Wednesday was a cloudy rainy day, which means that it was an unproductive one. But not for the reasons you think. It wasn’t because the weather affected my mood or energy level, but because my house doesn’t function well on cloudy days. Why not? Because when it’s overcast, it doesn’t do its job of saving the world, one ray at a time. Now, if you now my address, you’ll agree that it would make sense that my house is attentive to the rays of the sun. In fact, every house on Ray Drive should be into capturing the solar energy, don’t you think?
Well, I started the trend just over a year ago (November 2010). I put solar panels on my roof – twelve of them. Because I have a small house and a roof that slants every which way, my solar array isn’t sleek and expansive like the ones you see in the ads. I’ve got two panels mounted on my front porch roof, three near the slope of the main roof, three more wedged in just under the dormer, and four more that you can’t see on a flat top roof in the back. It’s a patchwork, but I’m proud of it. And, I think the jumbled look makes it stand out. I want people to notice and to consider doing the same, if possible, on their own homes and businesses.
Back to my feelings of productivity. Did you notice that I associate my own sense of productiveness with that of my home? When the sun shines and my solar panels are making a lot of kilowatt-hours of electricity, I feel virtuous. I can be sitting on my butt in my living room twiddling my thumbs – or, for those of you who read my blog a couple of weeks ago, playing Words with Friends – but if the sun is shining and my electricity meter is spinning backwards, I feel like I’m helping alleviate the world’s environmental problems. After all, my house is helping reduce climate change, sea level rise and the extinction of climate sensitive species. Pretty nice, huh?
Okay, so by installing solar panels on my house, I feel righteous. And by producing electricity from the sun, instead of having to use electricity produced by mining and burning of coal,* I’ve reduced my usage of fossil fuels and my carbon emissions. Looks like a good move towards environmental sustainability. But what about the financial sustainability of my decision? Does it make economic sense? I can’t completely answer that question yet, but I can present you with some numbers (not too many, I promise) that might enlighten your thinking. [Note the pun. It’s actually a double pun; the second reference will become clear below.]
*Truth be told, I still use the same electricity – mostly generated by coal – that my utility company, Pepco, sells. That is, I get my power from the same grid that serves everyone in my region. However, the solar power that my panels produce is returned to the grid and I get credited for it. I – my house with its solar panels, that is (you see how I closely associate the two of us as one and the same!) – am contributing to Pepco’s renewable energy quota. Sounds so altruistic, doesn’t it? But, I get paid for this. You’ll see.
The financials: first, there’s the upfront cost of installing solar panels. It is pretty high, but in my case, I’m getting two thirds of my initial investment back in the form of cash or credits from the Federal government, State (Maryland) government and my county. The first two incentives – a tax credit on my federal income taxes and a grant from the state – I received within six months of paying for my solar system. The county tax credit will be a few years in coming. (County officials had no idea that their renewable energy incentive would prove so popular, causing a delay in payments to those of us who took advantage of the incentive before it was suspended altogether.) In addition, for the next five years I will be paid for the Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) that my system produces. Because Maryland has a Renewable Energy Portfolio standard, the utilities in the state must purchase a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources. They do so, in part, by buying SRECs from producers such as me. There goes the altruism….
What about my electricity bills? How much do I save? Considering that my 12 panels, the maximum number that would fit on my roof, weren’t designed to cover our entire electricity requirement, I’m doing pretty well. Check out this table, which shows the number of kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity we bought from Pepco and the total cost for the first eleven months of the year for the past four years. (I can’t give you the 12-month figure because I haven’t yet received my final Pepco bill for 2011). Remember that only in 2011, were we generating our own electricity.
January – November, 2008: 2850 kwh $537
January – November, 2009: 2820 kwh $515
January – November, 2010: 2800 kwh $476
January – November, 2011: 450 kwh $100
All in all, I’m told that with the tax credits, grants, SREC payments and the reduction in my electricity bill, I should make back my investment within five years. I’m more than satisfied with that, especially since I also get the incalculable benefit of feeling productive, even when I’m just sitting around on a sunny afternoon making up words to stump my Scrabble-playing friends.
P.S. I don’t blame you if you feel you’ve read enough already. I’ve made my point. But if you like cool, fun features (bells and whistles), and you marvel at the untold benefits of technology, read on. Ditto if you want to know why my pun was a double one.
Attached to each panel is a microinverter, a little gadget that converts the DC solar power to grid-compliant AC power. The microinverter technology comes with a nifty webpage, customized for my house, that shows me how much energy my panels are producing at any given moment, or per today, week, month or year. It also tells me which panels are making the most electricity and when they are most active. The monitoring system is called Enlighten (aha!), and it also serves to detect problems if one of the panels isn’t functioning correctly. (It works. Every time I turn off our Internet – to save electricity, no less! – I get an email alert telling me that the system isn’t recording.)
I love looking at my Enlighten webpage. Sometimes I check it for a sunshine report. When I looked on Wednesday evening, I saw that two of the last seven days were drab and dreary, while the rest were sunny. I can even ferret out unnecessary detail, such as the fact that there was half an hour of cloud cover at about 1:00 pm last Friday. But the best part of Enlighten is that I’ve learned that I – the panels on my house, that is – have produced 3480 kilowatt hours of energy since they were installed. That, it tells me, is enough electricity to power 115 houses for one day. I’ve offset 2.4 tons of carbon, equivalent to 62 trees. Wow. I’ve saved 62 trees just sitting under my sunny roof, catching rays on Ray Drive.
So, they say. If I weren’t such a skeptic about this kind of number crunching, I’d really be basking in the sun….. Speaking of which, there’ll be no blog next week because I will – indeed! – be basking in the sun. Stay tuned to find out where.