Steffl Drilling & Pump digs deep to use less and cleaner energy

May 2020

Businesses across Minnesota are finding ways to save energy and money while also meeting their environmental goals. Steffl Drilling & Pump, a well drilling contractor based out of Willmar in West Central Minnesota, took efforts to use less energy and clean energy recently with LED lighting, solar, and geothermal at their headquarters.

Fritz Ebinger with CERTs interviewed Business Director Sam Steffl to learn more about the project.

From the products we sell to the energy that powers our building, we’re looking for ways to align being more environmentally conscious with our goal of running a profitable business. We became aware of the rising costs associated with powering our building and began looking at ways to reduce costs. The two areas of improvement we identified were to use less energy and use cleaner energy.

Sam Steffl, Business Director with Steffl Drilling & Pump

Can you tell us a little bit about Steffl Drilling & Pump?

Sam Steffl: Steffl Drilling & Pump is a well drilling contractor based out of West Central Minnesota. We design and install water supply systems for a wide range of customers, ranging from private rural homeowners to public municipalities and commercial businesses. Our mission is to bring clean and safe drinking water to our midwest communities. Our 15 employees are based out of Willmar, Minnesota and we cover the surrounding five state area including North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Our services include water and geothermal well drilling, water pumping systems, and water treatment and filtration.

Our well drilling experts are responsible for drilling down into the earth to locate an aquifer that can provide an adequate amount of water and then properly constructing a safe and sanitary well. Once the water supply well is constructed, the pumping system experts are responsible for designing and installing the equipment that delivers water from the well to the point of use such as a home or business. Once inside the home or business, our water treatment experts are responsible for ensuring the quality of the water being consumed is safe and clean. As a rule of thumb, if it involves water, we’re happy to help.

What got you interested in solar?

Sam Steffl: As a company whose core business relies directly on conserving the earth’s resources, we’re always focused on being good stewards.

One of the ways we accomplish this is through a continuous evaluation of our day to day operations and downstream impact of our operations on our environment. From the products we sell to the energy that powers our building, we’re looking for ways to align being more environmentally conscious with our goal of running a profitable business.

Through this process we became aware of the rising costs associated with powering our building and began looking at ways to reduce costs. The two areas of improvement we identified were to 1) use less energy and 2) use cleaner energy.

We started with a significant investment in converting our heating and cooling system to a geothermal powered system and upgrading our lighting to energy efficient LEDs to curb our energy use.

We also looked closer into where our energy was coming from and discovered the energy mix our local utility provider supplies to our building relies heavily on burning coal for power. As is the case with most businesses, with only one local utility provider in our area, our only other option was to generate our own clean energy. So that’s exactly what we decided to do with solar.

How did the solar installation go?

Sam Steffl: From start to finish, the entire solar project took about 1.5 years. The two phases of the project that required the most time and effort were:

  1. Researching and evaluation of solar installation providers. Finding a reputable solar installation company proved to be more difficult than we anticipated. There were many one and two man companies that were responsible for bidding and project design and then would sub contract the rest of the work, which we wanted to avoid. In fact, our primary decision making factor was whether we believed the solar installation company would be around in 5, 10, or 15 years to service our solar array.
  2. Understanding and educating ourselves on our utility provider’s regulations. Without a doubt the most difficult part of the process was trying to understand and educate ourselves on the regulations involved in our solar system. Our rural utility provider has chosen not to provide the solar-friendly incentives that a handful of other utility providers in Minnesota do, which created substantially more work in our design phase and ultimately reduced the size of the array we had the appetite for.

How will adding solar benefit your company?

Sam Steffl: From a financial perspective, the solar array is scheduled to break-even in 7-8 years, contingent upon our current utility provider’s regulations remaining the same. Specifically, the 52kW solar PV array cost $108,000. The USDA REAP grant covered $20,000, the Federal Tax Credit brought the cost down by $33,000, and the first year depreciation helped us save another $40,000. So at the end of the day it cost us $15,000.

Equally as important to us is the symbolic benefit the solar array will have. Everyday each of our employees has to drive past the solar array to get to work and it is a great way to be constantly reminding us that at the end of the day, if our company and our employees are not actively trying to reduce our carbon footprint then we’re not being good stewards. 

What would you tell other businesses considering similar projects?

Sam Steffl: You will probably only have to go through this process once in your lifetime, so rely on the experts at CERTs who go through this daily. We are certainly not experts, but if we had to go through the process again here are a few steps to consider:

  1. Ask CERTs to help you build a list of financial incentives that can help reduce your financial burden based on your project type, such as depreciation schedules, grant funding, tax credits, etc.
  2. Get at least three bids and ask the solar installers to prepare their bids in a way that will enable you to easily compare apples to apples. Many installers use fancy graphs and images that wind up making the true comparison difficult to do.
  3. Ask for everything in writing. This is good practice in any contractual agreement, but extremely important when dealing with rules and regulations enforced by your utility provider. 
  4. Read the fine print in your solar array installation agreement. The installers offer different warranties than the equipment manufacturers. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what is covered and what is not.
  5. Take your time. A solar array is a permanent structure and a substantial financial investment. Do not rush into anything until you feel 100% comfortable with your solar installer.

Dig into more photos

How did CERTs help?

Fritz Ebinger, Rural Energy Development Program Manager with CERTs, walked Sam through the way that combining a USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant with the federal tax credit and deprecation could work together to speed the payback of a solar energy installation for his business.

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