Harnessing power of the sun, with stunning view of the Glen Lakes

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By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

When Gary Cozette and Joe Lada climb the ladder to the roof of their “Tower House” in Burdickville, they behold a breathtaking view of the Glen Lakes, with the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan in the distance. In their immediate foreground is an array of recently installed, cutting-edge solar panels that harness the power of the sun, represent their commitment to the environment, and make them energy independent. Their solar investment represents both a moral statement and a smart utilitarian choice.

In advance of the Michigan Clean Energy Conference & Fair, June 23-25 in Traverse City — hosted by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (full disclosure: I’m Groundwork’s communications manager) and the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association — the Sun caught up with Cozette and Lada to learn about the Tower House and what inspired them to install rooftop solar panels there. (Check out a video on the Sun’s Facebook page featuring Ian Olmsted of Peninsula Solar, who installed the Tower House array.)

Glen Arbor Sun: Tell us about the Tower House and what attracted you to live there?

Cozette & Lada: Joe has always had a dream of a cabin in Leelanau County. Joe grew up in Traverse City. His great grandfather on his father’s side first homesteaded on a farm on M-72 while his great grandfather on his mother’s side homesteaded on a farm on Maple City Road (still owned by his great uncle and aunt). His late godfather grew up in the farmhouse on Burdickville Road that is now an organic farm. Joe’s ancestors would have weekend family gatherings at Old Settlers Park — the place where Joe first camped as an infant.

For his part, Gary worked in Chicago with 20 years with Martha Van Vleck Pierce, a present owner of the former Van Vleck cottages on Glen Lake in Burdickville. For several summers, Martha invited Gary and Joe to spend a week. When the property across from the Van Vleck cottages that once belonged Nan Helm, an icon of the founding Burdickville family, came up for sale, Joe moved quickly to buy it. Upon purchase, Joe hired a cherry picker from Deering’s, and recorded a video of the dazzling view of Glen Lake and Alligator Hill that emerged above the treetops at 30-40 feet off the ground. Joe sent a video to Balance Associates Architects of Seattle, which promptly agreed to take on Joe’s request to design a cabin. Balance gave the name “Glen Lake Tower House” to the project.

Sun: Why did you decide to invest in solar panels on the roof? What was your motive? Mostly financial, or also moral/political?

Cozette & Lada: We have long dreamed of installing solar at the Tower House to significantly reduce our carbon footprint while adding more solar power to the existing electrical grid. Global carbon emissions are dramatically heating our planet, endangering the future of humanity. Scientists are now clear that if humanity and the great diversity of species are to survive, it is vital for our governments and the public to promptly act to drastically cut carbon emissions.

The flat roof of the tower house, which never receives shade, was a natural place to start with solar. At the time of construction, we could not afford any solar installation. But with costs decreasing each year, continued federal tax credits that help to make solar installation more affordable, and six years for us to save additional funds, we decide to move forward. We inquired with the Groundwork Center in Traverse City, which gave us the names of local solar installers with which it had worked in various projects.

As we considered solar, we strongly preferred to place the panels on the unseen, unused rooftop rather than in the small, highly visible meadow of native grasses that surround the cabin. But because of potentially high winds, codes required that panels placed on flat roofs be installed flat as well (or at no more than a 5 percent tilt). Unfortunately, while the flat installation is the most economical, it reduces the efficiently of the panels by as much as 30 percent since they cannot track the sun throughout the year. But this was a tradeoff we were willing to make.

Also, we plan to buy an electric car next year, so we will be plugging it in every night drawing on renewable solar power rather than power generated by fossil fuels.

Sun: I understand your solar panels are state-of-the-art. What, in particular, is unique about them?

Cozette & Lada: Solar innovation is advancing by leaps and bounds each year. The biggest advance in the made-in-the-USA solar panels from Solar World installed on the Tower House roof is their generating capacity: 345 watt panels. But even as the panels were being installed, the newest technology has increased solar panel production to 360 watt panels! (In the latest solar development, electric carmaker Tesla has just begun selling solar shingles, which will make home solar production available to any house with traditional roofs).

Another state-of-the-art development is the option of including a high capacity battery to store solar energy in residential solar installation. Unfortunately, since Leelanau County has failed to bury electric power lines, blackouts are fairly frequent due to storm outages. These batteries charged with solar energy can provide alternate power, including water pumps and limited lighting, during Leelanau’s periodic blackouts. Also, solar power stored in the battery enables solar energy to be resold back at higher rates during the electric grid’s peak demand hours.

In the manufacture of solar batteries, Telsa has been the industry leader. But other companies are now following, bringing down the price. Earlier this month, the Glen Lake Tower House was the first in the nation to install the newly available, high-capacity solar battery manufactured by the electronics giant LG. It is smaller in size yet with greater capacity than Tesla’s current residential battery offering.

Sun: How long will it take you to recoup the up-front cost of installing the panels?

Cozette & Lada: Peninsula Solar, which installed the rooftop solar array at the Tower House, advised us that we will recoup the cost in 10 years.

Sun: Could you share some amazing views or things you’ve witnessed from the Tower House?

Cozette & Lada: The Tower House is frequently referred to by visitors as the “tree house” because the top floor living room is lodged amid the tree tops. As a result, it is also a “sky house” with a front-row seat to observe migrating birds, resident eagles, stunning cloud formations, and the awesome sunsets that are unique to Leelanau’s eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Sun: What’s the best part of living in Burdickville, on the west side of the Glen Lakes?

Cozette & Lada: The best part of living in Burdickville is we can walk to Laker Shakes, La Becasse, Funistrada, and Old Settlers picnic grounds, the only public access beach on Big Glen Lake — a big plus for those of us not on the water.

Sun: What would you say to others who are considering investing in solar at their home?

Cozette & Lada: In considering investing in solar at your home, we suggest that you discuss your vision for home solar with the folks at Groundwork Center. The upcoming conference is a good place to start. Follow this with technical discussions and securing bids from two or three experienced solar installation contractors in the Grand Traverse-Leelanau region. Finally, make a decision based on the best plan for your family and go for it!

Learn more about the upcoming Clean Energy conference at www.MICleanEnergyConference.org.