Panels offer financial and environmental benefits
By Michael Turton
The late U.S. Sen. Tip O’Neill once coined the phrase, “All politics is local,” and, were he alive today, he might very well have adapted that cliché to read, “All environmental issues are local,” as well. Yet, while local politics appear on these pages every week, global environmental issues such as climate change, carbon dioxide emissions and whether or not nuclear energy should be embraced often seem beyond the scope of everyday life for most local residents. Active citizen involvement in long-term, cost-effective environmental solutions probably seems even more remote.
At least two local residents are in fact involved — not just because they believe it is the right thing to do environmentally, but because they also believe they will save a considerable amount of money along the way. Michael Robinson and Peter Henderson have installed solar energy systems to power their homes with electricity.
Power for 60 light bulbs
Robinson and his wife Dar Williams live on High Street in Cold Spring. Four years ago, they installed solar panels that now generate about 80 percent of their household electrical needs. The system includes 27 solar panels placed on the sections of their roof that face south and east, the orientation that best captures the sun’s energy-giving rays. The panels produce up to 6,000 watts of electricity at any given time. Just what does that mean in real terms? “Basically it’s enough to power 60 100-watt light bulbs at a time,” Robinson said.
Robinson takes the occasional “cloudy day joke” about the system in stride and said he has been pleasantly surprised that “even on a cloudy day it produces some electricity; it’s photovoltaic, so it will squeeze out whatever it can.”
One imperfection of a solar-based electric power system is that it has no ability to store the energy it generates. As a result, Robinson still relies on the grid to provide electricity during the sun’s downtimes. The system is monitored by a meter that runs both forwards and backwards. A home hooked up only to the grid sees that meter run forward exclusively. The more electricity that is used, the more the meter runs, and the greater the amount owed on the monthly bill. But when Robinson’s solar electric system is operating, the meter runs backwards. He is generating his own electricity — contributing electricity to the grid while reducing the amount of money he owes each month.
“We save about $1,500 a year,” Williams said. “We sat down and figured out what we made on our investment. I think it’s about a 5 percent return.” Robinson added, “A CD (certificate of deposit) right now yields about one-half a percent. We are very happy; this is one place we are not sorry our money went.”
That initial investment, made just before the recession, was substantial. Robinson estimates that he spent about $23,000 on the system after government incentives. That translates to about $4 per watt of electricity. “Now (four years later) the cost is about $2 a watt,” he said. He estimates that the system will pay for itself after a time. “After 12 years we’ll get free electricity,” Williams said.
Robinson and Williams’ home has historic value — it was built in 1886. Robinson recalls a “huge battle” with Cold Spring’s Historic District Review Board (HDRB) when he proposed installing the rooftop system. The HDRB was concerned that the solar panels would be visible from the road. “I wanted them to be visible so that people could see them and say, ‘That’s something I can do,’” Robinson said.
“Shell Oil is not going to do it for us,” Williams said. “It has to be neighbors helping neighbors. We want people to know about it. We’re open to the community. We’re happy to be guinea pigs.”
Asked if he installed the system for environmental reasons or to save money, Robinson replied, “It was definitely both. It was for the environment but with the added perk of being a good, solid financial investment.”
Timing — and buy North American
Williams, a folk singer, also thinks the timing was right in terms of their current careers and their life a little further down the road. “We invested now. It’s good to have fewer expenses later in life,” she said. “Free electricity for the rest of our lives sounded good.”
She also had a few words of advice for prospective buyers. “It’s a really good idea to buy solar panels built in the U.S. or Canada,” she said, explaining that China, which has been a big supplier of panels, has had problems with quality control.
Williams hopes that local government will also see the benefits of going solar. “A lot of the municipal buildings would be good candidates for solar,” she said.
Costs have improved
Peter Henderson installed a solar electric system in his Marion Avenue home in November 2012. It was a 6-month process, in part because the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) had to review his proposal before approving a rebate. “They won’t give a rebate if there is more than 20 percent energy loss due to shading,” he said. “Our roof is not due south, so we lose a little. Most (energy) loss is from shading, time of day and time of year.”
Henderson’s 24-panel system produces 240 watts each for a maximum output of 5.76 kilowatt-hours, “when the sun is high in the sky,” he said.
“It’s a complicated formula but based on last year, NYSERDA said we can generate 102 percent of our electrical needs for the year.”
Henderson said that with the NYSERDA rebate and state and federal tax credits, his system cost less than half of what Robinson’s did just four years ago. He estimates that the system will pay for itself in a little more than eight years. Because the panels are warranted for 25 years, he thinks he can enjoy free electricity for 18 years.
The only additional expense he anticipates is eventually having to replace the inverter, the device that takes the direct current produced by the solar panels and converts it to standard, alternating current for use in his home. A new inverter today would cost slightly less than $5,000.
Like Robinson, Henderson’s system includes a forward-backward meter so that he now only pays for electricity that the solar system can’t provide. And like Robinson, he has been surprised that not only bright sun produces power. “I’ve come down (to the meter) on very overcast days, and the system still generates some power,” he said.
Henderson said that solar power isn’t for everyone and every property. “For many people it may not work — their house may be facing the wrong way or there may be too much shade.” While he acknowledged that the upfront cost can be a deterrent, he said there is a new alternative. Lease arrangements are now available that require no upfront expenditure for the homeowner. “It’s very attractive,” Henderson said, “although the long-term financial benefit is less.”
It was community involvement that got Henderson, now a trustee on the Haldane School Board, interested in solar energy. “My initial motivation was purely concern for global warming and the impact of burning fossil fuels,” he said. “I became very interested in alternative energy sources while working on the Comprehensive Plan for the Village of Cold Spring,” including microhydro power and wind turbines. He also learned about geothermal systems while working as a volunteer committee member when Haldane was investigating that type of heating and cooling for its schools.
Henderson thinks that the case for solar-generated home electricity has gotten stronger in recent years. “Five years ago the cost didn’t make solar practical. But costs have fallen considerably. Panel costs are lower and the rebates and tax credits make it attractive financially.”
He said that part of the reason why the state is offering incentives it that is helping to create a larger network of private sector installers.