JEFFERSON — A big investment a decade ago in sustainable energy has continued to pay dividends for the Jefferson Area Business Center and the community at large, saving one million pounds of carbon emissions from going into the atmosphere.
JABC owner Steve Lewis started 10 years ago with 99 solar panels. That investment paid off so well that he added another 308 solar panels on the top of his building last fall.
With the increased solar energy coming in, Lewis said he’ll now be able to save a million pounds of carbon from going into the atmosphere every three years.
It has been an amazing journey for the Jefferson Area Business Center, also known as the “Old Woolen Mill” after the business that once occupied the historic brick building.
The whole endeavor actually arose out of a disaster.
In 2008, the historic industrial plant received heavy damage when the Rock River reached 500-year flood levels, swamping low-lying areas along the river and submerging one of the city’s major bridges, thus cutting off travel from one side of the city to the other.
At the time of the flood, areas of the old woolen mill were inundated with water. Lewis could have thrown in the towel and relocated elsewhere. Instead, he chose to remodel on-site, saving the historic building, improving its aesthetics and investing heavily in environmentally friendly initiatives.
He said his main motivation to go solar was the reduction it would represent in his energy bill, but he also felt it was the right thing to do and he hoped to inspire others to follow his example and to pursue sustainable energy practices.
The move helped out the local and regional utilities as well.
“By mandate, WPPI had to have 25 percent of its electricity coming in from solar or other renewable energy, so they were eager to work with me,” Lewis said.
“The company signed a contract with me stating that I’d supply all of the solar energy my system generated to them for a decade, and they’d prepay me to help finance the investment.”
WPPI provided a $72,000 up-front payment to cover 10 years worth of energy from the system.
Without that up-front payment, it would have been difficult for Lewis to afford the system. He also benefited from grant funding through Focus on Energy and from tax credits targeting sustainable energy.
The first step in the process was to get a professional assessment of the JABC location to see if it was a good fit for solar energy.
Already the property had an edge because of its location in Wisconsin. The state’s cool climate makes solar panels more efficient.
Another factor in the property’s suitability was the degree of shade (or lack thereof) on the rooftop. A lot of trees or other buildings shading the roof would have made the array less efficient because it would have cut down the amount of solar energy captured.
The 120,000-square foot JABC had less than 1 percent shading, making it ideal.
The next step was to make the building as a whole more efficient in terms of power use, to maximize the amount of solar energy available to go into the local energy grid.
To this end, Lewis changed out old-fashioned exit signs and other lighting for highly efficient LED lighting and made other renovations to increase the building’s efficiency.
Before the actual panels could be installed, first Lewis had to reinforce the JABC roof so it could hold the solar array.
Next, Lewis contracted with Carroll Electric, a local company, to install the solar array.
Over the years, the system did exactly what it promised to and more. At the close of his 10-year agreement with WPPI, Lewis was able to take charge of the energy generated on top of his building.
“At first, I had to send it all out on the grid,” Lewis said. “I no longer sell all of the energy back. First, it goes to cover the energy needs in this building, and then I sell back what’s left.”
The switch to solar has saved Lewis 25 percent on his energy bills, plus he qualifies for federal tax credits and is paid a premium for every kilowatt hour of energy generated at his building.
Meanwhile, the solar array has needed very little maintenance — mainly occasional snow removal.
He said the only “moving parts” of the whole system are the current inverters that switch the direct current coming in to alternating current that goes out on the energy grid — and the energy meter outside moving backward to account for energy flowing into the grid.
“I don’t think I’ve seen any degradation of the solar panels in the last decade,” Lewis said. “When I put them in, they had an estimated life of 25 years, but now experts are estimating that they’ll last closer to 40 years.”
As solar panels have become more popular, the price of individual panels has really come down, he added.
When he installed his initial 99-panel array, each panel cost around $1,200.
“Now you can get them for $150,” he said. “They used to be a novelty but now they’re mass producing them.”
The reduction in cost allowed Lewis to install another 308 panels last fall at essentially the same price he paid for the original 99.
The new panels are even more efficient than the original ones, he noted. The original ones had one side that captured the sunlight, plus an underside. The new ones are “bifacial,” capturing light directly from the sun and also a smaller amount that reflects back up from the roof.
“That adds another 7 percent benefit,” Lewis said.
All of these upgrades have brought the overall energy costs for the Jefferson Area Business Center down to around half what they were when he bought the building in 1992.
“It’s a generational investment,” he said. “It will still be paying off when my granddaughter grows up.”
Lewis said he’s proud of the decision he made a decade-plus ago to pursue sustainable energy and he hopes more individuals, companies and organizations follow this example — to their own benefit and that of the community and world.
When installed in 2009, the rooftop, solar-powered renewable energy system at the JABC was among the largest of its kind in Jefferson County. Since then, more than one commercial solar farm has moved in to the area, but the JABC array — now with three times the solar panels as owner Steve Lewis started with — remains one of the largest privately owned arrays.
In 2020, the Humane Society of Jefferson County followed suit, installing a solar array atop its shelter, located between Jefferson and Fort Atkinson.