Utility company offers buy-back programs for alternative energy

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Porter County Career & Technical Center students Tate Kwiecinski, center, and Turner West chat with Rick Calinski during a grand opening ceremony for the center's alternative energy demonstration area Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. Calinski is a public affiars manager for NIPSCO which was a supporter of the project. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media


It was a bitterly cold but sunny day as students and instructors at the Porter County Career & Technical Center recently led a couple dozen people onto the roof of the Valparaiso building, where some of its students had installed a 32-panel solar array.

“Today is a great day, there’s lots of sunshine,” beamed Jon Groth, director of career and technical education at the center.

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For the center, which is selling the energy it is producing from the panels to NIPSCO through one of two similar programs offered by the utility company, sunshine means more money.

“When the sun is out, we produce about 7.5 kilowatts per hour (enough to power about two homes). We get 30 cents per kilowatt. On a bad (cloudy) day, we produce less,” Groth said.

He said the school made about $50 in one week, which helps offset its electric bill each month. The best part, he said, is that it is perpetual money, coming in every month.

Groth said the panels — which were installed by students in the electronics, computer technology and modern machining programs — will be paid for in eight years and have a 30-year warranty.

The career center serves students in 10 high schools, all those in Porter County plus Hobart High School in Lake County.

Generating your own power

Among those checking out the students’ work was NIPSCO President Kathleen O’Leary, who said there are nearly 100 NIPSCO customers generating alternative energy through various means, but the career center is the only school selling the power it generates.

“It’s the first school in Indiana to do so,” she said.

O’Leary said NIPSCO has two programs available to its residential and business electric customers who own, or plan to purchase, a solar, wind, hydro or biomass system in which they might be eligible to sell the power they generate back to NIPSCO.

O’Leary said the Net Metering program allows customers to install renewable energy sources in their homes or small businesses and receive credit on their bill for the amount of power they generate. She said the amount earned can be substantial, depending on how large a system you have.

This program is limited, however, to a total of 30 megawatts, 40 percent of which is reserved for residential customers, according to the NIPSCO website.

The Feed-In Tariff program, a pilot program which the career center is under and which O’Leary said is typically for schools and businesses, is similar to the Net Metering program, except that the customer receives a check from NIPSCO for the amount of electricity generated. This program supports energy-generation projects from five kilowatts to five megawatts.

Payment percentage is proportional to the amount of energy generated and the type of system (wind, solar, etc.) used.

Michael Figg, with NIPSCO, said there are five large solar farms in the area producing between 500 kilowatts and 1.5 megawatts, each of which gets 26 cents per kilowatt generated.

Green benefits

While any NIPSCO electric customer can apply for either program, the systems must be approved by the utility company.

Figg said customers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the programs.

“They help NIPSCO by reducing our carbon footprint. Also, we now need to purchase less energy elsewhere,” Figg said.

At the career center, Groth said the 32-panel array was its latest alternative energy project. He said the school started by powering a couple light bulbs with a couple solar panels, then powered every other light down a hallway with alternative energy.

For more information on NIPSCO’s renewable energy programs and what else they are doing to help the environment, visit NIPSCO.com/Environment.