More Solar Energy Projects In the Works

Historic commission OKs high-profile Michigan Theater project

Bonnie Bona insists that the best way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle. While she admits the method is more labor-intensive than using a food processor, Bona cites it as yet another tip to become more eco-friendly.

MIchigan Theater Building on East Liberty

The plain brick wall on the Michigan Theater Building on East Liberty in downtown Ann Arbor – rising up behind the storefronts – will be the site of a solar panel installation funded by XSeed Energy, a program of the Clean Energy Coalition and the city of Ann Arbor. (Photos by Mary Morgan.)

As a project manager for the Ypsilanti-based Clean Energy Coalition, Bona specializes in this art of saving energy. She is quick to add, however, that “my goal isn’t to make people sacrifice and suffer. It’s to make them see opportunities where life can be better and, oh, by the way, it uses a lot less energy.”

But it’s not just about using less energy. Bona and others in the Ann Arbor area are involved with projects that focus on generating alternative energy, too – in particular, solar power. Prompted in part by the lure of tax credits and available state and federal funding, an increasing number of efforts are underway to install solar panels on individual residences, businesses, nonprofits and schools – including, as one recent example, the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor.

And in mid-August, the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission unanimously approved two solar installation projects in historic districts, one for a private home on South Seventh Street, and another at the Michigan Theater. With some citing concern over aesthetics, commissioners acknowledged that they’ll likely see more of these requests in the future, and discussed the need to develop guidelines for solar installations within the city’s historic districts.

City Solar Initiatives: XSeed Energy

The Michigan Theater solar project is being funded by an especially ambitious program that Bona is leading, called XSeed Energy. The program, part of the Clean Energy Coalition (CEC), aims at installing solar projects and encouraging “community-supported local energy,” Bona says, “which means that whether it’s solar or wind or geothermal, it’s locally-sourced energy versus having coal shipped from West Virginia.”

XSeed evolved from a partnership between CEC and the city of Ann Arbor, through the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Solar America Cities program. In 2007, the U.S. Dept. of Energy declared Ann Arbor one of 25 Solar America Cities. As a result, the city received $632,000 in funds dedicated to advancing solar energy. Since then, the city has published a comprehensive report titled “Solar Ann Arbor: A Plan for Action” – a 114-page document that Bona strongly recommends reading. XSeed was launched to help implement the plan. [.pdf of the plan's executive summary – the full document is available on the city's website.]

Andrew Brix, the city’s energy programs manager, worked closely with the consultant who created the plan, and says of its purpose: “It helps to remove or reduce the barriers associated with solar energy, such as cost, and tries to allow [solar energy] to become a mainstream production of energy.” Bona adds that the plan details the “potential for Ann Arbor, as a city, to be entirely powered by locally-generated power.”

Solar installation at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market

Solar panels are installed on the shelter roof of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.

One of the city’s already-installed solar projects is a 10-kilowatt solar array at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, put in place in 2008 with money from the Dept. of Energy along with matching funds from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Not only does the system advance the goal of using solar energy, it also tackles another facet of the city’s solar plan: awareness. The strategically placed array is easily within view, and – given the popularity of the farmer’s market – is guaranteed many viewers.

Public awareness is key, says Bona, who is also a member of the city’s planning commission: “The goal of XSeed is two-fold: one is to implement the installation of solar panels in lots of different locations – starting with nonprofits. The second piece is to make the general public aware of the installation, aware of how it works, have read-outs where people can see how much power it’s generating.”

The city is already providing information for property owners to raise awareness about the potential of solar energy. Wayne Appleyard, chairman of the city’s energy commission, explains that city staff, with the help of some University of Michigan interns, developed a system that estimates how much energy each residential home could generate via solar power in Ann Arbor.

Residents can use that system by visiting the city’s website and entering their address. They’ll then see a list of tabs, including one that’s labeled “Solar Potential.” Clicking on that tab generates a listing that looks like this:

Address: 101 Your Street
Full Zip Code: 48103-4357
Solar Potential: Excellent
Solar Hot Water Candidate: Yes
Roof Size:  756 sq. ft.
Estimated solar PV potential: 0.55 - 1.09 KW
Estimated electricity produced: 717.3 - 1434.61 KWh/yr
Estimated electricity savings: 304.9 - 383.81 per year
Estimated greenhouse gas savings: 1.65 - 2.36 tonnes CO2/yr


Appleyard, who has been a member of the energy commission for over 10 years and chair for the past year, cautions that the information is “an approximation.” But it’s useful as a guide for homeowners who are interested in the solar-energy option. Encouraging the use of residential solar energy is an explicit city goal, as outlined in its effort to put solar installations on 5,000 roofs by 2015, primarily for solar hot water systems.

Working Within a Historic District

While the city has a history of advocating for solar energy, it’s not common for solar projects to be located within the city’s historic districts. But during the Historic District Commission’s Aug. 12 meeting, the group unanimously approved two proposed solar initiatives: one for a Seventh Street residential home, and one for the Michigan Theater that’s funded by XSeed Energy. When completed, it will be the most high-profile solar project in the city.

In early 2010, XSeed began an application process for a solar panel project. The nonprofit Michigan Theater had the most potential of the applicants for two reasons, Bona explained. First, the project at the Michigan Theater offers an additional aspect of awareness because of the theater’s downtown location and because the system, once installed, would be easily visible from the street – the solar array will be installed on the south-facing wall of the theater, rather than on the out-of-sight roof.

As another factor in choosing Michigan Theater, Bona also cites the willingness of the theater’s staff – including executive director Russ Collins – to work with XSeed and fundraise, bringing in money to fund future projects.

Along with installing the solar system, XSeed required the Michigan Theater to reduce its energy use by 5%. Including the 5% that the solar array will offset from the theater’s electrical use, the entire project will reduce the theater’s need for fuel-based electricity by 10%.

“The goal with solar is not to replace the electricity we’re using today, but to step back and reduce the wasted energy,” says Bona, in explaining XSeed’s requirement for separate conservation measures. “Then we won’t need as much solar to make up the difference.” It’s an approach akin to avoiding the food processor while making pesto.

While the Michigan Theater was the first of the applicants selected by XSeed, Bona says they intend to do more projects.

Deliberations at the HDC: Questions, Concerns – and Approval

At their Aug. 12 meeting, historic district commissioners spent about 90 minutes discussing the two solar proposals. The first was for a home at 553 S. Seventh St., just north of West Madison in the Old West Side historic district. Homeowner Chris Hewett was asking for a “certificate of appropriateness,” which would allow him to proceed on installing solar panels on the roof of his 19th-century house.

House at 553 S. Seventh Street

The house at 553 S. Seventh St., with an indication of one option for installing solar panels on the roof. This image was included in the Aug. 12 meeting packet for the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission.

At the request of the city’s planning staff, he presented three configurations for installing the panels – commissioners were asked to weigh in on which of the three options would be most preferable, from their perspective.

Hewett told commissioners that he and his wife bought the house about a year ago, and were planning to make it more sustainable and energy efficient, while at the same time restoring its historical features. He said they were trying to take advantage of the credits available through DTE and federal programs, which would make the project financially feasible.

He said they use about 3 kilowatts of energy each month, and that the solar panels would likely generate about 1 kilowatt. In the future, they might return to the HDC to seek permission to install additional panels, he said.

Some commissioners posed questions about structural issues related to placing the array of 3-feet-by-5-feet panels on the roof. Kristina Glusac stated repeatedly that she felt there was insufficient information provided about the structure of the house and how the panels would be installed. Lesa Rozmarek was concerned about the possibility of ice damming.

Some of the commissioners were concerned about aesthetics, and initially wanted to choose an option that would minimize the visual impact of the panels. That issue was reflected in the staff report, presented by historic preservation coordinator Jill Thacher:

Staff’s initial thoughts on solar panels are that they are an acceptable, reversible addition to residential structures in historic districts if the panels a) match the color of the roof, b) match the angle of the roof and do not project more than eight inches above it, and c) do not cover more than 30% of the roof surface on which they are installed if any part of the panel is visible from a street or sidewalk, and most importantly, d) do not detract from the historic character of the house or destroy, obscure, or damage character-defining features.

During the time available for public comment, several people spoke – including many who were attending the meeting in connection with the Michigan Theater project, and who responded to some of the concerns raised by commissioners.

Saying he was a huge advocate of historic preservation, Matt Grocoff – founder of Greenovation TV – noted that he lived down the street from Hewett, and that he intends to make his home the oldest in America to achieve net-zero energy. While he was excited by the discussion, he said the commissioners were asking the wrong questions about the aesthetics. “The real question is what point is there in preserving our history if we don’t protect our future?” He urged commissioners to set a precedent by unanimously approving the installation of solar panels.

Clean Energy Coalition project managers Dave Strenski and Christina Snyder both spoke to the commission, addressing some of the technical concerns. Both have worked on other solar panel installations, and said they didn’t have problems with drainage or ice damming. Strenski, who volunteers with Solar Ypsi and did the installation of panels at the Ypsilanti city hall, said it was dumb to install the panels in a way that wouldn’t yield the highest efficiency. Shading was another factor to consider, he said – if any part of the array is in shade, it affects the performance of the entire system.

When asked by commissioner Tom Stulberg for his thoughts on the question of aesthetics, Strenski said aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder. Most people who install solar panels are proud of them and want them to be visible, he said, but energy efficiency – not aesthetics – should be the main factor.

Later in the meeting, HDC chair Ellen Ramsburgh said it was important for the commission to weigh in on placement. Part of their job was to make sure the additions didn’t detract from the historic character of the house, she said, and a roof is a very visible part of that. In general, she said, she preferred a less-distracting placement of the panels.

The fact that the solar panels could be removed was compelling for several commissioners, and some mentioned that they had a steep learning curve on this issue. But despite some concerns, the project received unanimous support from commissioners, giving the homeowner the option of choosing which solar array would work best for the site.

Next up was the Michigan Theater project on East Liberty, an installation on the south-facing wall of the main theater building, which is located in the State Street historic district. Though the wall is set back 58 feet from the front of the shops along East Liberty, the panels will be visible from the street.

The staff report recommended approval of the project, but again brought up aesthetic issues. Of particular concern to the XSeed project team was a possible restriction on color. From the staff report:

Staff supports the proposal if the panels and their supporting armature are a neutral, and preferably matte, brown, gray, or black color when feasible. Very conspicuous panels, such as bright blue ones, and bare metal frame finishes should be avoided if they detract from character-defining features of the structure and neighboring ones.

In addressing the commission, Bonnie Bona noted that the color of the panels is determined by the technology that’s used to create them, and that she would not want to restrict their ability to select the appropriate technology for the project. They plan to put the project out to bid, and would be open to new technologies, she said.

Mark Ritz, a volunteer with the Clean Energy Coalition who’s working with the XSeed program, elaborated on that topic, saying he’d researched the different types of solar panels available and that almost without exception, the panels are dark blue, mounted on silver anodized aluminum frames. The panel absorbs light and creates electricity from the light it absorbs, he explained. The most efficient wavelengths of light are the longer ones, he added, so what’s reflected are the shorter wavelengths – the dark blue and violet, which are not as efficient in being converted to electricity. By imposing a color restriction, he said, it would restrict their choices immensely in selecting the best technology for this site.

Both Snyder and Strenski spoke again in support of the project. Snyder noted that the panels that commissioners might find the most “distracting” from an aesthetic view – made of polycrystalline silicon, with the crystals showing – are those she finds most beautiful. “I could stand and look at them for hours,” she said. “It’s almost like looking at fire or moving water.”

Strenski encouraged commissioners to check out seminars offered by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, based near Lansing. In addition to solar energy, the group provides training for wind energy too. “Wind energy’s going to be next on your list here,” Strenski said.

Andrew Brix, who’s a member of the XSeed advisory board, also addressed the commission. He mentioned that the city council approved a “green energy challenge” in 2006, with the goal of achieving 20% renewable energy use by 2015. He said he hoped the HDC would support the project and that they could continue this conversation about solar installations in historic districts, finding ways to address both the needs of historic preservation and the energy goals of the city.

During the commission’s deliberations, Lesa Rozmarek pointed out that the panels are being deliberately placed in a location that’s very visible. She said she didn’t have a problem with it in this case, but it’s something the commission should be aware of.

Diane Giannola said that a major point with this project is that the panels will be placed on a plain brick wall, and won’t interfere with the building’s historic front. She said she liked the educational aspect of the project, too.

The commissioners voted unanimously to issue a certificate of appropriateness for the Michigan Theater solar installation.

Coda to HDC Approval

In a follow-up email, Bona told The Chronicle that XSeed has budgeted about $30,000 for the Michigan Theater installation – $10,000 per kilowatt for a 3 kilowatt array. Bids are expected back from solar installers by the end of September. For other recent projects, prices have been in the range of $7,000 to $9,000 per kilowatt.

They expect to get about $15,000 from the DTE SolarCurrents program. The program allows the energy utility to buy renewable energy credits (RECs) from the state – credits that would otherwise go to homeowners or businesses. This helps the utility meet Michigan’s renewable energy standard, which was established by Public Act 295. The standard is a state mandate for Michigan electric utilities to generate 10% of their power from renewable resources by 2015.

In addition, XSeed is using the Michigan Theater installation to raise funds from corporate sponsorships, private donations and grants for public awareness efforts and future projects. That funding, in turn, will allow XSeed to provide incentives for private projects at residences, businesses and organizations. XSeed will also be pursuing public installations to provide power to residents, businesses, and organizations that don’t have adequate solar access on their own sites.

The focus on solar power, Bona wrote, is because of attractive incentives that are currently available to offset the cost of installation. In the future, XSeed will be looking at other renewable energy sources, too.

DTE, State Incentives Help Rudolf Steiner School

Yet another solar installation is coming in October – this one at the Rudolf Steiner School, on the campus of its high school on Pontiac Trail. The school received funding through two grants in June of this year: one from the Michigan Renewable Schools Program, which is funded by the Michigan Public Service Commission and administered by Energy Works Michigan; and one from DTE through its SolarCurrents program.

Rudolf Steiner School will receive $1,000 annually, says Sandra Greenstone, the school’s administrator, and is expected to save another $1,000 in electricity costs – about 12,000 kilowatt hours’ worth. In addition to a solar installation, the school will be making energy-saving changes based on results of an energy audit funded by the Michigan Renewable Schools Program, such as replacing windows and using energy-efficient light bulbs and fixtures.

Appleyard, of the city’s energy commission, considers the importance of the DTE program to be paramount in the accessibility of solar-powered systems. “It makes pretty good sense,” he says. “Certainly with DTE’s [SolarCurrents] program, photovoltaic arrays are a relatively secure investment in these times of uncertainty … since you’re signing a 20-year contract with DTE that basically guarantees that they’re going to pay you upfront money and then pay you every month for whatever you generate.”

Though DTE’s SolarCurrents program is viewed as progressive, hopes are set still higher for the possibility of incentives by the city, if pending state legislation is passed.

Andrew Brix, the city’s energy programs manager, believes the single most helpful piece of legislation is PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy). Through the program, the city would use municipal bonds  to fund the upfront installation of a solar system to a resident’s home. The resident would then pay the city through property taxes in the coming years – probably over 15 to 20 years.

Wayne Appleyard, Bonnie Bona

Wayne Appleyard and Bonnie Bona at a joint working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission, energy commission and environmental commission in April 2010. Appleyard chairs the energy commission. At the time, Bona was chair of the planning commission. (Chronicle file photo)

“This is incredibly helpful,” says Brix, “because most people don’t have the money for solar initiatives. It’s been passed in the House and is waiting to be reviewed in the Senate.” If legislation is approved, Brix says the city is “poised and ready” to run a PACE program.

The issue of PACE legislation came up during an April 13, 2010 joint working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission, energy commission and environmental commission, focused on the topic of sustainability and organized in part by Bona, who served as planning commission chair at the time. Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, explained some of the issues related to implementing a PACE program. From Chronicle coverage:

The program would be voluntary. Homeowners would first get an energy audit to find out if they’ve already taken initial steps on their own – for example, Naud said, you wouldn’t want to install solar power if you haven’t sufficiently caulked around your windows. You’d sign a contract with the city, which Naud said would microfinance the improvements. To repay the loan, homeowners would get an additional assessment on their property tax bills.

The risk is low, Naud said, as long as they structure the program in the right way – for example, not lending to people who are upside down on their mortgages, owing more than the home is worth. There’s already a system in place to make payments – the tax bills – and the improvements would add value to the property. The city has set aside $400,000 from a federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant it received, to use as a loan loss reserve fund. If the enabling legislation is passed, the city would be able to put together a package that would work, Naud said.

[Link to a September 2009 article about the PACE program, written by Eric Jamison, a law student at Wayne State University Law School who's working with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to develop the program in Michigan. More information is also available on the PACE Now website. Previous Chronicle coverage related to PACE: "Special District Might Fund Energy Program"]

Local banks will likely be involved in the effort as well – the Bank of Ann Arbor, for example, has been talking with the city for several months about how a “green lending” program might be structured.

Appleyard says that the DTE program certainly changed the economics of solar installation, but he hopes a feed-in tariff law will be enacted, too. He contends that it’s a case of politicians saying they want to do it and then having the political will to back it up. “It’s just a question of how long we wait and how many more droughts we have and sea level rises and all those other things that are happening – climate change – before we go ahead and decide that we have to do something.”

Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Chronicle Publisher Mary Morgan contributed to this report.


  1. By Steve Bean
    September 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm | permalink

    “He said they use about 3 kilowatts of energy each month, and that the solar panels would likely generate about 1 kilowatt.”

    I’m guessing that he meant 3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity (not including other “energy”) per day on average (which is low–and appropriately so for someone considering a PV installation–if it holds up through both the summer and winter), but that’s a guess. Can someone clarify?

  2. September 7, 2010 at 10:29 am | permalink

    This article was very thorough, especially for an intern. Thanks. It is so encouraging to read about new solar projects. Pretty soon they will be run of the mill. I remember reading 20 years ago how every US home would one day have a computer and it was hard to imagine at the time. I know one day every US home will use some form of solar power one day soon.

  3. By Jack F.
    September 7, 2010 at 11:57 am | permalink

    “As another factor in choosing Michigan Theater, Bona also cites the willingness of the theater’s staff – including executive director Russ Collins – to work with XSeed and fundraise, bringing in money to fund future projects.”

    Glad to hear all the regular Michigan Theater fund raising needs are taken care of and the staff has time to work on this as well. Does that mean I won’t be getting any further MT letters asking for dollars for the actual theater?

  4. By Ann
    September 7, 2010 at 12:14 pm | permalink

    This is responsible and laudable behavior by the theater and will result in more participation in their future fundraising drives.

    I suppose Jack F. doesn’t fix a leaky faucet in his home or take the time to turn off any lights that have been turned on until he’s made enough money to live the rest of his life on.

  5. By Jack F.
    September 7, 2010 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    It IS fun, I must admit, watching the dance between the Solar Shirts and the History Must Be Saved At All Costs Shirts. Lol.

  6. By fridgeman
    September 7, 2010 at 12:25 pm | permalink

    I drive and/or run on S. Seventh daily, and I never knew that it was an official Historic District.

    The map on the city website removed my doubt after reading this article.


    I hope the HDC sees fit to come out strongly in favor of solar and other energy efficiency measures.

  7. September 30, 2010 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    Steve, I think they mean that they use 300kW/hrs of electricity per month. Then a 1kW peak output solar installation would product about 1/3 of the electricity needed at the home. One kilowatt hour is 1000 watts for one hour. A 23 watt light bulb used for 8 hours a day times 30 days would use 5,520 watt hours or 5.5kW/hrs in a month.