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Solar panels a 'sunny' deal for Perham woman

This winter, Betty Dockter anticipates a 12 to 25 percent reduction in the amount of heat she will be paying for to keep her house warm.

The reason? Three solar thermal panels were recently installed on the back of her home in northeast Perham. These panels, which were purchased and installed free of charge, will "kick in" every time sunlight is present.

Installing the solar thermal panels were members of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a nonprofit organization based out of Pine River, Minnesota. The panels Dockter received were purchased through the Solar Assistance Program, which offers solar air heating systems to families who qualify for fuel assistance in North Central Minnesota.

It was through West Central Initiative that Dockter first heard about the possibility of installing the panels. "It seemed real interesting to me," she said, excited about the amount of heat the panels will produce for her home.

"Even if there's snow on the ground, the panels will still create heat," she added. For Dockter, this "free" heat will dramatically reduce the costs associated with heating her house during the long Minnesota winter.

According to BJ Allen, operations manager with Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), the panels provide a rapid return on a person's investment. It doesn't take long for the 12 - 25 percent heat reduction the panels provide to pay off.

The solar air heat panels were installed in a way that allows the heat produced to be vented into Dockter's house, circulating the air through a vent.

On the RREAL website, the solar air heat systems are described as panels which look like large windows and use the greenhouse effect in their favor. The site continues on to explain how they work:

"A metal plate coated with a special dark blue coating absorbs the sun's energy in the form of heat. A glass covering keeps the heat in and a fan blows air through the panel. The air is heated by the metal plate as it flows through the collector. The heated air then flows directly into your home.

"These systems provide heat even on the coldest Minnesota winter days, but since there is no storage, another heat system must be utilized at night and on cloudy days."

Dockter's solar thermal panels are some of the first installed in the region. "We're hoping to give out 50 more installations this year," said Allen, noting that Betty was the nonprofit's ninth installation of the year.

Purchasing a small home solar air heat system from RREAL will cost a homeowner approximately $5,200. This includes two SPF 26 solar panels, mounting and balance of the system, installation and wiring, and other expenses. However, with a 30 percent federal tax credit figured in, the end price drops to just over $3,600. With the tax credit, a large home air heat system will cost around $6,000.

Commercial air heating systems are also available through RREAL. These systems utilize eleven SPF 40 solar panels which help deliver about 50 million Btus of heat in a winter season.

RREAL was founded in 2001 by Jason Edens, a high school teacher with a keen interest in solar technologies, and an idea and vision for a better way to help struggling families through the winter. RREAL works on solar electric, solar water, and solar air heat installations in Minnesota. Later this year, the nonprofit has its first out of state installation planned at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

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