’t have a lot of solar activity happening or communities that we feel could benefit from additional education,” Murphy said.
Organizers in Waukee have hosted a dozen “solar power hours” to teach people about solar technology and to explain how the tax credits work.
“There are a lot of people that are like, ‘Yeah, I’d like to install solar someday,’ but someday never comes,” said Tyler Wright, an engineering instructor at Waukee APEX. “A lot of people have been on the fence, but with this program, it seems people tend to take the next step.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar accounts for less than 2% of the country’s energy generation.
According to a Solar Energy Industries Association report published in June, however, the first quarter of 2019 was the largest first quarter on record in terms of energy production, with projects adding 2.7GWdc, about 10% more than a year earlier.
The U.S. solar market surpassed 2 million installations this year and is expected to hit the 3 million mark in 2021 with more residential installations, the report says.
The upswing in solar installations comes after increased tariffs on Chinese products that some predicted would depress the U.S. solar industry.
“When the tariffs were announced, there was a little bit of a shiver through the industry and a brace for impact,” Murphy said. “Pricing went up a bit this year, but I would say it’s really hard to attribute price fluctuations to one singular factor.”
Those considering solar panels in Iowa may also be weighing the future of legislation that would allow Iowa’s public utilities to charge additional fees to new solar customers.
Supporters, including Iowa utilities such as MidAmerican Energy, say solar customers do not pay enough money to offset their use of the electrical grid that both solar and non-solar customers use.
Solar advocates say they already pay their fair share in fees to utility companies. They believe the legislation could squash a small but growing industry in the state.
The Iowa Senate passed the bill in March, but it was not put to a vote in the Iowa House. The Legislature reconvenes in January 2020.
Under the Senate’s bill, existing solar customers would be exempt from the new fees.
Arkwright said the combination of improved technology, tax credits and Solarize Waukee discounts made now the right time for him to buy his panels.
An energy-conscious consumer, he already owns two electric cars that he now charges with energy harnessed by the panels on the roof of his barn.