Car wash owner sees payback from solar technology

Car wash owner sees payback from solar technology

TILTON — A Vermilion County business owner is adding solar technology to the Super Wash car washes in Tilton, Catlin and Georgetown.

Richard Nevels, the Super Wash franchisee for those locations, is adding a solar voltaic system to the Tilton car wash and installing solar voltaic and solar thermal systems to the Catlin and Georgetown locations.

When completed early next year, the solar thermal systems will heat the floors, heat the soap and polish and keep the overhead hose and rail from freezing up, he said.

The solar voltaic systems will collect solar energy that will be fed to the Ameren Illinois network, cutting Nevels' bills from Ameren.

Nevels figures the systems will trim 40 percent to 50 percent of his utility costs.

"My payback will be four to five years on the investment. From then on, it will be savings," he said.

Nevels embarked on the projects after winning federal and state grants totaling about $100,000.

One grant came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Energy for America Program; the other, from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

He also expects to get a $50,000 federal tax credit for the project. So his own investment in the approximately $200,000 project will end up being about $50,000, he said.

This is the second time Nevels has embarked on a solar project. The first came in 2010 when he installed a solar thermal system in the newly built Tilton car wash.

"We were probably the first car wash in the Midwest to use solar technology to do that," said Nevels. "We had such favorable results that we started investigating retrofitting our older car washes in Georgetown and Catlin."

He and his wife Shannon had acquired those in 2007.

The general contractor for the current project is 360 Sun Solutions of Fort Wayne, Ind. That company will install the solar thermal systems, and a contractor from Indianapolis, Alternate Source, is expected to install the solar voltaic system.

"The whole project should be completed in less than a month," Nevels said.

Nevels said the Super Wash chain, which has about 400 car washes across the United States, "is looking carefully at what's happening with me."

"Everyone is excited about the early returns," he said, adding that if the project is successful, similar installations might be done at as many as 100 other car washes.

Nevels said because commercial car washes have drains, they stand to have a smaller impact on the environment than the washing of cars in driveways. He figures the addition of solar technology will further reduce Super Wash's carbon footprint.

"It's not just good for business, it's good for the environment, and at some point, it will make good economic sense, too," he said.

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jdmac44 wrote on December 21, 2012 at 9:12 am

In other words, his customers are paying for their washes twice.  These grants that are talked about like they're money from the sky are paid for by taxes, the payers of which do not have much of a choice of how much they pay, whether they pay or where their money goes. I looked into purchasing solar panels for my house when I moved in a couple of years ago, my research taught me that at our latitude, we receive enough sun to provide enough energy to make the investment break even after 50 years, unfortunately the PV panels only have a life of 25 years and they need to be replaced and that was paying off my expenditure out of pocket, that did not include the tax subsidized grants that would have assisted me to purchase the system.  At this point, solar energy is a leech on American prosperity and this business owner, whether he knows it or not is taking a ride on the back of the community.  The technology is improving and hopefully someday my complaints won't be true, but right now it's not a viable, sustainable means of providing energy, at least not for the midwest.

Issimo wrote on December 21, 2012 at 11:12 am

I think that you will find that the someday you spoke of at the end of your commentary has been here for a while. Just 5 years ago I was delighted to find solar panels for $4.75 per watt. Now I can find them for $.75 per watt. A few years back panels only collected energy in one wavelength but today they capture energy in 3 or more wavelengths. The overall result is a much greater yield (even at our latitude) for a much smaller investment. The overall lifetime of a modern system far exceeds 25 years. Investment breaks can occur in 10 years or less. The article notes that this businessman is also making use of passive solar collection techniques (solar thermal) that contribute to overall savings by eliminating or assisting in the decrease of the need for the use of energy from a public utility, both decreasing the load on that utility and ultimately replacing a costly type of energy for a nearly free one.

To say that solar energy is leech on American prosperity is misguided. This article confirms that a tax subsidized grant can improve the bottom line of a specific business, possibly promote the growth of that business, while simultaneously increasing energy cost efficiency and lowering its demand on the electrical grid of a public utility. Grants such as this encourage development and can ultimately prove the efficacy of new energy technologies that we must have for the future.

Carbon based energy production and widespread transmission of energy are currently the norm. We use technologies that may never evolve past the need to be powered by carbon fuels. We may need those fuels for specific reasons into the far future. We are also absolutely positive that massive use of carbon fuels is not in the best interest of human health and the chemical future of our planet. As populations grow we may reach tipping points and massive levels of harm that we cannot retreat from.

In that light the development of alternatives for the future of energy use is a thoroughly pragmatic and necessary activity. At this relatively early stage in the development of these alternatives tax based grants are providing a rich base of knowledge. That knowledge will drive development of alternative energy sources to sustainable solutions wherever sunlight reaches including the mid-west. It is a tremendously positive hallmark of American prosperity that these grants serve to support American creativity through the development of new technology, provide growth of manufacturing and support businesses, employ our citizens, improve our use of resources and both create and sustain our future.

The day should also come when we realize that subsidies and grants for this purpose will require considerable revision or are no longer needed. Pray that we will recognize it and act appropriately then.

dw wrote on December 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm

I'm a big believer in renewable energy, BUT the massive drop in solar panel prices is due to the Chinese dumping (selling them below manufacturing cost due to the Chinese government subsidizing them).  

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/business/global/us-sets-tariffs-on-chi...

An easier and better 'bang for your buck' than installing your own panels is to work through your local government to get them to join a municipal electric aggregation program like Urbana and Champaign and many small municipalities (including rual ones).  Both Champaign and Urbana have per-killowatt rates several cents lower than the Ameren default rate and backed by 100% renewably produced electricity.   Then it benefits EVERYBODY in your neighborhood.  

http://ci.champaign.il.us/departments/public-works/residents/municipal-e...

Panels are great but require an up-front cost subsidized by either loans and grants and involve a payback period.  So with the advent of aggragation they're best for off-the-grid situations.  And the impact is typically singular and any extra you produce goes back on the grid at WHOLE sale rates, while you purchase any you need at retail rates.  In contrast, electric aggregation impacts entire communities without requiring any work at all on the part of most of the populace (other than those petitioning and the city workers setting things up), saving a LOT of green for everybody by being green and doing virtually nothing.

Solar heating though doesn't require a second thought -- it's a relatively easy DIY for most homeowners that has moderate-to-low upfront costs -- google solar walls.

bmwest wrote on December 21, 2012 at 8:12 pm
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Based on the owner's numbers, he would have a 16-20 year payback if he had to pay for the whole thing himself ($200,000 total cost / $50,000 his portion = 4; 4 * 4-5 year payback = 16-20 years).

I'd agree that we're at a point where subsidies can probably be eliminated because the market has matured enough to the point that the investment makes sense without it.  I've heard that fossil fuels also receive subsidies and, if true, those should be ended as well.  Farm subsidies are yet another area where we should stop subsidies and, if anything, direct the funds going to those subsidies into food assistance programs to offset the higher food prices that would result from the lack of subsidies.  However, the assistance programs only have to improve the affordability for low income people rather than for everyone so it should still be a net savings.  And if food assistance came solely in the form of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, we'd have a good start towards a healthier population.

illinihoosier wrote on December 22, 2012 at 9:12 am

I appreciate the well-articulated thoughts on both sides of the subsidized renewable equation.  This article has generated good discussion.  It's true that the government gives great subsidy and incentive to oil/conventional energy.  I have no problem with that as it is inseperable from our national security.  We should be even more sensitive about this as instability in the Middleast escalates.  On the other hand, a balanced energy portfolio could offset many of the political, financial and security risks we take by placing all our eggs in one basket.  If we subsidize any form of energy development, be it conventional or new technologies, the subsidy should be efficient, well-defined, accomplish specific goals and placed on a strict timetable that expires as these goals are met. For those who are unfamiliar with the incentives noted in this article, it should be noted that the USDA grants are coming to a close and the state incentives are being steadily reduced as technology becomes more affordable.  The federal tax credit falls into a tax code that is complicated beyond anyone's ability to interpret.