Rays That Pay
Enticed by state and federal energy incentives, a utility rebate program, and falling prices for solar panels, a Colorado couple hooks their home up to the sun.
Tim Klco practically salivated when he first saw the large, south-facing expanse of roof on our modest house. Whipping out his tape measure, he made a bunch of measurements, had a look at the wiring in the attic and the garage, and then sat down to give us the news. “You guys have the perfect exposure for a photovoltaic array,” said Klco, of Peak Solar Designs in Salida, Colorado. “You can easily generate all the electricity you need year-round, and the incentives from the power company will make the system affordable.”
Enough solar energy reaches the earth’s surface every minute to meet the world’s energy demands for a year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Until recently, though, the technology for harvesting that energy—photovoltaic panels (also known as modules), inverters, and battery storage—was too expensive for homeowners like my husband, Richard, and me. Now a combination of falling prices due to economies of scale in manufacturing, utility subsidies, leasing programs, and tax benefits have brought it within reach. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that residential photovoltaic systems with a combined capacity of some 264 megawatts of electricity at peak (about equivalent to the output of a small coal-fired generating plant) were installed in 2010. That’s a 59 percent increase from 2009, when homeowners installed 157 megawatts, and 220 percent more than the 58 megawatts installed in 2007, before the recession.
I prepared for our decision by reading up on how photovoltaic systems generate electricity. It’s pretty simple: The panels contain a layer of semiconductor material—usually silicon crystals—that sheds electrons when bombarded by the energy in sunlight.
Once loose from their atoms, those electrons flow in an orderly fashion into the wires connected to the panels, at which point they’re called electricity. This lovely green power is direct current. Therefore it can’t make your Cuisinart hum until an inverter—a large purring box mounted next to your breaker panel—makes it into alternating current. When Klco came back with a proposed configuration, we considered the options, and crunched the numbers, including the generous rebates offered by our local electric utility. Then we decided to increase the size of the system to also power Richard’s detached sculpture studio.
The total cost of this larger photovoltaic system to power our 2,400-square-foot house/guest cottage and his 1,660-square-foot studio came to about $39,000, including a connection to the existing power grid. Our electric utility would rebate some $24,000, meaning our out-of-pocket cost would be roughly $15,000—still a hefty chunk of money. But we could use the federal tax credit to help repay that, and we’d continue to benefit in coming years with savings on our electric bills—how quickly that payoff would come would depend on the future price of electricity, which is not going down.
Many utilities are also offering substantive rebates, says Pam Newell, Solar Rewards program manager for the Colorado program of Xcel Energy, an electricity supplier to the Midwest and western states. Still, those rebates won’t last, as more and more photovoltaic systems come on line and utilities meet their quotas for generating green power.
There are also tax incentives. More than half of U.S. states offer some sort of incentive, says Jim Welch, CEO of Bella Energy and former president of the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association. Plus there’s the Federal Investment Tax Credit, which currently provides a 30 percent credit for the installation of solar energy systems. (State incentives fluctuate with state budgets and the political climate. See “Hot Tips,” right.)
Within the next few years, Welch says, solar-generated electricity will be cost-competitive with the conventional kind in places where rates are high. “It’s already competitive in places like Hawaii, and close in California,” he notes.
Once we signed a contract, Klco began the paperwork for the utility’s incentive program. Several weeks later we ran into him on the street in our small downtown and found out he’d gotten our rebate confirmed just hours before the utility drastically reduced the incentive rates—our application had barely made it under the wire.
By the time our rebate application was confirmed, though, it was too late to install our system before winter. Klco promised that they would make time for us first thing the following spring, and that the installation wouldn’t be too disruptive for Richard and me while we were working at home. “You’ll hardly know we’re here except when we’re putting in the racks that hold the modules on the roof,” he said. “And then you’ll just hear some drilling noise overhead.”
Sure enough, one day the following March, a truck appeared to deliver the 24 shiny black modules and the lengths of aluminum racking, plus the inverter and the other parts of our rooftop power plant. The next week Klco and his head installer, Edric Graf, hauled in ladders and tools and set to work putting the lightweight aluminum channels on the roof.
I headed outside, and there was Graf balancing on the slender aluminum racks now protruding from our steep metal roof, doing what looked like aerial ballet—or advanced rock climbing—as he wrestled a 40-pound module into position. Two days later the modules were all in place.