The Future of Plugging In

Chapter 3: The Future of Plugging In

Electricity has revolutionized the way we live in the past hundred years. It is impossible to overstate the role of power in our lives and we have paid a heavy environmental price tag for our use of hydrocarbons to provide energy to our cities, homes, transportation, and industries. When we look back on this era, it will seem like an inefficient dark age of power generation, using the irreplaceable fuels of the planet to perform tasks that can easily be accomplished by renewable energy.

The future of energy is truly exciting. In a way, we have always been able to imagine a future free from conventional fuels and nothing feels quite so futuristic as technologies like solar glass, roadways, and cloth. But we are only copying nature, plants the world over have been generating their own energy from the sun since chlorophyll first formed. We have a lot of catching up to do.



The price of solar panels has dropped dramatically in the last several years, 80% since 2007, according to the Berkely National Laboratory. It has quietly become competitive with fossil-fuel based energy, coming in at 12-30 cents per kiloWatt/hour. ( and with expectations that it will hit 4 cents/kWh in the next decade. ( one recent example in Nevada, it already has! (

Currently, most solar panels are manufactured in China, but global demand and expanded manufacturing are growing the industry in Europe and the U.S. Solar energy, including the manufacture of current photovoltaic panels has a carbon footprint of around 30-60 g CO2/kWh, compared to coal-based energy which has around 500-1000 g CO2/kWh. As the solar industry grows, there will be more options to recycle solar panels, which contain valuable metals, but are 98% recyclable. Solar panels operate silently, without creating any air pollution, and take in energy from free sunlight. Even on cloudy days, they generate reliable power for over 700,000 homeowners in the U.S.

In Indiana, we produce 112 MW of solar energy already, basically power for 12,000 homes. And we are just getting started. What does that mean for emissions? The power Hoosiers currently get from the sun is enough to offset 100,000 metric tons of carbon emissions last year. In Indiana, there are 65 solar companies providing employment for about 1,500 people.

One such company is Whole Sun Designs in Wadesville, Indiana.

Ryan Zaricki, founder extraordinaire of Whole Sun Designs, grew up knowing that you don’t swim in the Ohio River, you don’t eat the fish, but that never sat right with him. After attending Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, he headed out to Colorado and worked in green buildings, learning skills in sustainable trades, thinking more critically about electricity and water. He was having fun. His dad needed his help building a house, so he found himself back in Southern Indiana, and he worked for another solar contractor for awhile, moving back and forth between here and Colorado as jobs presented themselves. But then, some Indiana projects fell into his lap and that was the beginning of his own business.

He says he got into the solar business for himself, “out of necessity. I don’t like working for other people and I saw a need for people to be doing solar in this area. My first job came from an email on a listserv, someone posted something about solar and I chimed in to offer my experience from what I saw in Colorado. A person asked about differentiating between bids, I helped out with that. They finally asked if I would just bid for the job…. Happy customers led to more customers.”

There was a drastic drop in solar prices in 2011, so the time was right.

Ryan says “I just wanted to make enough money to pay my bills and student loans, but work snowballed and we had the chance to hire some employees. We’re still a small crew – I don’t really want to become a huge company.”

There have been challenges, naturally, principally the lack of education about solar energy. Letting people know that solar works and how cost effective it is is something Indiana doesn’t do particularly well. Also, incentives for solar here aren’t what they were in Colorado. Incentives can irritate utility companies to not being solar-friendly, so it’s a double edged sword.

We asked Ryan what surprises people most about investing in solar and we heard a common refrain: “It really is cost effective.” They install systems at Whole Sun Designs that are warranted for 25 years but pay for themselves in 10 years. Bigger systems can pay for themselves in 7 years. Compared to the stock market, Ryan says, “the rates of return are comparable to major investments. The technology is user friendly, zero maintenance, people can monitor their systems on a smart phone. The features people get are really cool.”

When Whole Sun does a solar assessment, they look for some basic things. First, a sunny, open sky, is a priority. Second, utility bills tell them how much electricity you are using, which can also lead to a conversation about energy efficiency and how expensive their electricity rates are relative to other customers. Vectren customers’ rates are a bit higher which helps the solar systems pay for themselves more quickly.

Once they work through all the details, and paperwork, they can install a system in just 2-4 days.

Despite more Hoosier homes going solar, there are still some wide-spread misconceptions about solar energy and PV systems. The most common? “That it’s expensive,” Ryan says. “Put it side by side with standard utility power and it blows it out of the water.”

He’s received some crazy questions over the years, about solar flares, requests to build a concentrator on a customer’s roof to reflect more sunlight into their panels. “It was pretty gaudy, aesthetically,” he adds.

The recent California Solar Initiative study had some early indicators of a consolidating solar market. There are about 5 big national solar installers that perform roughly half of residential PV installations. Outside those companies, there are thousands of smaller companies that serve a local area, referred to as the “long tail” of solar installers. Ryan’s company Whole Sun offers something special, that the big companies can’t: creating a relationship.

“From my point of view, once I realized my path was in a home/contractor type of work, I’ve always felt kind of humbled that people let me into their homes, into the deep, dark depths of their homes even! Their utility closets. It’s kind of a sacred space. It’s unlikely you’d let strangers into these places.”

Creating a customer service-focused local business is a big priority for Whole Sun. Buying local isn’t just for food anymore, but in many ways, you can get that personal touch by going local in your energy, also. For those looking to invest in their home or business by installing solar panels, Ryan recommends that they find an educational workshop and really see what it’s all about. He recommends the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN) in Bloomington or the USDA workshops geared towards farmers. “Get tied into a community that has the knowledge and once you have that, go talk to contractors in your area. The internet is a wealth of information. Find a contractor you trust.”

There is so much to look forward to with solar energy technology, recent announcements like the Tesla Power Wall and the Southern Indiana Battery Innovation Center are cool for renewable professionals like Ryan. “Batteries, off-grid systems, it’s going to be coming full circle. We are carrying around lithium ion batteries in our pockets, it’s just a matter of time before that scales up.” For power geeks like him, he adds, “inverter technology is cool.” From things like interconnected homes, smart grids,and way energy services are delivered, it’s a fascinating area to watch for him.

You can find out more about Whole Sun Designs at


Bloomington residents and businesses are going solar and Solar Systems of Indiana, Inc. is helping them meet their alternative energy goals.  The company has been operating since 2006, and its certifications include: NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practioners), MREA (Midwest Renewable Energy Association), and SEI (Solar Energy International).  In addition to designing and installing residential and commercial renewable energy systems, it also offers educational energy conservation programs.

Solar Systems’ mission is to design and install renewable energy systems that are reliable, safe, high performance and pollution free. They strive to construct code-compliant systems that are safe and long lasting using the best available and most reliable components available today.

Their website says that the time to invest in solar energy has arrived due to lower module pricing and higher federal incentives.  In fact, it explains that Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC) will help consumers pay for their solar energy systems. Past and current Solar Systems of Indiana clients include energy companies such as Duke and Hoosier, governmental agencies, schools and universities, religious organizations, businesses and restaurants, in addition to private home owners.

You can learn more about Solar Systems of Indiana at


Renewable energy clearly has many great advantages, but what happens when the wind stops blowing or the sun is on the other side of the world?  Electric-generating utilities can manage the predictable ups and downs from renewable energy sources, but rapid and unexpected changes can cause problems. Electricity grids require a continuous balance between energy supply and demand. Renewable generation, such as solar and wind can pose some challenges in 24-hour supply, and that is slowing their adoption into the grid systems. This is where battery technology comes in.

Altairnano Technologies, in Anderson, IN produces a battery based system to deal with the intermittency problem.  The battery, based on innovative nanotechnology, stores megawatts of energy when excess energy is available and begins releasing that energy back to the grid within milliseconds when the need arises.  This gives the grid managers time to stabilize the grid, using conventional generators, and avoid major disruptions.  Since the intermittency problem has slowed the adoption of renewable energy, the Altairnano system has to potential to accelerate the adoption of wind and solar energy.

For more information about utility-scale energy storage, and to see a list of articles and white papers, visit the Altairnano website at

Storing energy from renewable sources will be actively researched at Southern Indiana’s Battery Innovation Center (BIC) in Crane, Indiana. Duke Energy and the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor (OUCC) are partnering with the Battery Innovation Center to make strides energy storage research for homeowners and communities alike. Research of this kind speeds towards making renewables the clear path to energy independence.


Many Hoosiers have their home as their primary investment, solar homeowners are making their roofs work over time for them. With electricity costs on the rise, many homeowners are looking to make the switch to solar power but they have a lot of questions. Ray Wilson, who has owned photovoltaic panels for several years, shared his experience being the first wave of Hoosier solar homes.

Ray’s background is in agricultural engineering and during the 1973 oil embargo, price surging made him a bit of an energy expert at his then employer, the Farm Bureau. He says “I became really interested in energy and the finite amount of it. Farmers are always interested in saving money.”

When he remodeled the second floor of his home, he designed the roof so he could place panels there eventually. Years went by, and despite a new roof, he still hadn’t put up the solar panels he’d been waiting for. A trip to Denver for a weeklong conference on renewable energy gave him the final push: he came home with now-or-never sense of commitment. There weren’t a lot of solar businesses in the area, but from his experience he just knew Johnson Mellow did solar installations. His first attempt fell through, but he followed up with a different person there and finally got started on his system. He acknowledges, “I should have shopped around but at the time there weren’t too many choices.” Now there are dozens. At the time, he paid $3.85 per watt for his 5 kW system. Ray’s church then bought a system for $2.85 per watt a few years later. Five more churches that are part of the Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light program just got a quote for $2.25 per watt recently. Ultimately, Ray said, “it’s the right thing to do, and I was prepared to do it.”

As part of his renewable energy conversion, Ray said he had saving energy and using energy more efficiently for awhile. His electric utility company, IPL, requires that you size your PV system to the power you use, so he determined the size of his system based on his past use which his electricity bills could document. He paid about $19,250 total for his system, but that was before tax credits and the rebate from his utility, so in the end it was closer to $10,000. Now, systems like his start a bit closer to $10,000, not too far off the cost of a kitchen remodel or new carpeting.

His neighborhood wasn’t too curious about the panels, until they started getting their bills with the comparison to how much power they used compared to their most efficient neighbors. Ray had initially told them he was going to install solar at a party they’d held and no one really minded, but their bills finally peaked their attention.

During the winter, Ray mentioned, solar panels make more electricity in cold, so his power production does just fine. He has a steep slope on his roof, so the snow tends to slide right off, but he’s been known to get up there and sweep it off on occasion.

During the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly, rooftop solar became a hot topic with the introduction of HB1320, to end the state’s net-metering program and allow utilities to write all the rules for every homeowner who wants to invest in their own solar panels. Ray became an advocate for rooftop solar as an experienced early adopter and engineer. He said he learned a few things during the session, he shared that “it became more apparent that people just can’t turn off their bill, there’s a base connection cost. If you use a small amount of electricity you pay a higher price per kiloWatt hour. If you use a small amount of elec you pay a higher price per kWh. My kWH is around 12-18 cents higher under 300 kWh each month.” He was also happy to find that he was NOT costing his neighbors more for their share of the grid, in fact he was likely providing a net benefit.

Overall, he is very nothing but happy with his decision to go solar. He produces just about as much power as he uses with his system, about 17kWh per day of his 19.5kWh usage. He could increase his solar production even more if he was willing to “cut down that tree,” he says. He hopes many more Hoosiers who have a little to invest in their homes will consider going solar. It’s one of the best investments you can possibly make, even compared to saving money in interest-bearing accounts. Rooftop solar systems can also add $15,000 to the value of a home, as well.

“People need to understand it’s not complicated. They ask how I maintain my panels, well, you put them up there and they generate electricity, that’s it.”




Turning our gaze down from the sky, under our feet we have a lot of renewable energy potential. A geothermal heat pump system is a heating and cooling system that uses the Earth’s ability to store heat in the ground, using the ground as either a heat source, when operating in heating mode, or a heat sink, when operating in cooling mode.

If you go just a few feet below the surface, our ground has a very stable temperature throughout the year. Geothermal heat pumps draw that available heat in the winter and sink heat into the ground in the summer where a furnace or boiler would be burning fuel to generate those temperatures. At Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, a geothermal project will take advantage of this near-constant temperature of the earth starting approximately ten feet below the surface of the ground to assist with heating in winter months and cooling in summer months. There is no direct interaction between the water in the system and the earth, only heat transfer through the pipes.

According to Mike Luster, PE, LEED AP, senior mechanical engineer at MEP Associates who led the project at Ball State, geothermal systems offer college and university campuses a number of benefits. Those include operational energy cost savings, reduced system maintenance and associated costs, avoided costs the for handling the ash that would otherwise result from burning coal as a fuel; and reductions of the carbon footprint that otherwise would result from the use of fossil fuels to heat and cool campus buildings.

At Ball State, the geothermal system will heat and cool all 45 buildings on the 660-acre campus. The geothermal system is expected to save BSU approximately two million dollars per year in operating costs at todayʼs pricing and will insure future avoided costs for carbon taxing. The system will replace four coal-fired boilers and reduce the universityʼs net carbon footprint.“Beyond the substantial economic and environmental benefits of this campus-wide installation, the geothermal project also is serving as a platform for field-based research and education,” said Professor Robert Koester, Director of the Center for Energy Research/Education/Service and Chair of the Council on the Environment at Ball State University. “Faculty and students are working across disciplinary boundaries; the university is connecting with its counterparts to share its findings; and our industry partners continue to help as we advance our collective understandings of the best practices in the use of this technology.”

By taking the current, aging boilers offline, Ball State will be able to reduce its carbon dioxide footprint by approximately 85,000 tons per year, nearly half of its previous footprint. Furthermore, the geothermal project is challenging the misconception that renewable energy is not cost-effective or practical for our institutions and businesses.

For more information about the Geothermal project at BSU:



The Midwestern windmills have been providing energy to pump water or grind grain for over a hundred years. Millions of windmills were installed across the midwest primarily to power irrigation pumps. By the 1900s, there was tremendous interest in windmills that provided electricity, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago featured several designs by 15 different companies. By midcentury, many turbines were unused and shut down, but rising oil costs in the 1970s spurred a revival. The modern wind turbines that now dot the Hoosier landscape are mostly of the Horizontal-axis or HAWT variety with three blades, 20 to 40 meters long, and they are white for better visibility in the daytime. There are other designs and vertical axis designs as well. The horizontal axis turbines are capable of generating anywhere between 100 kilowatts to 5 megawatts of energy and every kilowatt hour of electricity produced by wind replaces 1.5 pounds of carbon dioxide that would have been generated by coal-fired power. But wind energy isn’t just good for the environment, an 80 megawatt wind farm is able to provide 400 people with employment and add as much as $50.14 million to the local economy. (

Indiana isn’t just going to see more turbines being built, but an active participation in the wind-power industry. We expect to take part in manufacturing and assembly of these icons of the new Midwestern landscape. Furthermore, training the workers who will build and maintain turbines is critical. At Amatrol Inc, we are moving towards that important goal.

Although Amatrol Inc. of Jeffersonville, Indiana, has been educating for technical skills since 1981, its green energy program is relatively new, beginning in 2010, the same year it was named Small Business of the Year by both the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Louisville’s Business First. The company was approached by a manufacturer called Clipper Windpower, who needed skilled workers and wanted to see growth in the wind power industry overall. After developing training in with utility-scale wind technology, Amatrol then moved to large-scale solar, and finally residential solar, both photovoltaic and thermal.

In the U.S., Amatrol trains teachers in universities, community colleges, high schools, and vocational schools (including Ivy Tech in Indiana and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System), offering both curriculum and equipment. Amatrol’s vice president of sales Joe Reid explains that there are 600,000 manufacturing jobs unfilled in the U.S. because of lack of work force training for today’s jobs.

Many nations are ahead of the U.S. in green energy. European countries, for instance, lacking our abundant fossil fuels, are forced to be more innovative. While large-scale wind power operations dominate and the U.S. and Canada, solar technology is more popular in locations where smaller-scale operations are needed. The cost-effectiveness of both technologies continues to improve steadily, but Reid predicted that geothermal’s popularity may overtake them both.

In the U.S., utility-scale wind technology is limited not only by lack of trained technicians but also by an electrical grid that is inadequate to handle all that wind farms can provide it, as well as by a tendency to build only when tax credits are available. This means jobs come and go depending on the way the wind blows, so to speak, in Washington. It is not yet clear what the smart grid will look like; therefore, it isn’t yet clear what vocational skills will be needed to service it. Mr. Reid said the company hopes to see long-term changes in energy sources over time, with natural gas taking the place of coal as a transitional fuel.

The kinds of green energy jobs for which people will be training will continue to evolve. Amatrol tries to help build into their curriculum the wide-spectrum knowledge and flexibility that will enable workers to evolve alongside ever-developing technology.



South Bend Hydroelectric Project?