Reprinted with permission from the Watertown Daily Times
I’ve used a lot of electricity lately and haven’t paid a penny for it.
No, I’m not bilking National Grid, and I haven’t bypassed the meter, and they are still delivering the same amount of electricity they always have – at night.
But during the day, my meter is flying backwards, and still is despite the longer nights and shorter days of fall – all because I invested in solar panels last spring.
Somehow, despite a washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, and all the kids’ electronics, I’ve been able to build 1800 kilowatt hours of electric credit (in the form of “net metering”) since last spring – more than two whole months worth for our house! (We use about 700 kilowatt hours a month).
Which means, I could turn off the panels today and still not pay anything until Christmas. Not that I’m going to – my roof will continue to generate electricity every day despite the weather and I probably won’t have to pay for anything until January or February. Just in time for March and more net metering with no bills.
I’ve been dreaming of installing solar panels on our back roof for years – especially when I had to replace a 25-year-roof after twelve years because the sun baked it so much. Now, my new roof is shaded from the sun, which should extend its life, and I’m not paying for any electricity.
Admittedly, I did have to pay for the panels – but they only cost about $6000 (which means they should pay for themselves in seven to eight years). We took out a small loan, and the monthly payment is less than the electric bill used to be.
Our back roof, a gently sloped, second-story, shed roof has full southwestern exposure with little shade all day. As a believer in global warming and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, I’ve known for twenty years that it would be perfect for panels. I first looked into solar power for our house about ten years ago by going to an energy fair at SUNY Canton, but at the time it would have cost over twenty thousand dollars out of pocket, and it was not financially feasible nor did it make economic sense.
But I kept the idea on the back burner and occasionally inquired of people in the know about the costs. It continually went down year after year – not just because the actual cost of the components was dropping, but also because of a series of incentives, rebates, and tax credits.
Finally, last year, the estimated cost (to me) dropped below ten grand and I contacted Scott Shipley of Northern Lights Energy in Canton, New York. Scott is a certified installer of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) with over twenty years of experience in designing, installing and living with solar electric systems.
His first impression confirmed my belief – we had a perfect roof for a solar installation. He and I climbed onto the roof and he used a solar pathfinder to track the course of the sun in every season over our house. The pathfinder also showed (via a reflection on a plastic dome) where the shadow of one tree would fall for a couple of hours a day from August to November.
He measured the roof and in short order provided us with an estimate, including projected NYSERDA incentives and tax credits. The cost would be $22,520 for 24 panels, an inverter (DC to AC), mounting racks, wiring, and other various components. But the incentive from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) was $9000, along with federal and state tax credits of $7440, which brought our actual costs to $6060 for a six kilowatt system that would generate an estimated 5400 kilowatt hours, or 77% of our annual electricity (based on our “Electrical Usage History”).
I knew this investment would pay for itself within just a few years, and that I could finagle the financing in such a way to simply replace the electric bill with a loan payment – a result that would have no impact on our monthly budget, and in five years would result in savings through free electricity.
One hitch in the plan would be covering the tax credits until our tax refund arrived in the spring. When installed, Scott would still have expenses (components and labor) adding up to $22,520. He would apply for the NYSERDA incentive, but I would still need to pay the difference, $13,520, up front. Only when I file my year-end tax return will I receive the $7440. We decided to opt for a home improvement loan. Once we receive the tax refund, we’ll pay off the loan using some other monies, and the system will be pure electrical gravy.
Determining how to finance the project until one’s tax refund arrives is one of many considerations when planning for a solar system. Some families might choose to install the system late in the year. As long as it is on the grid by December 31, homeowners are eligible for the tax credit that spring. The downside is that the system is being started during the darkest time of the year and might not completely offset household usage.
Other factors to consider include the amount of area available for panels, trees and other obstructions that create shade, and one’s electrical usage history. In order to receive the NYSERDA incentive, systems must be designed so that they don’t generate (on an annual basis) more electricity than the household uses. When the system is turned on, a “net meter” begins spinning either forward or backwards depending on whether the house is generating or receiving power from the grid.
We decided to install in the spring so that we would immediately be generating more power than we use, knowing it would be a year before we receive our tax credit. But immediately, we were building an electrical credit that will reduce our winter bills. This also created our “Anniversary Month” as May. If, in the unlikely event more power is generated than used by the Anniversary Month, National Grid will purchase the excess at a substantially discounted rate.
In order to be eligible for the incentive and tax credit, we had to be connected to the grid, so we still pay National Grid a monthly service fee of $17. If there is a power outage, the solar system shuts down as well. Even if it were the middle of a bright day, we would not have power. We could have invested in an expensive battery system (and still been on the grid) to cover those occasional times when power is disrupted, but preparing for electrical outages wasn’t the point of the system. We wanted to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint while also making an investment that will save us a significant amount of money over the next thirty years — the projected life of the panels and also how long we hope to stay in the house.
It’s also neat to know that when my neighbors use their microwaves, toasters, or lights during the day, the electrons flowing through their wires are coming from my roof.
We’re currently planning a neighborhood panel party – a covered dish affair where we can socialize with our friends, provide some information regarding the exceptional value of installing panels on one’s roof, and watch the meter run backwards.
Tom French’s book, River Views: A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D, won the 2012 Silver Medal for Best Regional Nonfiction in the Northeast in the Independent Publishers Book Awards. His work has been featured in Mac|Life, Adirondack Life, and North Country Public Radio, among other places. He also maintains a YouTube site with a number of short, household how-to movies. He teaches English in Potsdam, New York.