Above: Ken Zebarah, Harvest Solar’s director of commercial sales for Michigan and Indiana. DON’T MISS: Tune into Groundwork’s Facebook Livestream, 3pm, Thursday, September 19, 2019, for a live conversation with Ken to learn more about this dynamic company.
Ushering in a Clean Energy Transformation on Michigan Farms
This year’s Harvest at the Commons (October 12) could be called “Harvest, to the second power” because Harvest Solar has signed on as the Harvest event’s top “Providing Sponsor.” The company is one of Michigan’s leading solar installation firms. You can see their handiwork right now in a 2.2 megawatt solar field being constructed just west of Traverse City on M-72—power for the customers of Traverse City Light & Power. We are honored that Harvest Solar is partnering with us to put on Michigan’s largest farm to table dinner event. We met up with Ken Zebarah, director of commercial sales for Michigan and Indiana, to get inside Harvest Solar’s solar business a bit and find out what drew the company to Harvest at the Commons
Share a little bit about Harvest Solar’s roots.
We started in 2006 doing wind turbines for farms in the Midwest. And the company grew, but then it really took off about 2010, when the solar market started to grow and we shifted to that direction. The market really drove us to sell medium scale solar installations to farmers in the Midwest.
A number of reasons. The financial benefits are clear to farmers and there are grants and tax breaks available. And farmers have both a sustainability mindset and an independent mindset. They grow their own crops. It makes sense to them to generate their own electricity. So we found that sweet spot selling solar to farmers. But also, the owner of the company, Mark Olinyk, at one time back in the ’80s, was a farm manager on one of the largest farms in Michigan. He loves the farming community and really wanted to stay involved. We are now also doing a lot of larger scale projects with utilities and we have a residential branch as well, but medium scale projects for farming will always be important to us and is still our main business.
It seems solar has especially had success on farms in northwest Lower Michigan. What do you think explains that?
There is a lot of sustainable farming here, as Groundwork knows since you helped build that market. There is a lot of farming in the whole state, but outside of northwest Lower Michigan it is mostly commercial row crops and not so much of the specialty crops and organic farming and the local community part of farming. Plus here you have a lot more farm to table, farm to school, and organic, and you have families who are more health conscious. All of that, that mindset, matches well with solar because it’s about creating your own energy, and it’s clean energy that’s good for the environment. Combine that with the grants and tax incentives I mentioned and it just makes a really good fit.
The first rows of solar panels at the Traverse City installation reflect a late summer sky. Installed by Harvest Solar.
What kind of changes have you seen in the past five years that have led to the remarkable momentum we are now seeing in clean energy?
Well, there have been a number of things. First, there are changes in the industry. Solar panels are a bit more efficient and the prices have dropped a bit. But really, the biggest change is in the mindset of the customer. Today there is a willingness to go solar even when there is a lukewarm return on investment. A while back, people wanted a payback in less than five years. But now when we are looking at an eight- to 15-year payback, it’s a completely different reaction. As long as the customer sees money back during the life of the solar panels, they will consider it. They think, I’m no longer polluting. And that