Looking out at my rainy Puget Sound morning, it seems like more than a little whacky to consider putting solar on our home, but that’s what we are about. We are moving to a new home this summer, and we’ve decided to take the plunge and power our home with solar. The reality of it is, its really not whacky at all, but the key is to see it as a long-term investment in combination with doing the right thing by energy consumption. And if opting for solar is feasible here in the Pacific Northwest, there can’t be a lot of places in this country where solar isn’t feasible (of course, depending on the orientation and sun exposure of your property).
We are installing a system that is projected to give us about 3/4 of our annual home energy needs; that will, according to our solar contractor, sequester the CO2 equivalent of about 1400 trees annually; and will substantively reduce our reliance on a utility provider that still includes coal as about 30% of their energy portfolio (See Action 81).
It is reasonable to question whether solar arrays come with environmental costs- yes, indeed they do. It certainly takes energy to manufacture these arrays, as well as to mine the materials used in them. However, life cycle analyses that have looked at the overall energy and pollution costs associated with solar support that their benefits tend to outweigh these costs over time, particularly when compared to fossil-fuel based power sources. And by choosing manufacturers that are located nearby- our arrays will come from our neighboring State of Oregon- we can help keep that carbon footprint down.
Right now, the feds and the states are offering several incentives that make it more attractive for homeowners to choose the solar route. At the federal level, we’ve got an income tax credit equivalent that is good through 2016 worth 30% of the purchase price of a photovoltaic system. As a typical solar installation is probably going to run a homeowner in the range of 15 to 30K, 30% of the total is a serious chunk of change you get back at the end of your first year after installation. In addition, here in WA, the state provides incentives as well, as you get back between $0.15 and $0.54 per kWh depending on the type of equipment you select, and so far those credits are scheduled to remain in place until at least 2020. When you are generating in the range of 4,000 to 5,000 kWh per year, those incentives can add up to thousands of dollars in payback against the cost of installation. On top of all that, our solar contractor helped us find a credit union with a low-interest energy loan that will help us secure a rate in the 4 to 5% range to help us pay for the system.
All those nice incentives in place regardless, this is not a short-term investment, at least for us. Given our site solar exposure and the size of array, we are looking at a solid 20-year payback on the system (though I have friends and neighbors Ive spoken with better solar exposure for whom the payback period is much shorter, on the range of 5 to 8 years). Certainly the fiscal side is not the only reason we are doing this, but if the math doesn’t work out to some extent, it makes selling solar at an individual level pretty tough. And it’s a hard sell to homeowners if you don’t plan on or don’t know if you will be in your house for the long term. We love our house, we hope to stay, but who can say if we will be fortunate enough to still own it 20 years hence? What I’m particularly excited about is that loan programs and states are starting to address this issue, with Energy Efficient Mortgages that help the homeowner fold the cost of installation into their mortgage; that helps both to relieve the up-front cost and to tie the cost of the system to the ownership of the home.
Is individually based solar installation going to make a major dent in climate change? Unlikely. It is, like all our actions, a small drop in the bucket of the sea change that is needed in energy sourcing. But powering 3/4 of our entire home’s energy needs with a renewable resource with an expected lifespan of 30 or so years is a pretty darned good step in the right direction, and putting together the right tax incentives, production incentives, and loans makes it a pretty feasible investment. And, like I said- if we can do it here in the land of dont-stand-in-one-place-too-long-or-you’ll-grow-moss, its a safe bet that this is a technology that can be successfully employed in a lot of places.