Flipping the Switch
When Twin Town Guitars owner Andrew Bell first decided to fix the roof three years ago, he had no idea what he was getting into. The industrious shopkeep, who’d maintained the Minneapolis business since 1997, watched as a simple maintenance project became a leap into the next generation of energy efficiency – solar panel installation. The move has turned a lot of heads in the neighborhood, and more than a few of the locals are helping out.
“It’s all about choices about our money,” said Bell over the phone from Minneapolis. “We’re choosing to put ours where it’ll pay for itself.”
Bell, a Minneapolis music scene veteran who runs the store with his wife, Carrie, put himself through a gauntlet of financing issues in order to get the new solar panels up, but things appear headed in the right direction, with a target date of late December to get the system fully up and running.
Originally faced with a simple ceiling leak repair, Bell’s project quickly snowballed from repairing rubber sheeting, to installing foam sealant, to finally constructing a full solar power system. Though Bell was initially turned off the simple rubber repair for environmental reasons (“They have no way of safely disposing of the stuff, which is basically toxic,” he says), he notes that the move makes sense on a number of levels. “This kind of thing is going to fit your niche whether you think you’re looking out for the future of the planet or if you’re just a greedy capitalist trying to hoard some dollars,” he says, laughing.
At first faced with an estimate nearing $250,000, Bell quickly found that there were a number of grants and public funds available to businesses that were looking to do this type of project, especially since the solar panels he had his eye on were built right there in Minnesota. He ended up securing funds through local grants, state rewards program and federal incentives to pay for the majority of the project and recently found a good deal of help through a local group called Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KNA), which connected him with the neighborhood’s Solarize Kingfield program to help front capital that Bell’s bank had recently turned down.
“The secret that is important to any brick and mortar store is that everything you do runs on electricity . . . If I can find any way to not pay the electric company for that, I’m sold.”
“It wasn’t looking good,” he says. “But 48 hours after we met the KNA walking back from our farmer’s mark with no plans, we’d suddenly gone to needing to flip the switch on December 15.”
Meanwhile, what the solar panels mean for Twin Town is simple. “I’ve calculated that I spend between $400 and $500 a month, especially in the summer when the air conditioning is on. That will go away immediately,” he says. “That’s money I can use to pay off the installation of this and, in two years, that’s money that can go straight back to the store.” Furthermore, he’ll be mandated to sell any excess electricity he generates back to the local power grid, a task he’ll perform “cheerfully.”
Bell says a new meter will be installed in the store and expects its higher visibility to encourage everyone in the store to take every chance to increase efficiency, the way hybrid car owners have been known to become obsessed with driving habits once they’re shown the effects in real time graphics.
Regardless, the shop has already taken as many steps as possible to become completely energy efficient, including total weatherproofing, installing all compact fluorescent light bulbs, and SuperSavers on all the shop’s heating and cooling units. As part of the financing process, the store will face strict energy audits to ensure that the building is both well-kept and already pursuing stringent efficiency practices, a process Bell looks forward to and recommends.
“The secret that is important to any brick and mortar store is that everything you do runs on electricity,” he says. “Your lights, your computers, your coffee maker, and even your heat and air no matter if it’s gas or oil – you’ve got to blow that air around somehow. If I can find any way to not pay the electric company for that, I’m sold. Make that disappear.”
The sight of teams of analysts, engineers and energy auditors combing through the store has perked up interest in the neighborhood from long-time customers, neighbors, and other local businesses.
“Lots of folks are scared of this kind of change,” he says, but notes that a few nearby businesses have begun looking into the solar move for themselves. “Some people shake their heads and say it’s too much hassle, but it’s really not like there are guys from NASA who have to come install this for you. It’s simple. Just think of the calculator you use at the desk for trade-ins – that’s all solar powered!”
Still, there’s one aspect of the process that Bell is unsure of and anxious to test out when he gets a chance – how will his guitar sound on solar power?
“If you’ve got your pedals plugged in,” he says, “you can always hear that little ticking sound of the power magnets spinning around somewhere. They say Angus Young refuses to use venues’ electricity because of that – his batteries sound better.”
“I’m very interested to hear how the instruments sound with this…”