Solar Panels Keep Paying for Themselves

Institutions, Businesses and Neighborhoods Find Ways to Get It Done

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A.J Zanyk Photography 2014

Posted: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 3:25 pm

Solar power’s fan base is growing.

As the solar power industry continues to grow and develop, early adopters agree that installing the panels was a great decision, whether on top of a private home, university building or city aquarium.

“We didn’t have that cash, but we had a roof and we had a mission and we had an interest,” said Mark Plunkett, the conservation manager for the Seattle Aquarium. The aquarium had a 49 KW solar array installed on the south-facing roof of its Pier 59 facility in the fall of 2013. The project was installed through the city’s Community Solar project, which allows residents to buy into a large solar installation and then receive the benefits. Under this agreement, the aquarium receives only about 5 percent of the energy generated, Plunkett said, but when it expires in 2020 the aquarium “will own 100 percent of it and will get more of a direct benefit.”

Considering the energy needs of the aquarium, Plunkett said the solar panels currently provide less than 1 percent of the facility’s electrical needs – but getting a savings windfall on in the utility bill wasn’t the project’s goal.

“This is not to be viewed as a big financial benefit, it’s meant to be viewed as a sustainable effort for the community,” Plunkett said. “We are deeply concerned about climate change and ocean acidification and this was a positive action that we could take.”

The aquarium is taking additional steps to increase its energy efficiency, and has incorporated all of these efforts into the education program for its more than 800,000 annual visitors, Plunkett added.

“The educational outreach is of considerable importance, in addition to any financial gain,” he said, and future construction to the facility will continue to incorporate the panels, which are very productive, in spite of Seattle’s notoriously overcast weather.

“The total capacity is 49 (KW) and we’re at 32 right now and it’s a cloudy day,” Plunkett said. “The numbers are there, it’s working. And on a bright, sunny day you’d be pushing that 49.”

Maintenance has primarily involved keeping the panels clean since “we have a lot of seagulls and they do seagull things to disgrace our panels, which have to be washed periodically,” he added, as well as nesting issues, but otherwise “here we are in 2015, a year and half in, we’re fine.”

While The Ohio State University has incorporated some wind energy and geothermal into its energy mix, they didn’t have any solar on the main campus until they were approached by AEP Ohio, the local utility company, asking to install a solar array on one of the campus buildings. Like the Seattle Aquarium’s installation, the university does not own the AEP installation, said Gina Langen, the director of communications for the university’s Office of Energy & Environment, but it does provide power to the building it sits on.

“It’s a little different in that particular instance that it wasn’t us saying, ‘We’d like to have solar power on campus,’” she said.

The university already had two separate solar installations on buildings off-campus, Langen said, and while there aren’t any plans to increase solar energy, “the students are very astute and vocal about where we get energy from, so we take all of those things into consideration.”

One of the primary drivers behind the university’s green energy decisions has been the needs of its researchers, Langen added.

“With AEP, one thing we were interested in was having access to data, so we do have that and in some cases faculty members could have that for research purposes if they wanted to,” she said. “We see the need to diversify energy sources and also recognize that there’s a lot of research being done in these areas. We want to be able to provide resources for faculty members.”

Diversifying energy sources was also a primary motivation behind the City of Melrose, Mass., initiative to increase solar installations in its community. The project started with Solarize Mass, said Lori Timmermann, co-chair of the Melrose Energy Commission, who acted as the program’s solar coach and helped guide residents through the process in 2012.

“Melrose went from having seven installations to signing on 79 people that year, and then by the following spring up over 100,” she said.

The program provided a designated vendor for the city and gave a bulk purchasing price so “the more people signed on in the community, the lower the price was for everybody,” Timmermann said. Since the Solarize initiative ended, the city now directs residents to the Energy Sage site for guidance choosing financing and a vendor.

“We wanted people to be able to pick their own vendor,” Timmermann said. “This brought them options through the solar marketplace.”

Adding solar panels is especially attractive due to the state’s increasing energy costs as it phases out coal-fired power, with the last plant scheduled to close in 2017.

Considering that energy rates now run around 24 cents/KW hour, Martha Grover said she isn’t sure precisely how much she has saved since her 4.5 KW solar array was installed in 2011, but knows it's saving her household money.

“Once you do it, you kind of don’t pay any attention,” she said. “It’s definitely a reason more people are considering it for sure, in the last year this spike in electricity prices and as solar prices have come down.”

Now that solar companies are developing more options for homeowners with East/West roofs and financing options have improved, Grover, the city’s energy efficiency manager, said she expects residents to continue adding solar.

“Especially in this day and age of ridiculous energy prices in New England, it will pay for itself in a very, very short time,” she added.

The only thing Grover said she would change about her solar installation is buying the system outright instead of leasing it from a vendor, since federal and state tax credits make it more affordable and the panels continue to pay for themselves for decades.

“All of those financial benefits that any system owner has, they’re built into any financing method that you choose, so it’s just who’s going to benefit? If you own it yourself, you’re going to get the benefit,” she said. “The benefits of outright purchase are just hands down financially the best way to go.”

Still, the lease agreement has worked out for Grover’s family.

“I do get the benefit of a decreased energy bill, and knowing that I’m doing the right thing,” she said.

The benefit of a lower electricity bill has also impressed Jim Oosterman and his wife, Lisa, who had their solar array installed in 2012 as part of the Solarize initiative. He estimated the bill covers at least 50 percent of their home’s energy use.

“We’ve seen a significant drop” in the bill, said Oosterman, who financed the array through a power purchase agreement (PPA). “The benefit with the power purchase was it didn’t cost anything up front, so it’s all savings. When we look at the portion of our bill not covered by solar production, we say, ‘Wow, imagine if it was all on the national grid.’”

While the panels didn’t generate as much energy after the heavy snows the state experienced this past February, Oosterman said they haven’t had to worry about any other maintenance issues and “the inverter works without us even knowing that it’s working. It’s seamless for us.”

Since their panels were installed, Oosterman said several other homes in their neighborhood have also added arrays to their roofs, and he and his wife now often drive around noticing them and wondering how they designed a certain array and how much electricity it’s producing.

“Just like as soon as you buy a red car, you start to notice every other red car on the road,” he said. “Our neighbors down the street, I drive by their house and think, ‘Man, I wish I could put more panels up.’”

As the technology continues to evolve, Oosterman said he hopes he’ll be able to expand his home’s array. In the meantime, it is an “incentive to stay in the home,” he said. “And any other home we would look to buy would have to be suitable for solar panels somewhere.

"I think anybody else looking to buy a house would probably see it as a perk, as value added."

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