How and Why We Went Solar

Solar panels line the ref of the Thompson home on Rutgers Avenue.

Solar panels line the ref of the Thompson home on Rutgers Avenue.

By Virginia Thompson

Trying to live gently on the earth, we have taken a number of steps over the years to reduce the environmental footprint of our house. This spring, we reached the conclusion that installing solar panels on our roof makes sense for us now.

It’s been a journey. About eight years ago, when Open Sky was a new local business, we asked owners Joe Coyle and Michael Matotek to evaluate our house for solar. The stars were not aligned for installing solar then. We had large trees shading our roof for much of the day, and the technology had not yet developed to allow solar collection if any panels were in shade. The cost estimate was more than $30,000, not including the new roof we would need to safely support the installation.

Fast forward to 2016. Our new roof, only about five years old, is in good condition and can support the panels well. A number of our old, large trees, alas, have come down in the intervening years, and with newer, more efficient technology, solar energy arrays can be efficient even if some panels are shaded, so we can continue to create solar power most days. Finally, the cost has dropped significantly, and there are some financial incentives for installing solar right now.

With all these changes, and with Transition Town Media (TTM) offering a group rate for solar projects in the area, we decided to take another look. Days after providing Solar States (the company working with TTM) with a copy of our latest electric bill, we received an e-mail containing an image of our house with solar panels on the roof, the photo having been obtained from satellite imagery. Solar States estimated that solar could provide about 95% of our electricity, thus reducing our electric bill by the same percentage.

Open Sky came to the house to do more specific calculations, and provided a graph of our annual potential production of solar energy, based on the earth’s rotation. Their price quote was very similar to that of Solar States; we chose Open Sky, a local company with whom we had developed a good business relationship.

The Specifics: Open Sky installed 20 panels on our east-facing roof (south-facing is optimal). We chose black frames around each panel, though silver frames are also attractive. Each panel is 280 watts for a stamped rating of 5.6 kW. Our system will produce a little less than this because of the roof’s E-W orientation and a few remaining shaded areas.

The structural engineer specified reinforcement of the roof with two-by-four braces in the attic. Open Sky explained that this is actually a good investment in any case, as a large snowstorm could cause a cave-in of the roof of our WW II-era house, even without the weight of the solar panels.

The whole installation took less than a week, including the roof supports, solar panels, electric layout, and the meter. Permits and an engineering study were required, but it did not take long for Open Sky to obtain either. The panels have a 25-year warranty, and Open Sky provides a full labor warranty on the entire system for five years. PECO came out within about five days (on a Saturday, no less) to install the IN and OUT meters. As of this writing, we have generated 522 kWh, and show a favorable ratio of 235 kWh IN to 353 kWh OUT.

Based on our past usage, 95% of our electricity should be provided by our solar panels. The calculations indicate that our total electric bill for the year should be approximately $60 (plus the $8 monthly customer charge.) The system comes with a meter to track production for Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) credits, which should total about $80 this year for us.

Total cost for the installation was just over $17,000: $15,000 for the materials and labor for the solar array; $1,700 for the additional roof supports; and $500 for permit and engineering fees. We will be able to apply a federal tax credit representing 30% of the total cost to our 2016 income tax filing, bringing the net cost down to about $12,000. PECO will also provide credits totaling $400 on our gas and electric bills. Our electric bill will be substantially lower, and in some months we will earn money! The figures point to a return on investment of 11.4 years.

We hope that our solar panels can inspire others in town to consider installing them now that technology has improved significantly and costs have come down dramatically. You are welcome to drive by our house at 430 Rutgers Avenue across from Paulson Park, to see solar energy in action.

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