Living on the Sunny Side of the Street
Homeowners across the country are discovering that installing a solar energy system not only saves them money in the long run, it also helps reduce their impact on global warming
CLARK BEEBE'S electric bill averaged $105 a month in 2003. Then the Springfield, New Jersey, homeowner took advantage of a state rebate program that paid 70 percent of the costs of adding a $50,000 solar power system to his 2,300-square-foot house. Now his monthly electric bill averages only $14, but that's just part of the story.
On many days, Beebe and his family feed excess energy into the power grid—their meter actually runs backwards—which they sell through brokers as clean-energy credits to companies seeking to offset their dirty emissions. Last year, those credits amounted to more than $1,000 in income for the family. “With the credits and the money we're saving on our bills, we expect to recoup the $15,000 we laid out for the solar system in less than nine years and then we'll actually begin turning a profit,” says the civil engineer. “But best of all, we're generating electricity without generating any pollution.”
For Steve Rypka, converting to sun power was “absolutely a no-brainer.” Last year, his monthly electric bill amounted to only $6.30 after he installed a photovoltaic (solar cell) system onto the roof of his 2,100-square-foot house in Henderson, Nevada. The $6.30 represents a monthly connection fee to the local power grid. “Our solar panels have been generating all of the electricity we need,” says the audio engineer, whose utility paid more than half the cost of his system. “We won't have to worry about the increases in electric rates that other consumers will have to pay and we receive credits for any excess energy we produce.”
Beebe and Rypka are among a small but steadily growing number of American homeowners who are discovering that, over the long run, investing in solar makes a lot of dollars and sense. “Many Americans don't think twice about spending $20,000 on a car that depreciates the minute they drive it off the lot,” says Rypka. “Why not invest a similar amount in a solar system that substantially lowers your utility costs and has a manufacturer's warranty that can last for decades?”
Though solar represents only about 0.1 percent of the electricity presently generated in the United States, a U.S. Department of Energy study projects that about 50 percent of the country's residential space heating and between 65 and 75 percent of its water heating needs could be met with sun power. “The technology clearly works and it's easy to see the advantages of reducing pollution and energy bills,” says Jeremy Symons, director of NWF's global warming campaign. “The missing ingredient has been a strong federal policy that encourages rapid development of solar and other renewable energy, rather than one that continues to pour billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies into polluting fuel sources.”
Despite the lack of strong federal incentives, sales of solar equipment in this country have increased about 30 percent each year since 2002 and are expected to grow at an even faster rate as electricity costs climb and the price of the equipment drops. Currently, 17 states and a number of utilities offer rebates or tax incentives that subsidize 50 percent or more of the costs of purchasing solar-based systems.
“For solar to be accepted by the broadest spectrum of our society, it must compete on the financial terms society expects, regardless of the intangible health or social benefits it provides,” observes Andy Black, a financial analyst in California who has conducted extensive research on the economics of solar energy.
One of those financial terms is property resale value. According to a report published by the Appraisal Institute, a solar system increases a home's value by $20,000 for each $1,000 in reduced annual operating costs. “The rationale,” says Black, “is that if the $1,000 is not spent on electricity, it is available to be spent on a larger mortgage payment with no net change to the cost of living.” Beyond the financial benefits to individual homeowners, experts say increased use of solar will help keep the nation's power grid stable as demand for electricity continues to grow—as much as 45 percent in the next 24 years, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates. “Because it contributes maximum power in the afternoon, more or less at the same time as when summer energy usage is highest, solar can shave peak demand and reduce or delay the need for costly new power plants and transmission lines,” says Colorado-based energy consultant Lori Smith Schell, author of a recent comprehensive study on the value of distributed solar electricity.
According to a Worldwatch Institute report, the solar resources of seven southwestern U.S. states alone could potentially provide 10 times the nation's current electrical generating capacity. The report also notes that commercial and residential buildings account for more carbon emissions than any other electricity-consuming sector in this country. “A lot of people feel helpless when it comes to doing something about global warming,” says Charles Olmsted, a University of Northern Colorado environmental studies professor and member of the NWF board of directors whose renewable energy-equipped home operates largely without use of fossil fuels. “But there are steps each of us can take to lower our energy use without sacrificing comfort.”
In Connecticut, Cathie and John Sync see evidence on a daily basis that the steps they've taken are working. Two years ago, the Westport couple installed a solar system in their house that includes a meter displaying how many pounds of greenhouse gases they are keeping out of the environment. So far, their system has saved more than 20,000 pounds of carbon emissions—the equivalent, say climate researchers, of conserving nearly 1,100 gallons of gasoline or planting about 250 new trees.
“We knew the system would help reduce our impact on the environment, but we didn't realize how much,” says John. “Can you imagine what the reduction in emissions would be if more homeowners installed solar?”
Mark Wexler is editorial director of this magazine.
A Brightfield in Brockton
Thomas Edison likely would have been pleased with the citizens of Brockton, Massachusetts, where 124 years ago he built the world's first central station for distributing electric power. Last fall, the city began operating New England's largest solar energy facility on a remediated brownfields site that had been a local eyesore. The 3.7-acre facility, called a brightfield, contains 1,395 solar panels that produce 425 kilowatts of electricity—enough to power 71 homes. “It generates no emissions, no noise and no traffic, since it doesn't require a staff,” says Lori Ribeiro, a brownfields consultant who came up with the idea for the solar plant, which will reduce regional carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 600,000 pounds a year.
Saving Energy At Home
While not everyone can afford the initial costs of installing a solar system, there are steps each of us can take at home to save money and reduce both energy consumption and the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions we generate. For example:
Replace the five most commonly used lightbulbs in your house with low-energy compact fluorescent bulbs. Annual pollution reduction: 1,150 pounds of CO2; annual energy bill savings: $50.
Use less hot water by installing a low-flow showerhead and washing clothes in cold or warm water. Annual pollution reduction: 850 pounds of CO2; annual energy bill savings: $40.
Adjust your thermostat 2 degrees cooler in winter and 2 degrees warmer in summer. Alternatively, install a programmable thermostat to adjust temperatures automatically by 4 degrees while you are sleeping or at work. Annual pollution reduction: 2,000 pounds of CO2; annual energy bill savings: $100.
Purchase 10 percent of your electricity from a green-power source, such as solar or wind. Annual pollution reduction: 625 pounds of CO2.
For more tips and information about how you can help prevent global warming, visit www.nwf.org/globalwarming.