My Turn: Look who’s turning six
September 29, 2008
Six years ago this month our household brought to fruition a grid-tied solar photovoltaic (PV) system that has cut our electrical energy costs by two-thirds. It was the year before greedy folks at Enron used legal, unregulated market manipulation to bankrupt our state. We got the $30,000 system for a more affordable $15,000 due to a 50 percent state tax rebate.
Last month’s electricity consumption was -13 kilowatt hours (kwhr). That’s right, we made more power than we used! Sometime this October the total output of our system will exceed 23-megawatt hours. The system’s life expectancy is longer than my own and will have paid for itself before my spouse hits retirement age. We anticipate zero energy bills and a negative carbon footprint after completing several more upgrades at our home. So on Oct. 15 please join us to celebrate 6 years of using solar panels made by BP (i.e. beyond petroleum).
Ironically, if one lives in Germany where the sunshine is much less abundant, there are much stronger incentives in place to encourage the use of solar. They chose knowledge and action over ignorance regarding global climate change at the turn of the 21st century. Their incentive program is a result of that choice.
Here, we can merely offset power usage and watch the meter spin backwards during the day when making more power than the household uses. It’s called net metering. Trust me, you get an indescribable feeling watching this occur. But at the end of the year, if we have produced more energy than we have used, current law says the utility gets the excess for free. This creates a financial disincentive for designing a system that generates more power than the home uses. Last month’s excess production carried over to the next month but we still paid that pesky $6 and change “customer charge.”
A radically different approach has evolved in Europe called production-based incentives. This model pays a bonus rate for each kilowatt hour of clean energy produced by a solar PV system. The rate is locked in for 20 years. There is no disincentive for overproducing because the goal of the program is to stop CO2 production. Just for reference you should know that the current kilowatt hour rate for a Truckee Donner Public Utility District permanent resident is 12.8 cents. Guess what a producer of clean, renewable solar energy gets in Germany these days for each kilowatt hour they produce? It is a whopping 71 cents!! If our family’s system were on the German grid for 20 years it would generate revenue of $52,256 or a little over $2,600/year.
Remember, the system cost $30,000 installed. That delta of $22k would be a nice addition to anyone’s retirement fund along with the security of knowing that household energy costs would be nothing for the rest of one’s life. One could even invest in an electric vehicle and power it from the PV array for free transportation fuel costs ” further slashing the household carbon footprint. You can begin to understand why German farmers are now harvesting the sun as a new cash crop and why German demand for solar PV panels has outpaced the world’s production capacity. A significant number of good-paying green jobs have been created. All this because the German government had the political will to do something about the global climate change crisis.
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Back in the land where our national leadership is still beholden to fossil fuel interests and remains in denial of the long term consequences of global warming, we can run the numbers on our system again and come back to my reality. Our $15,000 system makes about 4 megawatt hours per year valued at $125 each. Cutting to the chase, that’s a 30-year payback at around $500 per year. Sometimes I think of returning to my German roots.
However, there are other important numbers to crunch. They involve CO2 pollution ” likely the biggest threat facing the seventh generation out. Sustainability experts teach us to think that far ahead about the consequences of our decisions. Two of the biggest known CO2 pollution culprits are coal plants and cars. The pollution is measured in pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Each kilowatt hour of electricity produced by coal releases 2.1 lbs., while each gallon of gas procured, refined, delivered and burned releases 25 lbs. The last I checked, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District still gets about 90 percent of its power from coal. So each kilowatt hour we don’t use through efficiency gains or procure from non-CO2 releasing renewable sources prevents about 2 lbs. of CO2 release into the atmosphere. Looked at through that lens, our PV system has resulted in the prevention of 23 tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. But we have bigger, better plans.
The near term goal is to expand our PV system to power a plug-in hybrid car and prevent even more CO2 release. We own a Prius, which is one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles produced. Even so, every 10 miles traveled it emits 5.2 lbs. of CO2. With an upgrade to a plug-in battery pack with extended capacity and a special EV-only button, we can run local trips up to 20 miles at speeds as high as 52 mph on electricity alone. By charging the batteries from PV, we will be traveling locally entirely free of CO2 emissions and allowing the stars to shine even brighter in Truckee. Our current carbon challenged capitalistic system has not yet evolved to figure in the financial benefit of such projects. Therefore, I will borrow a phrase from a popular credit card jingle and just call it ” priceless.
By the way, the inverter running at the heart of our PV system is made in…. you guessed it, Germany. They make good beer, too. Guess we should have some at the party. Please join us for our Oktoberfest/solar celebration of six years of clean, renewable energy production. Our home on Brook lane is easy to find … just look for the PV solar panels.