Aiding a solar powered home revolution

ready-for-solar1editors-blog-entry3After nine months and several unfortunate snafus with our utility, Xcel Energy, one of which is going to cost us $250 (more on this in a forthcoming column) we’re finally going to be going solar next week!

It’s about time. After all, we have the perfect roof for solar. South-facing, unshaded and located in sunny Colorado, one of the best geographic locations in the U.S. for solar.

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And yet, not a single home within a two-square mile radius of us has a PV solar system on it.

I’m proud, and excited, that we are leading what is a growing solar revolution, and what I, personally hope will also be a solar-charged driving revolution, especially at a time when oil is gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico. I cannot wait until we have pulled the plug on coal and oil.

Going solar not as easy as it should be
To get where we have — within a few days of having a home solar system on our perfect-for-solar roof (one of millions of such roofs in the U.S.!), hasn’t been as easy as it should have been. For instance, it forced us to shift much of our heating from gas to electric this past winter so that we could increase our annual kWh usage to the level we needed to get the 5.5 kW system we need to power our home and an electric car. (With’s efficient and effective 450-watt heaters, we actually managed to make this shift in a respectably green manner).

There is no other industry so thoroughly dominated by monopoly than the utility industry. Don’t like your utility? Well, you’re out of luck, there is no other option!

Our unfortunate, unpleasant, and frankly, anxiety provoking back-and-forth with Xcel energy, which in Nov. of 2009 forced us to temporarily submit an application for a 2.79 kW system — a system that would not even have covered 100-percent of our home electric, — comes thanks to top-down, anti-democratic regulations such as the Colorado Public Utility Commission “120-percent” rule. This rule means that homeowners who want to go solar will get no utility rebate if they put up a solar system which produces more than 120-percent of their annual home electric use. Unfortunately, many other states have imposed similarly anti-democratic rules, with many disallowing rebates for solar systems that produce more than 100-percent of a home’s annual electric use.

All of this, to protect large utilities’ monopoly on the production of power. There is no other industry so thoroughly dominated by monopoly than the utility industry. Don’t like your utility? Well, you’re out of luck, there is no other option!

ready-for-solar2In Colorado, the protection of utilities’ monopoly on power production is as ridiculous as it is unnecessary. It would be impossible for homeowners to make any reasonable money off even a home solar system that produced 200-percent of a home’s use, with the 10 cents per kWh rate that Xcel pays solar homeowners who put excess energy back into the grid!

For us, an 11 kW solar system that produced 200-percent of our electric use would generate just $800 per year for the extra juice, while doubling the cost of the array. That simply is not very much cash, certainly not enough to motivate a homeowner to build a home system that produces twice as much electricity as his or her home needs.

Beyond the decidedly customer-unfriendly experience we’ve had with Xcel so far — an experience that belies the solar-friendly PR face Xcel puts forward to the public, going solar hasn’t been as easy as it should be for one other primary reason.

Upfront costs still too high
It still costs too much, up front, to go solar. This is true even in a very solar friendly state such as Colorado, a state in which we managed to snag a $3.50 per watt rebate, a big reason that we’re going to be paying $5.55 per watt for our 5.5 kW system (this per watt cost includes the Federal Tax Credit of 30 percent of the total, post-rebate cost of the system).

The rebate levels from Aug. 2009 are a major reason we signed on the dotted line with REC Solar back then. We knew the rebates would drop, and they have, by more than $1.00 per watt. For our 5.5 kW system, that’s an out-of-pocket difference of about $5,500.

But the biggest reason we signed up for a solar system in Aug. 2009, but waited until June 2010 to have it installed was so that we could save the cash we needed — all told, a bit over $11,000 dollars. That’s a lot of money, and we’ve had to put off paying down other debt in order to save it.

Talk isn’t going to fuel a green revolution. Action is.

Yes, we will save money in the long run, in fact, quite a lot of money, and we’ll do so more quickly than many because we’ll be solar-charging a car with our system in addition to covering our home electric use! But big chunks of money are big chunks of money. They aren’t easy for most people to come up with — including us.

Solar leasing means no upfront costs
Luckily, solar leasing — which allows homeowners to go solar with $0 down and to save up to 15 percent on their monthly electric bill while also doing the right thing and going solar — arrived in Colorado in October of 2009. So homeowners here — and in seven other U.S. states — can leap over the biggest hurdle to going solar, its large upfront costs. In fact, as I’ve noted elsewhere, we probably would have done a solar lease if we’d had that option available when we decided to go solar last summer.

Now — even though I firmly believe that the solar buying vs. solar leasing argument is far too frequently over-simplified to make buying always come out on top — I’m happy we’re buying instead of leasing. Those panels, which will last for 25, 30 or more years, will be ours! And the power they produce will be ours.

Furthermore, our electric power, and “gas” for one car, will be paid off for the next 25 to 30 years. Meanwhile, our neighbors will watch their electric rates go up five percent, or more, per year, and they’ll be paying more and more for gas at the pump every year, while we fill up on home-generated sun.

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How no increases in electric rates and enough electricity to power a car for 200,000 miles can be a “dumb” investment is beyond me. Yet the skeptics of solar persist with reductive critiques of solar typically rooted in short-term “thinking” and simplistic “logic” that, for example, fails to calculate the economic costs incurred by the pollution produced in a fossil-fueled driven society.

I’m guessing some of our neighbors and friends will be among these skeptics. I plan on working them immediately. In late June, we’ll be having a “Going solar” party to celebrate tapping the power of the sun to power our home and a future electric car.

I know I won’t convert all of them, perhaps none of them. Many will remain skeptical. But the longer they remain skeptical, the more it will cost them — and us, as a society, economically and environmentally.

Many of them will talk the green talk. But we need them — and you, too — to walk that walk. Talk isn’t going to fuel a green revolution. Action is. Please help us make the solar, and solar-charged driving, revolution, happen, one roof at a time.

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