Solardarity: Solar Powered Community

LantzBassfords

By Aryn Henning Nichols

When things go south, it’s generally a bad thing.

But when your garage roof goes south, better slap some solar power on there, quick!

“You gotta look south – literally, look south – and see if you have the sun for this thing to work,” says Decorah resident Scott Bassford.

After installing their 18-panel 4500-watt solar array late last year, Bassford’s family (pictured above in 2013) joined the rising number of folks looking south – and then up – to harness the power of the sun. Residential (and commercial) solar projects are gaining popularity in the region (and world) – and not just within the environmental-soap-boxers crowd.

“We did it because it’s fun and I feel like it’s the progressive thing to do,” Bassford says, “and also for the longest time it’s been so out of sight. But 2013-2014 were these magical years where these three funding sources were perfectly aligned. You were looking at payback in six to seven years if you plan it right.”

What sources, you ask?

  1. The price of solar (or photovoltaic) panels has gone way down – it’s less than half the price it was just five years ago, and a small fraction of the cost back in the 70s when the technology was still quite young.
  2. Government tax credits: Federal (covers 30% of the cost of project) and state (for Iowa, an additional 15% off).

And, if you’re a lucky Alliant Energy customer: 3. Alliant Energy rebates (25-30% more; ending now – end of 2014).

Add on to that the general population’s rising awareness about all things environmental, and you’ve got a whole lot of sun catching going on. It really is one of those times where good environment and good economics ride the same train. When people like super-investor Warren Buffett get behind solar in such a big way – his MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company floated an $850 million bond offering for the world’s largest solar project, California’s Topaz Solar Farm – it’s hard not to take notice. That was the first time a public bond offering for a U.S. photovoltaic power project had been deemed “investment grade”, making it seem that greening the world can actually, well, make some green.

There’s even a company called Mosaic that implements crowd-funding, allowing small, non-accredited investors to earn interest financing clean energy initiatives. It’s first offering, four solar projects that projected a 4.5 percent return, had loans starting at just $25. 24 hours and 435 investors later, the projects were sold out.

So what is it about solar that’s so great?

Well, it’s been around awhile – more than 50 years – so a lot of the kinks are worked out. It pays back 10 to 30 times or more it’s environmental cost, it’s adaptable to most any sized project as long as there’s good sun, and it’s widely available throughout the world. And, since there’s not much to the panels in terms of mechanical parts, there’s not much to break.

“Our panels are ‘guaranteed to work 80% as well for 25 years,’” Bassford says.“It’s hard to lose. Even if the technology is twice as good in five, 10, 20 years, the project still holds value.”

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Besides good sun (the mantra is “shade-free from 9 to 3”), there are a few other things you’ll need in order to jump on the solar bandwagon.

“After you’ve identified where solar will fit spatially on your property, you need to have some idea how much solar you want/need,” says GoSolar solar installation business owner Dennis Pottraz. Pottraz was the first nationally certified (NABCEP) solar installer in Iowa.

“People often look at their current usage as a place to start. How much of that usage do you want to make for yourself? Almost certainly not more than you use. Though you may anticipate increasing your future usage,” he (sort of) jokes. “I hear an electric car in some people’s dreams.”

Once you’ve accessed your usage, you need to be sure your site can accommodate the system, and that your wallet can handle the investment, even with all the rebates and incentives.

Local environmentally-passionate bank, Decorah Bank and Trust – they have their own large array on top of their downtown Decorah building, in addition to a smaller one over their drive-thru banking area – has  launched an “energy loan” campaign to help people clear that last hurdle.

DBT_SolarDriveThru

“We want to eliminate the roadblock for people who don’t have the cash or don’t want to spend the cash up front for the system,” says Decorah Bank and Trust co-president Joe Grimstad. “It’s a good investment in their future. Most of these projects will provide a return to the homeowner. We are seeing a lot of solar projects going up now that should pay for themselves in energy cost savings in five to seven years. After that, it is free electricity! We work to set it up so that the customer can complete the project with little or no additional need for cash flow. Once the system is installed and working, the homeowner applies the funds to the loan that they would have paid to the utility company.”

With the current “magical funding” in place (Alliant’s has run out, but federal and state credits continue through 2016), that’s an investment folks should consider. Andy Johnson, director of Decorah’s Winneshiek Energy District, breaks it down.

“Take a typical five kilowatt home rooftop system: installed cost may be $20,000 max. Take the Alliant rebate off first – potentially $7,000 – it brings it down to $13,000, take off 30 percent for federal and 15 percent for the state tax credit (AFTER the utility rebate comes off), and that brings it down to $7,150,” says Johnson. “If you’re paying 12 cents/kwh, it’s typically in the seven to nine year simple payback – comparable to the historical stock market and a WHOLE lot more predictable and stable!”

Winneshiek Energy District is great regional resource for all sorts of clean energy projects, solar included. Certified Midwest Renewable Energy Association solar site assessor Joel Zook consults on projects and helps wade through questions and paperwork, and energydistrict.org is packed with links and helpful research from finding a local installer to understanding just how selling your solar works.

PowerOn

What? You sell it? Well, yes. Think of it like this – when you’re using grid-connected (i.e. utility-provided) electricity, you’re renting your electricity. But when your solar array has created energy, it goes back into the grid, purchased by the electricity company at retail value. That’s electricity you own. Your utility provider then credits it to your account. If you make more electricity than you need, you don’t start to make money (although excess summer energy rolls over and can ride you through darker winter months), though, so it’s essential – and makes the most sense – to only install a system sized for your needs.

Sadly, just “slapping” some solar panels on a roof is not really a reality – the process of approving and installing a system takes months, so interested folks better get on it if they want to take advantage of federal or state tax credits (both expire end of 2016) !

“Even if you’re NOT an Alliant customer, still think NOW!” says Johnson.

And lots of people are, indeed, thinking just that.

“Nearly anyone who has a place to install solar and apply the incentives is interested this year,” says Pottratz. “Solar sure looks like it is here to stay, and that it’s going to keep on growing.”

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After writing this story, Aryn Henning Nichols finds herself looking south – and eyeing their garage roof wishfully – to see if they have the sun to “make this thing work.” Using the sun for electricity is pretty darn cool (er, hot, but you know what she means). UPDATE! We installed our small, 8-panel array on our garage this past fall (2014), and we’re making power! We’ll keep you posted on how the numbers all pan out.

Regional solar-lovers in the residential sector are in good company with their commercial-sector friends – Luther College finished “the largest single solar energy production facility in the state of Iowa” and it’s hard to miss the huge arrays that went up on Decorah’s Pizza Ranch this spring.

SolarMap

You can get a chance to learn more about clean energy projects such as these and any other clean energy project that is uploaded (by its owner) through a new tool on the Winneshiek Energy District website.
http://tools.energydistrict.org/rmap

For other great solar resources, visit:
energydistrict.org/programs/solar-solar/

Lefse: Making the Rounds

LefseRoller

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Photos by Benji Nichols

Lefse. For many Driftless Region folks claiming Norwegian roots, just hearing the word conjures up a singular fond memory: Grandma.

Specifically, grandma donning her favorite apron, pulling out that passed-down-through-the-generations recipe, ricing and boiling potatoes (Russet, of course!), and rolling and rolling ball after ball of lefse dough until each round reached a perfect paper-thinness.

Mark Johnson, manager and co-owner of Norsland Lefse in Rushford, Minnesota, vividly recalls his own grandmother toiling in the kitchen to ensure the lefse (or potato flatbread) always appeared on the holiday dinner table, piping hot from the griddle. It’s that memory that drives the one-of-a-kind lefse factory nestled in the heart of Minnesota’s scenic Bluff Country. “Our goal is to mass-produce lefse that’s as good as, if not better than, the lefse grandma used to make in her own kitchen – and to do so year-round,” he says.

That may sound like a tall order to those who grew up helping grandma make this popular Norwegian treat, but Johnson says he’s up to the task ­– and no, preservatives and instant potatoes (perish the thought!) aren’t part of the equation. The company, in fact, purchases more than 250,000 pounds of fresh potatoes each year.

“Our lefse is the real deal – dry Russet potatoes mixed with vegetable oil, flour, and salt, rolled out nice and thin,” he says, gesturing toward the bright, spacious kitchen that’s the undisputed centerpiece of the Norsland Lefse building. “We don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.”

LefseDough

Visible through five large plate-glass windows, that kitchen offers inquisitive visitors a glimpse of finely tuned lefse-making in action most mornings of the year. As one employee prepares rounds of dough for rolling, another moves just-rolled dough to a flat, open-faced griddle, where yet another uses a thin, wooden lefse stick to heat those rounds for just over a minute or so before placing them on a cooling conveyor.

The highlight of the entire operation?

Nine automatic rolling machines, still humming along after more than three decades of use. “A roller alternately moves from the center to the outside of the dough while the platform rotates an eighth of a turn with each swipe,” explains Johnson, who has clearly been asked about the machines many times before. “The repetitive motion flattens the rounds until they reach just the right size, about 16 inches in diameter.”

Flipping_Stick

The machines, created right in Rushford, are part of the local lore. It was 1981 when a trio of individuals – including Merlin Hoiness, a local grocer looking to sell high-quality lefse in his stores –approached Jim Humble, a Rushford-based ironworker, with the prototype for a hand-operated lefse-rolling machine designed to ease the labor-intensive rolling process. Sensing its potential, Humble immediately set to work creating several mechanized versions, using surplus computer motors from IBM – purchased for just $10 a piece – to power the machines. “You don’t just go out and buy machines like that,” observes Johnson. “I’m sure it was a lot of trial and error.”

That trial-and-error process produced a surprisingly successful result. By 1985, Hoiness was making enough lefse to supply not only his stores but also many others – more than 150 in all. Today Norsland Lefse employs the very same machines to roll some 500,000 rounds of lefse a year – including the 10,000 served up at Nordic Fest in Decorah each July. The factory produces “a couple thousand” rounds of lefse daily during its busy season (September through December), Johnson says. “There’s really no other lefse-making operation quite like this.”

That’s abundantly clear from the moment you pull into the Norsland Lefse parking lot, where can’t-miss signage proclaims “Parking for Lefse Lovers Only.” The Norwegian flavor extends to the building’s red, brick exterior (adorned with a Norwegian flag and a Viking-helmet-wearing mascot) and natural-light-filled interior, which houses not only the lefse-making kitchen but also a handful of side businesses.

A coffee shop and bakery, run by Johnson’s wife, Carolyn, offer a mouth-watering array of baked goods (breads, muffins, cookies, bars, and other pastries) as well as sandwiches, soups, and a breakfast wrap served on – you guessed it – lefse. “Ninety percent of lefse is eaten with butter and sugar,” Johnson makes sure to note, “but you can put most anything on it.”

NorslandBillboard

In the adjacent gift shop, that point is well made in “91 Ways to Serve Lefse,” just one of myriad Scandinavian-themed products on display. Interested in a “99 ½ Uff Da Jokes” CD or a “How to Talk Minnesotan” guide? You’re in luck! How about “Uff Da” chips (made in-house and available in two varieties) or “Ole and Lena” fortune cookies? You’ll find those too, as well as a slew of other quintessentially Norwegian fare, from Glögg drink mix and Lingonberry preserves to rosettes and, yes, even lutefisk.

The gift shop, bakery, and coffee shop were all part of an effort to expand and diversify the business following the flood that ravaged Rushford in the summer of 2007.

“We were completely flooded,” says Johnson, whose family has owned Norsland Lefse since 1997. “Although we were eventually able to get up and running again, we realized then that if we were ever going to grow the business, we needed to move to a larger location. This building is nicer, and it’s newer, but, because of the increased overhead, we’ve had to be even busier.”

And they have been, thanks in large part to savvy Internet, e-mail, and direct-mail marketing that has attracted customers from every state and many countries, Norway included. While Norsland Lefse still does a solid wholesale business – two-thirds of the lefse it makes is shipped directly to stores – the majority of its growth has come through individuals purchasing rounds that are vacuum-sealed and mailed factory-direct the day their orders are placed. Johnson expects that growth to continue as he leverages the as-yet-untapped marketing power of Facebook and other social media tools.

UffdaMug

Like any good businessperson, Johnson is, of course, looking for ways to increase the bottom line – but he also sees Norsland Lefse as providing a service to countless “displaced Norwegians” scattered throughout the world who can’t find lefse in their brick-and-mortar grocery store or don’t have the time (or experience) to whip up a batch.

“People are busier today, and the family lefse-making tradition handed down through the generations is slowly disappearing,” he says. “Our goal is to make sure that everyone who wants to can carry on enjoying grandma’s lefse, whether it be during the holidays or at any other time of year – that’s the niche we’re filling.”

Would grandma approve?

You betcha!

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Sara Friedl-Putnam claims no Norwegian roots but still looks forward to savoring a good round or two of Norsland Lefse’s signature product (with butter and sugar, of course!) each July during Nordic Fest in Decorah.

Take a scenic drive to Rushford, Minnesota, on State Highway 43 to view lefse-making in action. Norsland Lefse is open weekdays from 7 am to 4 pm and Saturdays from 7 am to 2 pm year-round, with lefse-making occurring most mornings (If you want to make sure you get to see the action, call ahead to confirm they’re rolling lefse that day, though.). To find out more about Norsland Lefse (or to place an order), call 1-800-584-6777 or visit www.norslandlefse.com.

See a video of the lefse machines in action here!

How to: Make a Paper Christmas Tree!

SequinsTree

Roxie requested that we make some Christmas trees last week – she’s into glue and learning to use scissors these days – and as I was cutting the tree trunk I had the thought: This could be a little stand-up tree! Or a table place card! So, without further ado: a bonus paper project! Tiny table trees!

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Supplies:
• Tree template (print pdf here)
• Scissors
• Markers (you could even glue on sequins or do little tissue paper bits)
   (Ed note: The MINUTE I wrote sequins, I jumped up to make another tree…see above… ‘cause I’m a hoarder with packets of sequins and old birthday garland in the closet.)
• Glitter, sequins, tissue paper, tinsel, glue…you get it.

1. Cut out tree. Make sure to cut on the dotted lines at the trunk, but leave those flaps on – they become the stand.

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2. Decorate tree. You can color on them, glue on them, stamp on them, make them place cards for your holiday table. Whatever you want! (< exciting!)

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3. Fold the two flaps in at the trunk lines, then place the two slits together to form a triangle stand.

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4. Stand ‘er up.

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That’s it! Simple, right? Happy holidays, friends!

-Aryn