(Crystal A. Proxmire, July 7, 2013)
Two years ago, Kevin O’Mara was all about getting off the grid. In a July 2011 interview, he explained how he’d begun doing alternative energy experiments on the roof of his laboratory business, Midwest Analytical Services located at 2905 Hilton. Solar thermal heat and wind turbines gathered energy to run emergency lighting and heat systems that helped save him money and gave him some back up during power outages.
But now an even larger experiment has him working hand in hand with DTE as he’s transformed his unused parking lot space into a solar energy field capable of powering the equivalent of 5 or 6 1,500 square foot houses.
As part of DTE’s Solar Currents Program, O’Mara was able to construct a system on the property that feeds electricity back into the DTE electrical grid. There are 99 panels that gather 200 watts of energy laid out over ½ an acre in three arrays which are 7,000 watts a piece, for a total of about 21,000 watts. While this would run several houses, it actually produces only about a third of the energy that Midwest Analytical uses in a month.
“They buy the power. I have a need for three times as much power as this generates, so I don’t get a check every month, but I will get a reduction in my bill,” O’Mara said.
A work in progress since February, O’Mara and his scientifically-minded buddies figured out the components and constructed the arrays with materials that anyone can pick up at a store like Home Depot. It finally went online in June, after DTE put in the power inverters, safety shut-offs, meters, and other necessary parts to connect the power into their system.
The $140,000 cost will take more than five years to pay for itself, but it’s infrastructure he’s sure is a good investment. “It adds an asset to my property, and it gives me more control over my expenses each month,” he said. “Plus this is what I like to do. I like to build things and see how they work.”
Though less concerned with the environmental impacts, O’Mara does like the idea of getting energy for essentially nothing. “The wind and the sun are here. God gives us all this, why not use it?” There is a function on the transformers that tells users how much CO2 they are saving by using solar over coal-based energy.
Another benefit is that O’Mara is developing his own experience and expertise and helping some of his customers build systems of their own. Midwest Analytical does a variety of testing, including water, soil and components for industry. His business, and businesses that he works with, have a need for reliable energy sources.
“In the 13 years I’ve been here, the power has gone out once or twice a year,” he said. The large solar system that is connected to the gird will also go off line in an outage, but the equipment on his roof top will continue working.
Independent of DTE, O’Mara has two 500 watt wind generators, a 600 watt solar PV system and a 2,000 watt solar thermal heat system. These provide him enough energy to run emergency lights at night and enough heated fluid to keep a portion of the office warm through a sub-floor radiant heating system. Power is also stored in batteries that can be used to run computers and testing equipment should the main power go out.
The rooftop experiments began four years ago. He started with some solar panels. “The first thing I started with was some small solar PV and I quickly surmised that the sun went down every day. So what I decided to do next was invest in some wind generation,” he said.
The wind turbines work best at about 30 miles per hour, and if the wind is too high they turn out of the way to avoid being ripped apart. His installation tactics has evolved as he went from one turbine to the next. “The second one we added a tilt feature to the base, so that if we have to work on it, we can just tilt it down instead of unbolting it completely.”
After adding wind, he decided to reduce his heating costs with the solar thermal system. It basically heats up antifreeze in pipes which run below the floor in the restrooms and offices, keeping employee’s feet nice and warm in the cold winter months, and providing most of the heat needed for the building. “That’s already paid for itself,” O’Mara said, noting that his gas bills used to be $1,500 through the winter months and now are similar to what he pays year round.
There has been some trial and error, as any good scientist might expect. But for O’Mara it’s all about the process. “The most important learning was just making the decision to do something. I’m gonna do this and see what it can do,” he said.
DTE has an interactive graphic on their website that explains how the solar power system works. For this and other information on the Solar Currents Program, visit http://www.dteenergy.com/residentialCustomers/productsPrograms/solarCurrents/getStartedSolar.html.
For our 2011 story on Midwest Analytical’s alternative energy experiments, visit http://oaklandcounty115.com/2011/07/24/a-little-off-the-grid-midwest-analytical-experiments/.
For more on Midwest Analytical go to http://www.e4mas.com/.