Imagine paying almost nothing in electric bills for the foreseeable future of your garden center. It sounds too good to be true, but that’s exactly what the Ballek family is doing at their independent garden center in East Haddam, Conn.
Ballek’s Garden Center recently underwent an energy overhaul and is now run entirely on solar power, including a solar thermal heat unit for water, and it’s saving them thousands on the bottom line. Over its lifetime, the system is expected to produce $1 million of electricity for the IGC and drastically decrease its carbon footprint.
Weighing the options
The Ballek family has been on the same piece of land for more than 350 years, and they’d like to stay for another 350, which is why sustainable energy is so important to them. But the cost savings made the decision a smart business move as well.
“Our whole bent of doing this was to help the stewardship of the planet,” says secretary Anita Ballek. “What good is profit if you’re destroying the land?”
With electricity prices hanging at an average of about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for the last few years, producing your own electricity could hundreds of thousands in the long term. Ballek’s found that it was spending about $15,000 per year on electricity – a need easily met by the $18,000 of electricity they are now producing with their very own solar system.
“Everyone says solar is more expensive, but really, you have to think of it as an investment,” says family member Bob Ballek, who was instrumental in the installation. “You get a greater value of electricity than what you spend otherwise.”
Anita Ballek installed solar panels at her home on a smaller scale two years ago, and it worked so well that she’s producing $3,000 of electricity a year. “We thought, ‘This is falling out of the sky for free. Why don’t more people do this?’” she recalls.
The garden center based its plan on a year of electric usage. They installed 44 250-watt panels hat produce 11,000 kilowatts when working at capacity.
Financing the project
After installing a full 66 kilowatt photovoltaic solar electric panel system along with a commercial hot water system powered by solar energy, the garden center is supplying all of its own electricity. Over the 30-year lifetime of the system, the family expects to produce more than $1 million of energy to meet all of their needs. The only expense incurred now is the $16 per month they spend to use the existing electric grid.
To help with the initial costs, Ballek’s received a $71,853 federal grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program. The program is designed to help small farms and agricultural businesses in rural areas invest in renewable energy endeavors. To see if your garden center qualifies for REAP assistance, including a feasibility study grant, visit rurdev.usda.gov/BCP_Reap.html
The state is also working to encourage renewable energy sources through the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, the U.S.’s first full-scale clean energy finance authority, which offers incentives and low-cost financing for projects like solar panels and wind turbines.
Renewable Energy Certificates, also known as green tags, help with the cost as well. A REC is issued by the state for each megawatt-hour of energy produced by the solar panel system. The program also offers credits for MWhs of energy conserved through increased efficiency. A REC can be sold separately from the physical electricity associated with a renewable source.
Before the rebates, the system would have cost $330,000 including feasibility studies, but with close to half of the cost covered by state and stimulus grant funding, and another quarter by the federal government, Ballek’s spent only a little less than $100,000 in total.
“It’s a long term investment, but if you think you’re going to be around 5 to 10 years from now, you will have paid off what you invested in it,” Ballek says. “If you finance something of this nature, you’ll have lower payments to pay off than what you would be paying for electricity and polluting the environment at the same time.”
The system is guaranteed to operate at 80 percent original output after 25 years, and with the cost of electricity rising, Ballek believes the electric costs at the center could reach $36,000 or higher by 2023. “The cost of fossil fuels is increasing,” he says. “We’re at peak oil consumption where it’s getting harder to find more sources. The value and cost of electricity is tied in with that.”
Promoting the concept
At Ballek’s, chemical-free and organic products have long been the norm, and as customers become more and more environmentally conscious, they’re looking for their garden centers to do the same. Once customers found out about the new project, they started asking questions and were pleased with the owners’ commitment to staying green.
“Everyone is impressed and said, ‘I didn’t really know you could get that much electricity,” Ballek says. “People think sometime in the future it will be here, but solar production is here and now.”
The idea of decades of carbon-free energy production is enough to make any green business excited, but when coupled with the savings on energy bills, it just might be the right move to make.