Building a Solar Movement
ASES member Dave Strenski, of Ypsilanti, Mich., knew little about solar energy in 2005 when he applied for a grant to put photovoltaic (PV) panels on his local
food co-op. Little did he know that the effort would lead him
to star in a Google commercial promoting the promise of
solar (see tinyurl.com/strenskivideo).
Strenski is a renaissance man. His degrees in surveying,
civil and mechanical engineering bespeak earthy practicality,
but he makes his living as a high-powered coder — technically, an “application analyst” at Cray Inc., the supercomputer
company. Naturally, he’s also a self-taught plumber, carpenter and electrician.
In 2005 he founded Solar Ypsi ( solarypsi.org), a loose
group of volunteers dedicated to making their economically
stressed town into a solar destination. The town now has 10
PV arrays, with more coming.
SOLAR TODAY: What inspired you to start Solar Ypsi?
Dave Strenski: There’s a food co-op in our town where
I do volunteer electrical work. The manager of the store
there got me interested in putting solar panels on the roof.
We wrote our first grant [proposal] and we won $6,000
What makes this interesting is that we wanted the public
to be able to see, in real time, what the panels were doing.
To do this, we figured out a way to read the utility meters
for essentially free, and all perfectly legal. The utility company would put an extra card in their digital meters and I
would hook it up to a laptop. I wrote a program that would
constantly poll the utility meters for data. The program
then adds up the number of pulses, converts it into kilowatt-hours and pushes it to a server running the Solar Ypsi
website. A friend of a friend introduced me to Nik Estep,
a college student from Eastern Michigan University, who
built the Solar Ypsi website that takes the data from the laptop and produces real-time graphs of the power being produced, consumed and exported at that site (see solarypsi.
ST: What was the town’s response?
DS: Part of that first grant was for public outreach, so
we put together a presentation about solar power. We’ve
reached more than 2,000 people with this presentation, and
now that the [Google] video went out I’m getting emails
like crazy, to schedule more events. The video has more than
230,000 hits on You Tube.
I picture Solar Ypsi as a conduit for spreading the news. I
have a couple of key messages when I give these talks — one
Dave Strenski, Ypsilanti, Mich.
ASES member for five years
Chapter member (Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association)
for five years
is that it’s really simple. People are surprised when I say you
just wire it into your breaker panel like an electric stove. I try
to stress no batteries; you want to be connected to the grid.
Especially with the inverters today, it really is a no-brainer.
The other question people don’t really understand is, if you
don’t have batteries, what happens to that extra power when
you can’t use it. I do a pretty good explanation of how it backflows through your meter and your meter spins backwards
and the power goes to your neighbor’s toaster. It’s not going
to the power plant. It’s just supplying power locally to the
grid. That means one less shovel full of coal goes into a power
plant someplace. People seem to eat it up; they like it. The
town is ecstatic because we got on national television, so they
think it’s all really incredible.
Then I talk about the economics and where we’re at
today. Up until last summer we had some very good economics because the local utility company had a program with
subsidies. With those subsidies and the federal tax credit, it
was a good business decision to install solar panels.
ST: How long did it take you to create the program?
DS: Well, I’ve got a full-time job so I was toying with this
stuff all the time in the background. It would be months. It
was really no hurry.
“I picture Solar Ypsi
as a conduit for
spreading the news.
I have a couple of
key messages when
I give these talks —
one is that it’s