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Solar Energy: How to Flip the Switch

Making your own electricity is not an insurmountable goal. Here is one local couple's recall of their own conversion to solar panels.

I have several virtuous projects in mind–in fact, they’ve been rattling around in my brain for years--projects that would help ease the burden I, personally, place on the environment. It’s not the thought that counts, though, is it? According to scientific journals, my good thoughts have produced no positive impact on climate change and global warming in any way whatsoever.

Results quite similar to those I get when I sit around and visualize world peace.

But back to the environment … I’ve thought about installing solar panels and have now decided to kick that thought into high gear–all the way to serious consideration.

Although the electricity we receive from the utility company seems tidy, clean and odorless,  40 percent of the world’s electricity is generated by the most decidedly dirty and smelly practice of burning coal. Just for openers, we can thank coal burning emissions for sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Among other things, these are the guys who put the acid in acid rain.

And while you might argue that California has–relative to other states–few coal-burning facilities, we import a lot of electricity from other states.

This is the primary reason Altadena residents Paul and Jenny Andres decided to step up to the plate and install solar panels on their roof.

“We did it for ecological reasons, not to save money. Though eventually the system will pay for itself,” said Paul Andres.  Admittedly, “eventually” can take a while; the entire return on investment may take years. Nevertheless, they are realizing some immediate, monthly savings.

The most popular solar-energy option isn’t a total disconnect from the utility company grid. It’s a hybrid–you generate your own electricity during the day when the sun is shining, and at other times use the electricity generated by the utility company. Your daytime surplus solar electricity flows back to the grid, which is of benefit for two reasons:  You’re in essence selling your excess to the utility (and hence see a credit on your bill), plus this boosts the amount of clean energy the utility can sell to other customers.

“You can size the system to pay for all or part of what you use during a sunny day,” said Andres,  “although the number of panels depends on roof space and other considerations such shade from nearby trees and buildings. We have nine panels on the south side of the house, and they significantly reduce our reliance on Southern California Edison. We should stay within Edison’s Tier 1, which is the lowest quadrant on the use-spectrum, and also the least expensive. ”

Though Andres estimates the return on investment for the initial solar conversion could take a whopping 15-20 years to realize, that doesn’t take into account the additional savings should energy prices surge over time (is anyone guessing they won’t?), not to mention a boost in property value.

Using certified installers, the installation itself, according to Andres, is an easy process, and requires few modifications to the house, other than the panels themselves.

Each panel weighs 45 pounds, so a normal roof shouldn’t require any changes (although it’s a good idea to make sure your roof is guaranteed for at least as long as the panels, which is typically 25 years).  And while you can count on an initial outlay of something close to $1,700 per panel,  current utility company and Federal rebates can cut the cost by 40 percent or more.

The only other thing required on your end is asking So Cal Ed to replace the meter on the electric panel (I know, we all recently received a SoCal Ed Smart meter, but a solar conversion requires a bigger brain). That’s about it–no retrofitting the inside of the house, no special bulbs or plugs. And the smarter Smart Meter takes care of feeding  excess energy back to the electric company. Plus, the solar company provides an online resource where you can track your energy savings monthly, daily, even hourly.  

Paul made the whole process sound pretty easy.  When asked if there were things, in retrospect, he would have done differently, he said no.  Because you did your homework? I asked. “It didn’t require much in the way of homework, everything was pretty straightforward. We just looked at some companies, compared prices, researched various brands of solar panels. It's worked out fine, as we expected; we’re satisfied.”

Go solar?  Maybe I’ve run out of excuses. 

Karin Bugge November 30, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Steve, you're raining on my parade. But thanks for your advice -- I will definitely study the terms on the warranty. I hope in the eight years since your installation, significant improvements have been made all the way around. But I do know it's still the case that, without battery back-up or a generator, solar folks are subject to the same power outages as everyone else.
Dan Abendschein November 30, 2011 at 03:51 AM
I've believe there are companies that will set up the panels without selling them to you with a lease arrangement that involves a long-term commitment to buying the power from them. You probably pay the same type of rate as you would to own the panels but I believe that would absolve you of maintenance responsibility. However, I should add I don't have personal experience on this, but rather am going off my memories from an article I wrote for the Pasadena Star-News several years ago.
SteveB November 30, 2011 at 06:18 PM
I think there have been significant improvements - panels are more efficient, warranties are better, included system monitoring I believe is pretty standard now. And, as Dan mentions, leasing is now an option - it has the attractive feature of less money up front and the leasing company has the maintenance burden - however, I am not sure how those deals are structured. It sounds to me like it gets closer to a car purchase negotiation - lots of variables that can be manipulated. And what happens if you want to move? Is the buyer obligated to assume the terms - that may be a selling hindrance. Or perhaps you would need to purchase the system at that point? You are quite right about the rebates/incentives, though - given our financial picture, there is no assurance will continue or be renewed.
Dan Abendschein November 30, 2011 at 06:27 PM
SteveB - Yes, I'm sure the deals must be closely scrutinized... and on moving, indeed that is a problem. I remember asking that for the story I wrote and was told that if you move, the lease becomes a condition of the home. So the next property owner would be responsible. That does not necessarily become a deal killer, since a lot of people have an interest in having solar panels, but it would be something to examine very closely before making the agreement.
Karin Bugge November 30, 2011 at 07:41 PM
A quick google search brings up some other issues regarding leasing solar. First of all, it's possible the homeowner will not receive the rebate credit, and will continue to pay back any $$ savings towards the full market price of the installation.

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