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Solar panels help save environment -- and cash

Woodbury resident Phil Kopitske watches for sunny days with more interest than most.

To him, it doesn't just mean a pleasanter day working in his back yard, or enjoying his pool; the sun's rays mean energy -- and that translates into hundreds of dollars of savings on his electric bill.

Saturday, Oct. 4, Kopitske was making the most of the sun by sitting out in his back yard, greeting members of the public who were visiting his home as part of the 2008 Minnesota Solar Tour, showcasing the more than 50 homes and offices on display around the Twin Cities and beyond whose owners have incorporated the capture of solar energy into their residences.

Kopitske installed two giant, free-standing solar panels in his back yard two years ago and has recently added to them with additional, smaller panels on his roof.

When the finishing touches are made to his solar system, Kopitske hopes to save $1,000 a year on his natural gas bills.

Currently, Kopitske says he saves $850 a year on electricity through his two free-standing panels, which can alter their angle and track the sun as it moves through the sky each day to get the maximum benefit.

"The two most obvious reasons for doing it are for the environment and also if you take the long term economic view, if you look over 30 years, my electricity is going to cost me one cent per kilowatt hour," said Kopitske.

"Even if you plan to move, they estimate that for every $1,000 a year in energy savings, you can estimate a $20,000 increase in the resale price of your home."

In the sunshine on Saturday, Kopitske estimated he was making about four kilowatt hours every hour and, as he needed only about one-fourth of that, he was selling the remaining three-fourths back to Xcel Energy.

Although Kopitske's ultimate solar system will have a number of loops and back-ups so that he should be able to remain self-sufficient most of the time, he will always have the energy company's natural gas as a last resort.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kopitske says his system -- which he designed, built and installed himself -- captures the sun's rays more effectively in winter, when there is less cloud and more snow, which helps to reflect the light back up at the solar panels.

There is, however, the consideration of a Minnesota winter -- Kopitske has to replace 50 percent of the water flowing through the solar thermal panels on his roof with antifreeze, which means the panels will still function to about 40 below.

He says the question everyone always asks is how it will take for the cost of the system to pay for itself.

Currently, Kopitske estimates, the payback on his two systems (the roof panels and the free-standing panels) will be from six to eight years and 10-15 years.

"But I always like to ask people, 'What's the payback on a granite countertop?'" said Kopitske.

"There are some things you do just because you like to do them, and you don't even ask what the payback is.

"Saving the environment and saving money has a lot more payback when you put it like that."

Find out more about the annual solar tour at