Solar project rises at Reliable

November 27th, 2017

By Barry Rochford | The News Sun

Reliable Production Machining & Welding is nearing the point it can flip the switch on its new 1-megawatt solar field on nearly 5 acres along S.R. 3.

The 3,568 solar panels are expected to generate electricity and reduce costs for the Kendallville manufacturer for the next few decades. But they also do something else, say company leaders.

They’re a symbol that as the sun rises each, Reliable’s commitment to its workers and the community continues.

“Reliable’s been here since 1946, and it pretty well lets everyone know that we’re going to be here for a while, which is important to employees and the city of Kendallville,” Chief Operating Officer Greg Salway said of the project.

Since September, Avilla-based Renewable Energy Systems LLC has been spearheading the project’s installation at Reliable, 301 W. Ohio St. All of the more than 3,500 solar panels are in place, each capable of generating 340 watts of electricity, and the wiring connecting everything is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

The solar field could be commissioned and ready for use by the first week of December. But without a similar project in South Milford lighting an interest in solar power in Reliable executives, the field might never have been.

In 2016, Wible Lumber Inc. in South Milford installed its own 1-megawatt solar field. Reliable’s president, Chuck Drerup, and CEO, Tom Walterhouse, knew Wible Lumber co-owner Dennis Nowels. When they learned about the Wible Lumber solar field, they began thinking about how a similar project could benefit their operations.

“It piqued our interest,” Drerup said. “The more we looked into it, the more financial sense it makes for our long-term goal here at Reliable.”

The company produces a range of components — hubs, sprockets, axles, pistons and spindles, for example — that are used in the large construction, agricultural, recreational vehicle and marine, and lawn care industries. The components can be found in skid steers, scissor and boom lifts, and utility, RV and boat trailers, among other products.

Like with other manufacturers, energy is a considerable cost for Reliable. Walterhouse said it’s usually about $15,000 to $20,000 a month for the company. Rates have increased in recent years, and Indiana Michigan Power presently is asking the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to approve a further rate hike to generate an additional $263 million in annual operating revenue.

“This was a good tool for us to offset some of the rising utility costs,” Drerup said. “I&M’s talking about a 19.7 percent, I think, increase. The solar field doesn’t really care what the price of a kilowatt is, whether it’s 9 cents or 15 cents.”

He added: “It’s a tool that will produce electricity for 20, 30 years and beyond.”

The solar field will supply about 85 percent of Reliable’s power, and the solar panels — which require little to no maintenance — will generate electricity for decades. The panels are designed to withstand damage from golf-ball-sized hail, along with sustained winds of 90 mph and gusts of 120 mph.

Excess energy that’s produced will go into I&M’s network, with Reliable receiving a dollar-for-dollar credit. Through a process called net metering, the company can draw on those credits at night when the sun is down or on days with heavy cloud cover.

“The way the system is designed, it will build credits probably April through October, and then you’ll start using those credits October through (March),” said Eric Hesher, president of Renewable Energy Systems, which also installed the solar field at Wible Lumber.

Reliable’s project was fast-tracked to be operational by the end of the year before a new state law goes into effect Jan. 1 that reduces the length of time the company can take part in net metering from 30 years to 15 years.

The solar field can generate just below 1 megawatt of alternating current. The 1-megawatt threshold is important, Hesher said, because any system generating more than that is considered a power producer by the state, and the financial benefits from installing it are reduced.

Drerup and Walterhouse declined to say what Reliable’s investment in the solar field is, other than it’s “significant.”

“It took some thought,” Walterhouse said.

A federal tax credit will offset 30 percent of the cost, while Star Financial Bank provided financing for the project. Hesher said the project should pay for itself in about five years.

“That’s the big thing, it has to make financial sense, but there’s also side benefits for the environment, being able to self-sustain your business,” Salway said.

Drerup said in the end, installing the solar field “just feels right.”

“It feels good that we’re using renewable energy,” he said. “We’re using something that does not have a carbon footprint.”