Taking Your House Solar: Five Things You Should Know
It’s not easy being a solar guinea pig. But in the Commonwealth of Virginia, that’s what many of us have become. I’m talking about the thousands of others like me rolling the dice to solarize their home and see if it pays off despite an unfriendly atmosphere. At times, it can feel a little bit like you’re on your hamster wheel going around in circles. Solar energy in Virginia is still in its primordial phase.
The state ranks an abysmal 38th out of 50 states, according to Solar Power Rocks. Virginia boasts anemic state tax credits, rock bottom renewable energy credits, weak RPS laws (which encourage diversification to more renewables) and lots of other impediments. We’re talking about a meager 241 megawatts compared to 1,591 megawatts in Massachusetts. Much of this is due to the dominance of one power company, Dominion Energy (feel free to swing by their Facebook page to give them a piece of your mind after this post). They dictate not only what kind of power most customers get but also dictate terms to legislators in the capital of Richmond.
I started getting suspicious of Dominion when I examined my utility bill and discovered that the company actually wants customers like me to pay a $10 monthly premium to access renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Solar is one of the cheapest forms of energy available thanks to years of innovation. Why would I pay more? Is it to dis-incentivize choosing clean sources? Or just some decades-old premium payment scheme that hasn’t been re-evaluated? Legacy sources like coal simply can’t compete with low-cost solar.
But Dominion has spent millions of dollars convincing the public, politicians and banks that we need vast pipelines criss-crossing the state to supply “clean” natural gas. Natural gas is not clean, it’s cleaner than coal but it’s not a renewable resource. It’s a fossil fuel and will run out. It also requires chemical-laced water for fracking that seeps into the water table and poisons it or in some cases, makes it flammable. And proposed projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will scar the countryside like the pipelines before it.
Environmentalists like me feel they have no choice but to go solar out of a sense of justice, financial freedom and planetary responsibility.
Video Note: At 3m40s and at 4m30s, I accidentally say my solar system is a 10 MW system. I'm not THAT rich. A slip of the tongue and perhaps wishful thinking. This is actually a 10 KW system that generates about 7.5 MW/hours per year. That's the same as averting about 3 tons of coal per year.
There is a bold vision far on the horizon, which I believe in. It’s called the distributed grid. Imagine a world where homes like the ones you or I own are not only end-users of electric power but generators as well which sell back to the utility’s grid. We’re talking about democratization of solar energy where the customers ARE the grid, not some distant power station.
In this world, Dominion’s business model becomes a service – managing excess capacity produced by basically everyone and distributing it efficiently, while more and more of its own power generation facilities move to solar and wind. Imagine if Dominion could become a service provider like your cable company, not a fossil fuel industry that poisons the water, scars the countryside and warms the planet.
The first step to get there, if you’re a homeowner, is to start finding a way to get to 100% clean energy through solar and wind.
Fortunately, the state cracked the door open a little in late 2016 with its ‘net metering’ law. Net metering basically allows your electricity meter to count forwards and backwards. When you use energy from a utility’s grid, it counts forward and you pay. But when you generate your own electricity, the meter counts backwards and you get credit.
In some progressive states like California, you can earn credits indefinitely in summer months and even get paid cash for excess power you produce. In Virginia, you only earn credits from Dominion to use for future bills. Good but not quite the same. You definitely lower your bill and can even get a negative bill some months. You can achieve savings of up to 70-80% and draw upon those credits in the winter months. But you can’t really have a say in what energy source that remaining 30% comes from. It’s probably coal or natural gas. (See update at end of this blog for how to get around this.)
The upshot is this: when a critical mass of Virginia households go solar to save money or the environment, it forces companies like Dominion to adapt. This can trigger the democratization of energy, something they don’t want. They want a monopoly.
With climate impacts getting worse and worse and about 10 years left on the clock if we burn as we do now, we need to solarize fast. And since I’m one of the guinea pigs, I’d like to outline, for you the reader, five easy principles to go solar in Virginia.
Pick The Right House
My wife and I were in the market for a new home because we needed more space. One of the criterion I had was identifying a new roof that gets enough sun exposure throughout the year. We love trees so we also wanted a canopy in the yard. After looking at several homes, we found one with a lot of roof space facing south, exposed to the sun much of the year, but with lots of trees. Picking a house without southern exposure or too canopied by trees can lower your solar potential.
Here’s a Google 3D map rendering of our house. Fortunately, you can now use tools like Google Project Sunroof to assess your current or future home for solar potential. This tool will even estimate the size system you need and point you to finance options in a matter of seconds.
Investigate Which Companies Are Driving Your Local Market
The second step is to find out which reputable companies actually service your state or neighborhood. I reached out to companies I knew to be leaders in residential solar – SolarCity Tesla Energy, Vivint Solar, Sunrun, Ipsun Power, and a few other local providers. Because Virginia net metering is so new (November 2016), many national companies did not yet devote sales resources to cracking the Virginia market. So I got a lot of “We don’t operate where you live” e-mails in my inbox. Ipsun Power was an exception. A small hungry startup but man, they understand solar and have a real personal touch. (Ask for Herve.)
SolarCity, for example, had its eyes on Virginia because it was successful in helping Maryland reach critical mass, which for a while had generous payback for renewable energy credits (RECs) for each megawatt (MW) of energy. Here’s a rendering of Maryland vs. Virginia solar penetration from the lens of SolarCity. Big difference.
I did advance the conversation with a few providers and have them design a system. Like Project Sunroof, many companies can just “eyeball” your potential using public satellite data and 3D modeling with your address. If it looks good – then someone actually comes out to measure your roof dimensions and meters and supply a more detailed 3D rendering with unit size, kilowatt potential, panel placement and total cost.
Another punitive regulation that needs challenging is Dominion caps the size of system of your roof so you can’t generate lots of excess power. That’s simply unfair. But that’s how monopolies behave. It would be nice to work to have this overturned in Richmond.
Find sensible financing
The third key thing to do is to find sensible financing for the unit once its designed and priced out. The financing of home solar systems went through a sea change in the past couple of years. Originally, the business model was the solar unit was owned by the solar company and you leased the unit from the solar provider. But it wasn’t yours.
People didn’t really warm to that model and adoption stalled. So solar companies started making deals with finance companies and banks to provide low-interest, zero-down financing so the customer owns the unit outright and adds equity to the home. Interest rates are creeping up but if you shop around, you can find a solar company that can offer as low as 3% financing with zero money down. Terms that good probably won’t last forever so that’s one reason to act sooner rather than later. But it is more competitive than the rate you get on most homeowner’s line of credit or home loans, currently between 4 and 6%.
Take advantage of federal tax credits while you can
Fourth, take advantage of the federal renewable energy tax credit before it expires. Let’s say you settled on a 10 KW system for about $30,000. According to federal tax law, you can claim the solar tax credit or investment tax credit (ITC) next April. This means you’ll get a 30% deduction, in this case about $10,000, if you fill out IRS Form 5965. But after 2019, that amount starts decreasing rapidly to about 10% in 2022. And to be honest, anything can happen in the Trump administration, which is clearly hostile to alternative energy. Better act now.
Evangelize For Solar and Wind
Fifth, preach the solar gospel. At the end of the day, we went with SolarCity / Tesla Energy – for competitive financing, handling all of the paperwork, a really nice sales and support team and Elon Musk is a personal hero.
The good news is by going solar, you immediately signal to your neighbors that you care about saving money, care about the planet and that it anyone can do it because it’s on your roof. It also puts money in your pocket by reducing your bills immediately by 60 – 70% and you save up credits for colder months. Data shows that there is a social effect when you solarize, your neighbors are more likely to consider it. In fact, Google’s Project Sunroof, is starting to mark who in your neighborhood has solarized. A new spin on keeping up with the Joneses. It also adds equity value to your home for the day that you sell it. The next owner gets an amazingly low electricity bill.
If you look at Virginia a few years into the future, if we have energy leadership from our elected officials really trying to carve a pathway for new economy jobs for the working class, we can actually employ WAY more people in solar installations in residential, corporate retail and government buildings. I encourage you to check out Mark Jacobsen and Mark Ruffalo’s non-profit The Solutions Project. They’ve actually mapped out a viable pathway to renewable energy for all 50 states and residential solar clearly plays a strong role in turning the tide – 4.2%. We can actually get there!
Now having become a SolarCity / Tesla Energy solar ambassador, I like sharing this video which essentially has the optimism of a climate activist organization but from a progressive private company. American innovation at its best.
We are in residential solar’s infancy but on the cusp of true innovation in solar power. We are entering an era where products like the Tesla Solar Roof and Powerwall are pushing the market. At the end of the day, I’m paying about $50 more per month out of pocket with no upfront costs. I’m lowering my family’s carbon footprint dramatically and teaching my son how we can be part of the energy revolution so that when he’s my age, democratic distributed energy is just the new normal. You can reach out to me if you need more information about how to take the solar plunge.
Update: Combining Wind With Solar
So I wanted to update this blog sharing our experience in our home solar generation thus far. Our panels were approved by Dominion in mid-September 2017 and we’ve been averaging about 30 kWh per day and are approaching our first mWh which is exciting.
With climate disruption, we had an unseasonably warm October with a week of thin cloud cover and temperatures in the mid-80s. We had to use air conditioning – in October! So covering my entire energy needs this time of year and earning credits is difficult though spring and autumn is where you really save up your credits.
You will find that having a net meter on your house creates a little “gamification” of your energy usage. My net meter read 750 kWh of usage when the solar panels went live. (This is the energy I used in the time between when my solar panels were installed and when Dominion finally gave me permission to use them – about seven weeks later! Grrrr – that’s typical monopoly red tape for you.)
If I keep my usage below 750 kWh this month, then I’m generating more energy than I used and Dominion owes me money. As a general rule this month, I have found myself using air conditioning less and less and being extra vigilant in turning down lights so that I can keep that net meter at 750 kWh or below.
However, it is virtually impossible with a home solar system to cover all of your energy needs without several storage batteries.
So if I’m covering 70 – 80% of my energy needs with solar on average, does that mean I have to use Dominion’s dirty coal and natural gas mix for the remainder. Not necessarily.
I’m trying out a new service called Arcadia Power. When you set up an account with them, they essentially take over your power bill. You pay them, they pay Dominion. But for every kWh you use, they will purchase and retire a renewable energy credit from a wind farm tapped into the energy grid. (Arcadia’s free tier allows you to achieve 50% clean energy through RECs, their premium tier takes you to 100%).
It’s not the same as powering your home directly from the sun, but Arcadia does allow you to access clean energy and stimulate the market through wind RECs if you’re not ready to invest in home solar at the moment. This drives down demand for Dominion’s dirty coal and natural gas sources and idiotic pipeline projects.
So in my case with the wind-solar combo, I’ve achieved a 100% renewable energy home! I’m powering my home directly through the sun through the Tesla panels the majority of the time and the remainder is power pulled from a wind farm. Zero coal or natural gas usage in my home. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve become part of the solution… and you can too.
P.S. I just got my bill. September = $115 from coal, nuclear and natural gas. October $7 from wind. The rest came directly from the sun.
Now I’ve got to figure out what to do with my cars…
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