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13020555_10209608940079788_1704296550_nIf you have ever considered putting in solar panels on your home or business, now might be the right time to look into sunning up with the help of SOLARacine.

The new group wants to help property owners install solar energy projects in the greater Racine area by partnering with the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps.

SOLARacine, is one of the projects Greening Greater Racine is working on in the greater Racine area. Tom Rutkowski, one of the organizers and a member of the Greening Greater Racine energy committee, will also serve as the contact person for the contractors. The project includes informing the public on why solar is a practical and cost-effective way to generate energy for homes and businesses. They will also help spearhead area solar power projects in the greater Racine area.

“The goal of the SOLARacine is to distribute the future of clean energy more widely,” Rutkowski said. “A lot of people see these things and think: ‘What’s the use, I can’t do anything.’ But you can do something. How did we create that problem? House by house and car by car. How are we going to solve it? House by house and car by car.”

Cost-savings makes installing solar affordable

SOLARacine wants all property owners in Racine to consider installing solar panels because they plan to collectively build the projects, which will help cut costs.

“Seven years ago when we did Walden’s installation it was $10 a watt and it was 14 kilowatts for $140,000,” Rutkowski said. “Now we are working with two companies, SunVest Solar Inc. and the Current Electric Co., and they gave us a price of $3 a watt.”

The projects will also qualify for a 30 percent federal tax credit that President Barack Obama just extended for five years and up to $2,400 from Wisconsin Focus on Energy, a statewide program for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

“This is really affordable and people just don’t know it yet because there are some forces working against it,” Rutkowski said.

The Wisconsin Focus on Energy program had about $1 million at the beginning of the year and the funding was cut. That fund has about $865,000 left. Once those funds are depleted, the credit will no longer be available. So Rutkowski is encouraging property owners — if they are interested — to take advantage of the credits.

An average home would need about 3.5 to 4 kilowatt-hours. With the tax credits, the cost to install solar could cost about $6,500. But the amount of payback for the projects vary, Rutkowski said.

“What people need to understand is that they are buying seven to eight years worth of energy when the solar panels last 30 to 35 years,” he said. “So it’s an upfront cost and it’s more expensive at first.”

The solar panel projects would not heat the person’s house, unless they have electric heat. So the savings would apply only to electrical use.

Job training expected to impact students

Students Todd Bartlelt, Cheyenne Gieck, Airica Benitez, and Alicia Cook are learning to install solar panels.

The SOLARacine project also has a job training component that includes training a number of Racine youth who are enrolled in the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps, which is working with Current Electric and SunVest Solar to install the solar panels.

Chris Litzau, president of the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps., said this aspect of the program is unique because this helps build upon their knowledge of conservation activities. 

“The expectation is that those who haven’t finished high school, that they finish and have other skills,” Litzau said. “For those who haven’t finished school, we’re going to those skills through certifications.”

The students also can qualify for Americorp Scholarships and paid training projects. The goal of the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps is to “skill up” the workforce.

“It’s really about adding to the value of the person so that they can get to a higher value of earnings,” Litzau said.

But getting the community to buy into the idea of installing solar is paramount to the success of the program.

“The idea is that we want everyone — business, home, and industrial user — anything that needs energy we would like to see them put solar on their building,” he said. “My point of view is that when you come into Racine on Highway 20 with the big wind turbines… it’s just a message of green and renewable energy here.

“But people need to believe it and understand that it’s affordable and they need to see it be implemented.”

A number of area businesses already use solar

A number of businesses, schools, municipalities, and residents have already installed solar panels, including O&H Bakery, Wingspread, the Wind Point Village Office, Harbor House, Racine Montessori, and Walden III High School.

“We want this to appear on people’s houses and for neighbors to wonder what they are doing there,” Rutkowski said.

Many of the companies that install solar panels are short on labor and have told officials with the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps that they would be open to hiring the students. But they will job shadow, watch and help the installers on the projects.

The initial group currently being trained to install the solar panels is made up of all female students.

Cheyenne Gieck, one of the students involved in the training program, said her dad put on solar panels and wind turbines on their home. Gieck, who is 19-years-old, has been in the program since September.

She’s trying to finish up her high school diploma, but she’s looking forward to learning more skills because she has an interest in construction.

“I think this is going to cost a lot at first, but then when you think about it…it’s going to save you way more money in the end,” she said. “I think that’s what might be stopping people now is that it is so expensive.”

For other students, the science behind the solar panels is appealing. Todd Bartelt, who is also a student in the program, said helping save people money is important work.

“Not that many people know about it and this seems like an important skill to have,” she said.

If you are interested in learning more about installing solar panels on your property, click here to visit the Solar Racine.


Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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