Shining the Light on Solar Energy

By Heather Rothbauer-Wanish | As summer heats up, more and more of us are soaking up the sunlight and enjoying the extra daylight hours. For those looking for alternative energy sources, solar energy may be a consideration for the future. Although solar energy may appear to be the wave of the future, the use of solar energy has been around for many years. Many ancient civilizations worshipped the sun as a source or cause for life. During the late 15th-century, Leonardo da Vinci utilized concave mirrors to heat water, thereby harnessing the power of the sun. It is this type of thinking that has encouraged entrepreneurs and business owners to offer solar energy as a product or service to customers today.

As the existence of fossil fuels becomes more and more of an issue, a renewable resource like solar energy becomes more popular. While renewable energy technology continues to develop, evolve and become less costly, the cost of fossil fuels continues to increase.

Joe Maurer, designer at Next Step Energy in Eau Claire, helps residents and businesses with their energy needs. “Our company has been in business for 28 years; we are a full-service renewable energy installer for residential, business, and institutional applications,” he said. “Solar Thermal and Solar Photovoltaic (PV) installations are our focus; however, we also install high efficiency heating systems including radiant floor heating,” Maurer continued. Solar thermal is typically used to heat homes and businesses, reducing the need for natural gas or electric heating systems. By contrast, solar photovoltaic systems are used to convert sunlight to direct current (DC) electricity. An inverter is then able to convert DC current into AC current, the standard electricity used in the United States.

According to Maurer, renewable energy is a growth industry that he wished to explore. “I could see the growing opportunity in renewable energy and wanted to get involved. My background is in design and I really see energy efficiency and usage as a design problem.” He explained. Because of the growth of the solar power industry, there is currently a shortage of skilled laborers in the field. Maurer is a part of a group which builds curriculum around the day-to-day activities of a solar installer. “It is encouraging to see higher education taking on renewable energy,” he said.

Steps to Getting Started with Renewable Energy from Focus on Energy

  1. Learn all about it.
  2. Schedule a site assessment.
  3. Call an installer; obtain estimates.
  4. Check zoning, utility requirements, insurance and other legalities.
  5. Secure financing.
  6. Learn how to maintain your system – safely.
  7. Enjoy saving money and energy.

Information source.

Even during the current economic downturn, many businesses that offer solar energy and alternative energy sources have not seen a sharp decline in business. “We are seeing a growing awareness of renewable energy due in part to excellent incentive programs available through Focus on Energy and other federal funding.” Explained Maurer. The focus on renewable energy sources expands beyond solar energy as well. “Wind is the most popular sought after technology, but solar electric is the most popular to install.” Maurer said. In fact, approximately 80 percent of first-time calls to Next Step Energy involve questions about wind generation systems. “We install wind generation systems; however, they are very site-specific and have a maintenance regime which makes them a very specialized technology.” Maurer said. Customers are encouraged to try Solar PV or Solar Hot Water as a competitive energy offset that requires less maintenance.

When reviewing the potential options for solar systems, a home or business owner must consider either an off-grid option or a grid-interconnected option. According to Next Step Energy, the off-grid system has no connection to the electric utility grid and uses batteries for power when the sun is not shining. This type of system is popular where there is no current electrical service provided. The other alternative, a grid interconnected system, does not use batteries and is easier to install. This system uses the utility grid to store energy when there is a power surplus. Depending upon your specific needs and goals, either a grid interconnected system or an off-grid option are both viable alternatives.

Advantages of Solar Electric Systems:

  1. Clean energy
  2. Totally nonpolluting
  3. Robust design
  4. Systems and components are made to last for decades
  5. Low maintenance
  6. Virtually indestructible and need only occasional rinsing

Disadvantages of Solar Electric Systems:

  1. Cloudy days
  2. Climates vary globally, solar is only part of the answer
  3. System cost
  4. Still more expensive than nonrenewable energy

Courtesy of Next Step Energy website.

So, how does a homeowner or business decide which type of renewable energy may be the best option? Next Step Energy conducts an on-site assessment to determine the client’s needs and energy usage. “We recommend getting a site assessment as a first step. We offer both solar PV and solar hot water site assessments. These are ‘big picture’ studies which detail the solar window, energy use per system performance, installation measures and available incentives.” Maurer said. Maurer first recommends checking with Focus on Energy to determine if you are eligible for incentive programs towards a renewable energy system. Secondly, if you own and operate a rural business or farm, you may be eligible for a USDA grant.

Depending upon the system installed, prices for renewable energy can vary greatly. However, if viewed in the long-term perspective, solar panels and energy are a resource that is renewable, clean, and efficient. The costs that are paid up-front may well pay for themselves many times over. Companies like Next Step Energy encourage customers to view all alternatives. “Renewable systems are a site-specific technology. We are not afraid to redirect customers to other energy saving measures if it is apparent a system would not work efficiently on their site.” Maurer said.

Ultimately, the choice for energy can come down to cost, timing, and personal preference. Everyone should be aware that there are many options available to them, in addition to the local electrical company. By investigating the alternatives, costs, and compatibility, customers can make informed decisions, and quite possibly, help “shine” a little light on solar energy.

Heather Rothbauer-Wanish is a local freelance writer and public speaker. She owns Feather Communications. Visit the website at: Heather also serves as the Business and Accounting Program Chair at Globe University in Eau Claire

Green Cleaners Tried and Tested

We’ve been there before. Standing in the middle of the cleaning isle at Target surrounded by choices upon choices of sprays, wipes and concentrates. It seems the choices expand every time you shop. Real Simple magazine did some research and found the following choices to be some of the best green cleaners out there.

Best Anti-Germ

Seventh Generation Multi-surface cleaner | Powered by thyme extract to eliminate germs naturally, but it has an overpowering scent so maybe sniff before buying to make sure it’s the right choice for your nose.

Most Luxurious

Murchison-Hume Counter Intelligence | Chemical free, Safe to use in food zones, and with a white grapefruit scent, who can say no to this natural germ fighter.

Most Addictive

Parsley Plus | Nontoxic and effective with a fresh parsley sent, this one is green to infinity. You actually miss cleaning the bathroom.

Best Unscented

Better Life Whatever! | No scents, dyes, or ammonia, this is a great option for sensitive systems.

Best for dried counter-top spots or toothpaste hunks in the sink

Clorox Green Wipes | These powerful wipers get their strength from coconut oil and corn. Best bang for your natural buck.

J.R. Watkins Wipes | Watkins has been making natural products for 100+ years, so they have some serious green history. And the lemony citrus scent doesn’t hurt the job either.

Best for Kitchen Floors and Decks

Shaklee Get Clean Basic H2 | This powerful cleaner uses only teaspoons worth of soap to gallons of water for the longest lasting option. Mix the right strength depending on the job.

Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day All Purpose
| The most aromatic choice in rose, geranium, and clove oils, this grime fighter smells heavenly and works with muscle.

Mildest Scent

Ecover All Purpose | Lemony fresh makes this soap the mildest scented while being made by a super-green company – double bonus for you!

Best Bucket for your Buck and the earth!

Mod Bucket | It’s made from recycled soda bottles. This dirt-trapping bucket has channels along the bottom that separate the dirt from the clean soapy water, making your job easier and more green.

Easy Energy Savers

Merrilee Harrigan, VP of education at Alliance to Save Energy says there are some common everyday decisions that can help reduce energy consumption.

  • Bake with ceramic or glass pans instead of metal. They retain heat better so you can cook dinner at 25 degrees lower for the same amount of time.
  • It’s simple and you’ve heard it before, but turn off the light when you leave a room. It’s a myth that turning the light off and on creates an energy surge.
  • When your car idles for more then 30 seconds, turn the car off. Starting the car uses less energy than letting it run.

Real Estate Going “Green” – What Does It Mean To Me?

Going Green Or Sustainable Is Not A Myth!
by Jeff Hoel

In fact, in real estate today, going green isn’t just a trend; it’s a movement. Many people and businesses have changed their directional movement because they believe that every step toward a greener, more sustainable environment is a step in the right direction.

You’ve probably noticed that green is everywhere these days – in the news, politics, fashion, and even technology. So why not in real estate as well? You can hardly escape it, with thousands of messages and ideas coming at us from all sides, it can be easy to get caught up in “green washing” and tune out without thinking about the big picture of how Ggeen actions might work for you.

While it’s easy to get overwhelmed, it’s also simple to begin making a positive impact. According to a recent National Association of Home Builders survey, 61 percent of consumers said they would be willing to spend more than $5,000 upfront to save on utility costs – which green construction targets.

As a result, in my world of real estate today, we see the setting of new standards for both existing and new green homes. You can implement green products and practices into your home that reduce energy consumption, save money, and save the environment for a lot less than you think.

Many homeowners have a strong interest in energy conservation and the environment, but it can be very difficult to imagine how to integrate those ideas into their homes or businesses. Today, in our area, a few interested real estate professionals are transforming the industry by living, working, and educating green.

Seeing the value of Sustainable Management in real estate has not yet taken the country by storm. We hear about the financial woes across the country, some of us have lost jobs or been cut back, so just finding the money to keep our families together takes all of our personal energy and thinking.

But despite challenges, in the normal course of events, we may have made several decisions that have improved our Green rating – and didn’t even know it! If you have added appliances, furnaces, windows or doors, siding, and any number of other things in the normal course of life’s events, the likelihood is that not only have you have improved your energy consumption and reduced your expenditures, you have made a contribution to the sustainable green movement worldwide. I bet you didn’t think of that!

To me, as a Realtor with a Green designation, these upgrades are part of the appeal to entice new buyers, if you were to sell your property. My goal and the goal of Green Designated Realtors, is to make this an important part of the purchase and sale experience.

In today’s world, most home owners’ first experience with sustainable or green involves their pocketbook. People facing a major household replacement are given some choices and then the decision making process begins. Yes, it can cost more money to go with sustainable or green items or parts, but that charge is often mitigated quickly with the longer term benefits and savings.

If you are really new to Green or Sustainability in real estate, a home energy assessment, also known as a home energy audit, is the first step to determine how much energy your home consumes and to evaluate what measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient. An assessment will show you problems that may, when corrected, save you significant amounts of money over time.

A home energy assessment performed by a Certified Rater can include a blower door test to depressurize your home to look for air leaks, an infrared scan of walls and ceilings, a low E detector for windows, and a survey of your lighting and appliances. Verification of improvements and home updates developed from the report can be a major selling point for homeowners. Home energy assessment’s range from $350-500 depending on the size of your home. Always check with your local utility to see if they offer free or discounted energy audits for their customers.

In summary, what you do at home –from the way you handle your garbage to the bulbs you put in your lamps – sends ripples out into your community and the whole planet. Going green isn’t as hard as you might think and it doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money. Besides, you may already have made the first step.

Learn more at

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Your Carbon-Saving Equation – Do you know what your footprint looks like? Try these energy saving tips and see if your footprint number is enough to offset the use of 1 car for a year. The average car emits around 12,037 pounds of CO2 per year.

Action: Recycle Aluminum and Steel Cans

Totally worth it: When we recycle cans and other metals we save 95 percent of the energy required to manufacture new aluminum cans from scratch and 74 percent of the energy needed to make steel.
CO2 saved: 414 pounds.
Car off the road: Doing it for 1 year is like taking 3,934,118 cars off the road.

Action: Recycle Newspapers and Magazines

Totally worth it: We Americans throw away more paper than anything else. When we recycle we not only save trees but we could cut air pollution by 95%
CO2 saved: 581 pounds
Cars off the road: 5,511,566

Action: Wash Laundry on a Cooler Setting

Totally worth it: Did you know that almost 90% of the energy used to wash your clothes goes to heat up the water.
CO2 saved: 349 pounds
Cars off the road: 3,316,442

Action: Switch Five Light bulbs to Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs

Totally worth it: We’ve heard it before, but CFL uses 1/3 of the energy and lasts 10 times longer. Changing just 5 bulbs can save you about $400 over the CFL’s lifetime.
CO2 saved: 500 pounds
Cars off the road: 4,751,350

Action: Compost a Fifth of Your Garbage

Totally worth it: Less trash means less energy to haul it away. Plus composing it saves on greenhouse gases that rotting food emits.
CO2 saved: 832 pounds
Cars off the road: 7,906,246

Action: Modify the Temperature on Your Thermostat

Totally worth it: Save yourself about $150 per year when you turn your house down just 4 degrees when no one is home.
CO2 saved: 1,300 pounds
Cars off the road: 12,353,510

Action: Follow the Speed Limit

Totally worth it: You may be in a hurry, but following the speed limit helps your MPG by almost 15%. And it will save you about $200/yr at the pump.
CO2 saved: 1,500 pounds
Cars off the road: 28,121,158

Action: Buy Green Power

Totally worth it: Visit and see if you can’t purchase some green power in your area. Those in the Chippewa Valley with Xcel Energy have the option to purchase wind power. Check out more at
CO2 saved: 20,508 pounds
Cars off the road: 194,881,372.