Solar Power in Eliot: A diary

Written by Shara Alexander

SolarCity- So Far, So Good

In late March we contacted Solarize Northeast to see whether it was feasible to put solar panels on our roof. SolarCity was the contractor selected by Solarize Northeast to do the installation and technical support. The company started in Australia, but is currently the leading residential installer in the U.S. The competition in solar installation is strong and you do get the sense as a residential customer that you are being wooed, but I was given the information I needed from SolarCity without too much sales pressure.

The construction manager was the first person to come to our house. He looked at the exposure, age and orientation of our roof and asked about our electrical updates. We had a large holly tree removed from the front of our house a couple of years back, so we no longer have any immediate obstructions to the sun. Our 25 year lifespan roof is about 9 years old. The solar panels have a life span of 30 years, and removing them to re-roof adds costs to the re-roofing.

South Facing Roof

Our street is dominated by narrow Victorian cottages with North-South roof ridges, not good for solar panels. Our house was modified 10 years back and now has two newer sections that provide enough South facing roof area for 11 panels.

The Construction manager provided calculations to come up with the net cost to us of about $1,196 after state and federal tax credits. Some of those tax credits will need to be taken over 4 years.

System Size 2.31kW
# of Panels 11
Sticker Price: $13,745
ETO Incentive: $3,465
Up Front Cost: $10,280
Federal Tax Credit: $3,084
State Tax Credit: $6,000
Final Price: $1,196

Site audit

A couple of weeks after the construction manager came out, two site auditors came to get specifics. They were two neighborhood guys, both with big plug earrings and good dispositions. I had a great time talking to them about the solar system requirements, the local scene and neighborhood, and other non-relevant topics. One of the additional benefits of programs like this is job creation. They were happy with their employer, and happy to be employed.

They got onto the roof to take direct measurements, checked out the attic access and looked at our electrical panel, where the inverter will be located. It turns out we’ll probably have to move our freezer which is too close to our electrical panel, but other than that things checked out. They had a bit of trouble scaling our roof, which has a steep pitch. A steep pitch isn’t optimum for solar capture and makes access troublesome, but it’s still doable.

We are now waiting for the final phase of this project – the installation, which should get started in a couple of weeks.

The Payoff

In summer we don’t cook as much in the oven, we use the laundry line to dry clothes, the sun to light our house until night and the evening breeze to cool it. In the winter we are much less thrifty. Unfortunately, much of our electricity use is passive. Net metering and the system monitoring software will help us track the ups and downs of our electricity production and use, and may help us reduce our use just by giving us a tool with which to track it. Solar is just one tool for us to become more self-sufficient, and we have much more to do to reduce and conserve energy.

Net metering means the utility meter will move backwards when we produce more energy than we use. Net metering is an easy adaptation because it can be done with no changes to standard electricity meters. Net metering also allows us to generate electricity at a different time from consumption, using the grid as a giant storage battery.

I still am not sure how soon the panels will pay for themselves. It depends on a number of factors including the future increases in the cost of electricity. According to the numbers from SolarCity, our solar panels will offset 19% of our usage, and about 17% of our electric bill.  They calculate it will be 13 years before the panels pay themselves off, even with the tax credits. Over the 30 year lifetime of the system they predict we’ll save $9,000 in energy costs. Those numbers were generated with our specific system in mind and with future energy cost increases factored in. A larger system would  be more cost effective, since much of the cost is installation. Two costs don’t seem to have been included though – additional costs for re-roofing and yearly panel cleaning for maximum efficiency. I don’t plan to climb on the roof, so that’s something I’ll have to hire out.

Solar power is just one part of a better approach to powering a home. For the average household there’s more money in reducing use and conserving energy.

Given the fact we won’t be turning off our computer, oven and refrigerator any time soon, I am very thankful that this program was there to make the panels affordable for our family. Combined with some additional changes in our power use, we could get closer to the ideal of consuming just what we need and producing a part of that.

Solar Info

I read about Solarize Northeast in the January 2010 issue of the Eliot news and in March I contacted the organization to see if our home would be a good candidate for electricity-generating solar panels.

Although Solar has been on my mental map for about ten years (we’ve owned our home for 19 years), if it hadn’t been for Solarize NE, I’m not sure I would have started this process. Even for the most stable Portland residents who can afford the upfront investment and will be in the home long enough to reap the benefit, a program like this is critical. It eliminates some of the worries of negotiating one on one with a contractor and brings the payoff into view.

While talking to my neighbors and friends I encountered many misconceptions including the belief that solar panels can’t be installed in Eliot because we’re in a Historic Design overlay. I hope to become an unofficial ambassador for solar power in Eliot, and through this process get a clear idea of the benefits and  limitations of  residential solar at this point in time.

Solarize Northeast is a volunteer-driven community effort led by the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN). Local leaders wanted to increase the amount of renewable energy generated in NE Portland by working together as a community. Multiple nonprofits and governmental organizations have been working together to create a campaign that will drive the costs of solar down. NECN, the City of Portland through the Office of Sustainable Development, the Energy trust of Oregon and the Department of Energy have all pushed to get this and other programs like it moving.

The Solarize Northeast program is structured so that the price of panels goes down as more neighbors join the effort. Group purchasing creates up to 25 percent savings below individual market prices. The group discount, in addition to federal and state tax credits and cash incentives, gives Solarize Northeast participants a significant cost savings.

April 15th was the deadline for enrolling, but the program deadline was extended to June 30th. This program may return to Northeast Portland in the future – it was a bigger success than the organizers predicted. 135 customers signed up for solar panels for a total of 352 kW produced. It’s very inspirational to think of our neighborhood generating its own electricity!

For more information check out Solar Now! (independent nonprofit), Solarize Portland or the Energy Trust of Oregon, or contact Samantha Ames at SolarCity for a site audit and estimate 1-888.765.2489 ext 5875.

Full disclosure: SolarCity says they’ll pay $400 for every “friend” I refer who signs up to install a system on their home (and $1000 for commercial properties). That deal goes for everyone who installs a system with SolarCity and could help make the payoff even faster for you if you have a salesperson in you…