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Front of Pirage Northwoods Company 

The solar electric and solar thermal panels on the roof demonstrate the commitment that Piragis Northwoods Co. has to renewable energy on main street Ely, Minn.

Piragis is solar powered

Ely businessman champions energy efficiency, renewable energy

Piragis Northwoods Co. of Ely, Minn., is best known for selling Kevlar canoes and kayaks and outfitting Boundary Waters canoe trips. But today the 32-year-old company is also gaining notoriety as a firebrand for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

A visit to the Piragis store on Ely’s main street or simply perusing the Piragis website will reveal the eco-friendly nature of this local business. Solar electric and solar thermal panels abound on the roof, with signs proclaiming the store “is now Solar Powered”; LED lights have been installed in more than half of the store (replacing CFLs); and store staff are more than willing to share with visitors the benefits of solar power. Go to the company website and it’s clear that Piragis is watching its carbon footprint. Click on the “We are Solar Powered” icon and you can see real-time monitoring of the store’s 11 kW solar electric installation (a similar monitor is exhibited in the store). Daily energy output figures display total kWh generated and CO2 saved, documenting the benefits of solar power since the system’s Sept. 1, 2010 installation.

“We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Co. “We all have to make a difference individually in our environment. We hope we can serve as an example to other businesses and residences in our community.”

Indeed, Piragis Northwoods Co. is doing its part to conserve energy. In addition to the grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) system, which provides about one third of the store’s electric power, Piragis uses solar collectors to heat its hot water. Hot showers are in high demand during the summer months when canoeists return from trips and take showers at the Piragis store. Piragis has also employed some of the most basic, less-costly energy-efficient steps; for instance, before the solar installation, the store was pressure tested for air leaks, the air leaks were sealed, and insulation was added.

What’s more, Steve Piragis installed a 6.3 kW solar PV system at his Ely home. Twenty-eight 230-watt Siliken panels generate power for about half of his home’s electricity needs.

Payback or paying it forward

The solar PV system at the Piragis business features 48 230-watt Siliken panels with three inverters. The solar hot water system is powered by 80 square feet of Minnesota-made Solar Skies panels with a 80-gallon storage tank. The cost of the solar PV system and installation was $78,000. But a $20,000 rebate from the Minnesota Solar Electric Rebate Program (funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and other incentives will trim the cost significantly. Factoring in some depreciation savings, Steve Piragis estimates about a 14-year payback period to recoup his investment. Given that the system should last 40 years or more, Piragis considers it money well spent.

Similarly, his hot water system, which received a $1,875 rebate from the state Solar Hot Water Rebate Program, figures to be a good investment. But payback was not Steve Piragis’ overriding motivation for investing in solar. Instead, he greatly values being a good steward of our earth’s resources. Piragis is proud of his support of clean, sustainable energy. He is on the board of directors for “E3,” Energy Efficient Ely, a nonprofit group dedicated to the efficient use of energy resources in the Ely area. E3 activities include annual energy symposiums, renewable energy home and business tours, a community garden project, energy speaker forums, recycling programs and more. “Our E3 group likes to say, ‘Ely may be the end of the road for Minnesota, but it’s the beginning of the road for energy independence,’ ” Piragis says.

“Steve is a great advocate for energy efficiency,” said Kevin Nyenhuis, a founding partner of Able Energy Co. of River Falls, Wis., which installed the PV systems for Piragis. “His commitment to renewable energy and the environment suits his clientele, his business and the Ely area, and it sends a strong message to the community.”

Nyenhuis said the Minnesota Solar Electric Rebate Program, which provided $2.5 million of federal stimulus funding in rebates (mostly for 2010 installations), gave a huge boost to the solar industry and “certainly put a lot of people to work.” It helped Minnesota smash its record for solar PV installations in one year. Programs such as the Solar Electric Rebate Program are helpful in incentivizing residents and businesses into doing what Piragis did, Nyenhuis said. “A big part of the conversation with our clients is return on investment,” Nyenhuis added. “It has to make economic sense.”

Steve Piragis with his solar panels

Steve Piragis with the roof-mounted PV array made possible in part through the Minnesota Solar Electric Program, with funding from ARRA.

Minnesota is ‘solarific’

In addition to periodic rebate programs, Minnesota offers a host of incentives that encourage solar energy. The state excludes the value of a solar electric system from real property taxation, and solar systems in general are exempt from state sales tax. The state offers low-interest loan programs to fund energy efficient improvements, and some utilities offer grant, rebate or loan programs to help fund solar energy installations. In many cases, a federal Renewable Energy Tax Credit of 30 percent can be applied to the cost of residential or business solar systems installed between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2016. A federal treasury grant in lieu of the tax credit, known as the 1603 Program, is another financial resource.

For a list of government and utility incentives, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. For more information on energy effi ciency and renewable energy, visit the Division of Energy Resources.