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French-Reneker adds solar array

PHOTO COURTESY OF IDEAL ENERGY

French-Reneker-Associates in Fairfield installed a 40.8 kilowatt solar array near their property on the south side of town. The solar array is visible in the bottom portion of this photo, which was taken from the east. The company’s building is visible in the top half of the frame near the parked cars.
PHOTO COURTESY OF IDEAL ENERGY French-Reneker-Associates in Fairfield installed a 40.8 kilowatt solar array near their property on the south side of town. The solar array is visible in the bottom portion of this photo, which was taken from the east. The company’s building is visible in the top half of the frame near the parked cars.
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Engineering firm French-Reneker-Associates is the latest company to “go green” by installing a solar array to power its office on the south side of Fairfield.

The 40.8 kilowatt (kW) array will provide around 80 percent of the building’s electricity and save the company more than $9,000 per year. In addition to saving the company an estimated $200,255 over the next 25 years, the array will also prevent 841 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere during that same period – equivalent to over two million miles of driving in a typical car.

French-Reneker president Steve Hausner said slashing the company’s high utility costs became one of his top priorities when he assumed his role four years ago.

“I was quite surprised to see that our average electric bill was just over $1,000 a month,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s six or eight times more than I pay for my house, which is only three times smaller. What’s the deal here?’ So there was room for improvement on that electric bill.”

The company considered switching to solar about six years ago, but did not pursue it at the time. Hausner said the company wasn’t ready to jump in with both feet because solar energy was still in its infancy. “We like to go with technologies that are tried and true, both in our designs and how we run our business. At that time solar was still relatively new in this area and we weren’t ready to jump on that just yet,” Hausner said.

In the years since, the price of solar has dropped and the technology has proven itself throughout the Midwest. Hausner said he was inspired by the solar projects he’s seen around town such as the installation at Iowa State Bank.

“I started seeing [solar arrays] pop up all over the place,” he said. “If the technology didn’t work, I don’t think I would see them everywhere.”

Now, French-Reneker’s engineering staff is confident that solar is a sound decision.

“It appears to me we could pay for this in three years, and after that we’re paying 20 percent of that $1,000 monthly bill. That’s a pretty quick payoff,” Hausner said.

A few large solar projects planned in town, new arrays at Agri-Industrial Plastics and Maharishi University of Management, use batteries to store the sun’s energy. Hausner said French-Reneker chose not to add batteries to its array, preferring to “take it one step at a time.”

“I think we can add batteries later if we want to,” he said.

According to Ideal Energy, which designed and built the array, French-Reneker-Associates’ investment in clean energy has among the fastest payback periods seen so far in solar projects in the area. Aurelien Windenberger, finance and design expert at Ideal Energy, attributed the fast payback period to the falling cost of solar and the high price French-Reneker-Associates pays for electricity.

“French-Reneker is on a high-priced commercial utility tariff, but at 40 kW, the array was large enough to generate economies of scale,” Windenberger said.

In addition, the company’s electric usage and utility rates are highest in summer, when solar production is also highest. A good location for a ground-mounted array with very little shade rounded out the factors that made French-Reneker invest in the technology.

French-Reneker-Associates also upgraded its lighting to LEDs. By switching to more efficient lighting before building the solar array, the company was able to increase its savings and install only as much solar as it needed. Ideal Energy performed an energy audit and installed the lighting.

The LED lighting has already saved the company money compared to this time last year.

French-Reneker-Associates, which primarily works with municipalities on projects ranging from roads to sanitary sewage to trail systems like the Fairfield Loop Trail, said that the solar project dovetails with the values of its customers. Fairfield and Bloomfield, two of the company’s larger customers, have significant solar projects of their own. “The solar array identifies that we have similar goals,” Hausner said.

For Hausner and his colleagues the most important consideration was the value they saw in their solar investment. “We’re engineers, we can figure the numbers out,” he said. “The numbers proved themselves.”