Jonathan Takiff: Want a safe energy source? Well, stick it where the sun does shine

Solar installations are still expensive, with a 7 to 8-year payback.
Solar installations are still expensive, with a 7 to 8-year payback.
Posted: April 06, 2011

THE GIZMO: There's nothing like a major power-plant disaster to get a person thinking about finding safer, "alternative" sources of energy. So, when I heard that the solar power trade show PV America was meeting in town, I rushed over for a crash course in buying and installing a photovoltaic panel-based home power system.

IS MY SITE SUITABLE? Solar panels work best pointing due south and angled toward the sun with minimal shade obstruction. Only about 25 percent of U.S. houses meet the criteria for a roof-mounted system. But if you've got some "yardage," you can plant a panel array.

PV America exhibitor Solaire Generation was touting a super spiffy carport system that puts solar panels up top and also captures rainwater. Solaire is working primarily with campus-based corporate customers, but will design one for your private abode.

Community systems are an increasingly popular option. Neighborhood homeowners buy a share in a solar panel farm.

DOESN'T SOLAR REQUIRE A LOT OF SUNSHINE? That used to be true. But with improvements in "thin film" design, today's panels can grab a goodly amount of power even in cloudy, cool environments. In fact, the mid-Atlantic corridor from Massachusetts to Delaware has become the busiest for solar installers.

Bavarian panel-maker Wiosun demonstrated its innovative "PV-Therm" panels, which combine the benefits of thermal solar (for water heating) and photovoltaic electricity production in an integrated system. The water-insulated panels run more efficiently in the summer while also heating your hot water tank or pool. Then in winter, the thermal power will defrost snow and ice accumulated on the panels, "saving homeowners from the dangers of inching out on a slippery roof," said Wiosun's Nichole Bihler.

CAN I RUN MY HOUSE ON SOLAR POWER? I met a Bucks County-based solar installer, Charles Reichner, of GeoCentric/HeatShed, who is totally "off the grid." But most home solar installations are designed to work in tandem with your local, old-school energy supplier. And to earn UL approval, that solar system must automatically shut off whenever there's a power outage. To wiggle around this, you need a solar system that also packs rechargeable batteries, still operable after a grid failure and disconnect.

International Battery, of Allentown, has combined with system integrator Sunverge Energy to create a unique energy storage product soon to be tested in the federally funded "Net-Zero Energy Home Project" at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Not just for emergencies, the idea here is to capture and store solar energy in IB's eco-friendly lithium ion phosphate batteries for full blast during peak-demand hours, when many electricity suppliers impose a steep premium.

WHAT'S THIS COST - AND SAVE? That depends on lots of things, starting with the price of component parts - dropping since China got into the solar-panel business.

The federal government continues to offer healthy rebate and tax-credit incentives equal to a 30 percent discount on the installation. Some state and local government subsidies also are available, though Pennsylvania has pretty much run through the $100 million Sunshine Grant Program.

New Jersey has taken over as "the solar capital of the East" (with more than 400 licensed installers), said NJ Solar Power's Bill Hoey, because of high demands that the state has made on utility suppliers to generate energy from renewable sources. The utilities offset their shortfall by purchasing Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC) from solar system owners, in effect paying the little guys a premium to feed clean power back into the grid.

Pennsylvania system owners can work the SREC angle, but the credits aren't as valuable due to lobbying from the local coal and petroleum industries, claims solar trade magazine Photon.

Bottom line, we've learned, is that the average 5- or 6-kilowatt solar system installed on a 2,500-square-foot house costs around $40,000 (but may be only $25,000 after rebates and fast depreciation) and pays that back after about seven to eight years of use. Lucky you then enjoys an equal period of savings before the gear starts failing.

In states like New Jersey and Delaware with better incentives, a solar shopper will also find companies offering to put a system on your roof for little or no money down with a 10- or 15-year lease or Solar Power Purchase Agreement.

You're signing away an easement to your property, plus the promise to pay a set fee for the electricity generated by the system, which is "lower in cost than you'll pay from the local utility, stays the same all year round and is capped to only rise 2 or 3 percent a year," said Alex Guettel, of Sungevity, which offers quotes on a property based on Google satellite and Bing aerial photographs. Spooky. Learn more at www.sungevity.com. Learn what state and municipal incentives are available in your area at www.dsireusa.org.

Send email to takiffj@phillynews.com.

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