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RACINE COUNTY — Every time the sun shines, Tom Rutkowski saves money. Sometimes he even makes money.

The solar electric panels Rutkowski had installed on the south side of his garage roof two years ago have been industriously slashing his electric bills and powering his Chevrolet Volt car ever since then — even on cloudy days.

Lately, as a true solar energy believer, Rutkowski has been helping lead Solar Racine, an upcoming group buy of solar-electric installations for homeowners and businesses. Solar Racine was the brainchild of the Greening Greater Racine’s energy committee.

“We thought, ‘What can we do with limited resources?’” Rutkowski recalled. The answer they came up with last fall was to organize a solar installation group buy.

“Modeled on similar programs in Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee, Solar Racine has partnered with Current Electric and SunVest to simplify the decision process and reduce the cost of photovoltaic installations,” explained David Hewitt of Racine, another energy committee member.

“I wanted to be customer No. 1,” added the former computer technician. Hewitt wants to put photovoltaic panels on both his house and garage.

With Solar Racine, SunVest of Milwaukee does the site assessments to determine the suitability of solar panels on a property, and cost estimates. Current Electric of Brookfield will do the solar installations.

SunVest also did the 152 kilowatt-hour solar installation on the roof of O&H Danish Bakery’s baking center at 5910 Washington Ave., Mount Pleasant.

Rutkowski, a retired Walden III High School teacher, said Solar Racine’s group buy will get a rate of $3.15 per watt, currently a very good rate. And that will decline at certain thresholds as more people and businesses participate.

That cost is before a 30 percent federal tax credit, Rutkowski continued. And homeowners can get a rebate of up to $2,400 from Focus on Energy this year, but they must sign up before the end of July for that price break.

In addition, Focus on Energy will make zero-interest, 20-year loans for half the project cost, Rutkowski continued. Educators Credit Union has agreed to finance the other half, he said, although the ECU person involved could not be reached for comment or confirmation Friday.

Amanda Paffrath, owner of Funky Hannah’s, 324 Main St., and co-owner of Hot Shop Glass, 239 Wisconsin Ave., is among those interested in at least getting a solar installation quote. A system could especially help at Hot Shop Glass, she said.

“It’s not a very green business,” Paffrath acknowledged, because the glass furnace is electric.

Last week she didn’t yet have an estimate for a solar installation on the business’ 2,400-square-foot roof.

“We would like to go as green as we can,” Paffrath said, “balancing the fiscal end with sustainability and the green aspect.”

Rutkowski said his garage-roof solar installation, on average year-round, cuts his electric bills by about 85 percent and powers his Chevy Volt most of the time.

“My car has gone 21,000 miles on 60 gallons of gas,” he said. “So basically it’s a car that runs on sunshine.”

“Obviously in the winter, I do owe some money (for We Energies electricity), but on my last bill they owed me $10,” Rutkowski added.

Reduced footprint, expenses

The effectiveness of solar panels will degrade slightly over the years, Rutkowski said, but they’re still pretty long-lasting. “It’s a source of electricity that will last 35 to 40 years,” he said.

Tapping into Focus on Energy’s loan offer, Diane Lange and her husband, Bill Garvey, have decided to buy a $12,000, 12-panel photovoltaic system that should have a 7 ½-year payback. They’re doing it partly to reduce their carbon footprint, partly to reduce expenses during retirement, and because the group buy is a good opportunity, Lange said.

“We thought it was time to take a step,” she said.

In thinking about payback periods on a solar investment, Rutkowski shared a different type of perspective. People who buy a boat or second home don’t get asked how many years it will take to recoup their investment, he said.

“We buy a lot of things for other than financial reasons,” he said. “There are plenty of environmental and public health reasons to buy solar.”

Rutkowski added, “We’re asking people to sort of lead.”



Michael "Mick" Burke covers business and the Village of Sturtevant. He is the proud father of two daughters and owner of a fantastic, although rug-chewing, German shepherd dog.

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