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Columbus Residents Seek Solar Power Through Group Purchase

Attendees listen to a speaker during a public meeting hosted by the Columbus community Solar Initiative.

Mike Mullett lives in Columbus, Indiana. He spent years as an environmental lawyer, and now he’s concerned about climate change.

“The more I learned about economics of energy production, the more I learned about the environmental impact,” says Mullett.

Mullett is proud of his solar panels. He installed them on his daughter’s birthday.

“When you get to our age you start thinking about legacy,” he says. “What type of world are we leaving? What kind of life are we leaving to our children and grandchildren? And that’s a very powerful motivator.”


Mullet tracks his solar panels online. He pulls up charts and graphs that help put his contribution to the environment into perspective. (Photo credit: J.D. Gray)

“The amount that we’ve generated from the solar panels on our house to date is the equivalent of one day’s worth of power from a major sports stadium. It’s also the equivalent of 13.3 tons of carbon offset which is of course the big issue as far as climate change, global warming is concerned,” Mullett says.

That’s the same amount of carbon that 1 acre of trees would offset in that time. Now, Mullett wants to create a virtual forest of solar panels by convincing his neighbors to reach a collective goal of 1,000 solar panels installed by December 31.

A Slow Growth

Justin Ackert  is the Energy Advisor at the Bartholomew County REMC, an energy co-op. The REMC is a co-op that buys power from Hoosier Energy and sells it to their members in Columbus and the surrounding area.

Ackert is the solar guy. He keeps a book about solar energy on his desk. He adjusts the REMC’s solar panels to save them money and produce more energy.


Photo credit: J.D. Gray

“If we can lower usage, our members will benefit from a lower bill, and it’s good for the environment. Ultimately, it also helps us to decrease demand for the need to build another power plant,” Ackert says.

Ackert helps members understand their options. He looks at the angles of their roofs and how much shade covers their home.

A lot of people are asking about them, but no one is doing it.

But he says getting people from inquiring about panels and asking questions to applying for a permit and actually installing them, rarely happens.

In the two and a half years since Ackert started working with the REMC, only one person has signed up to solarize his house.

“The cost of solar is really coming down. If you look at the numbers of the initial investment, people just want to know…when am I getting that back? Five years? 10 years, 15? 20? If it’s a reasonable return, it makes sense to them,” says Ackert.

Drawing A Crowd

At a recent meeting at the Columbus Visitors Center, Mike Mullet gathered a group of volunteers to talk to residents about their goal to solarize Columbus.

“There’s a tremendous difference between curious interest and calculated commitment, and to actually act you have to move from curious interest to calculated interest,” says Mullett.


Photo credit: J.D. Gray

The group worked out a deal with a solar panel distributor, Third Sun Solar. The idea is, if you sell a lot of solar panels at once, the block purchase creates a lower price for the consumer.

“The whole solarize concept is something that has been growing in the Midwest. It’s newer to Indiana, but it’s been successful in Ohio,” Smucker says.

Mullett says it will take about 40 households and 10 businesses to meet the goal of 1,000 panels.

The meeting stirred some interest. Mullett says eight people declared interest in purchasing solar panels.

Barry Kastner is on the steering committee for the Columbus Community Solar Initiative. He ordered 28 solar panels.

“With the 28 panels, I should be able to cover nearly 100 percent of our energy usage on the net meter basis,” Kastner says. “Meaning we will be putting excess solar energy, electricity on the grid.”

We will be putting excess solar energy, electricity on the grid.

Kastner says he is spending around $20,000 on his solar panels, but that number comes down to about 14,000 after he accounts for a tax credit he’ll get back. He says the panels should pay themselves off in around 12 years.

“All by ourselves, one household, one family isn’t going to make a difference but in terms of having a community initiative that gets many involved, that starts to have an impact,” Mullett says. “This is contagious. This is like a good disease.”

In the second phase, five people signed letters of intent to purchase solar energy from Third Sun Solar.

Other solar initiatives are springing up throughout the state. Two neighborhoods in Bloomington are encouraging their neighbors to use solar energy.

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