Is Solar Electric Right for You?

Stephen Stuart offers a primer on solar energy for your home or business.

Stephen aloft at the Wind Turbine Maintenance and Repair Class

Stephen aloft at the Wind Turbine Maintenance and Repair Class presented by Solar Energy International, Guemes Island, WA 2011

Three common types of renewable energy are available to us in Sullivan County: wind, water and sun. The sun is the easiest to capture and put to work for us, so let us start with reviewing solar electric (solar thermal will be another discussion), also known as photovoltaics (PV).

Where to begin?
The first step in making the switch to renewable energy is to reduce the amount of energy that you require on a daily basis to power your home or business. Solar electric systems are expensive and sized to meet your electric load, so reducing that load allows for a smaller sized system. An expert solar installer will assess your electric use and help you to find ways to reduce those costs as your first step in going solar.

The next step is to evaluate your site. Do you have a south facing roof that can carry the load of a PV system? Do you have some open land where a ground-mount or pole-mount system can be placed?

What are the advantages or disadvantages of each?
A roof works fine if that is the only space that you have, but you might not have the best tilt or orientation, and therefore might lose production. On the other hand, since this is a more frequent type of installation, the installation cost itself might be lower.

A ground mount system provides the opportunity for maximum sun exposure by setting the tilt and orientation as the system is being built. So you get more power, and that can often result in building a smaller system.

The biggest decision is how you will pay for the system. Options include financing the system yourself by using a combination of state and federal tax credits and the incentives available through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), or leasing the system from a national leasing company.

Pros and cons of buying or leasing
If you buy your system, the tax credits and incentives can reduce the cost by as much as 75%. This can leave you with a very small electric bill to pay, typically only the cost of having the meter in service at your home. You will have to pay off a loan or use your savings for the cost of the system, but once this is paid off, you have no electric bill other than the aforementioned “service” charge. Generally, this type of installation also contributes more to the local economy, because your installer will probably be a local business.

Leasing may seem like an attractive option. No upfront cost, just buy the electric that is produced by the system. This still leaves you with an electric bill to pay for the entire lease period of twenty years. You should also be aware that the lease company is generally not interested in helping you to find ways of lowering your energy consumption, because they are selling PV for third party investors. They want to maximize their investor’s return on their dollar. In fact, if you have already reduced your energy consumption to below the national average, you may very well be told that “your system is too small” for them to consider. Not a very positive reward for being energy efficient! Leased systems generally do not contribute to the local economy in the same manner as an outright purchase of a system. The crews are usually not your neighbors.

Backing up your power production
Should you consider a battery back up system? These can add considerable cost to a system, but they do provide uninterrupted power to your home, provided that they are sized correctly. Keep in mind that if the grid goes down, your PV system will sit idle until the grid is restored. This is a safety mechanism for the utility workers. The alternative for uninterrupted power is to install a standby generator, which has associated costs of installation and the burning fossil fuels to provide your electricity.

Regardless what you decide on the financing mechanisms and placement options, the important decision to make is to say yes to solar. It makes sense, it reduces green house gas emissions, and as Wilfred Brimley likes to say (albeit about oatmeal) “It’s the right thing to do.”

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