Seeking Solar

 

by Lisa and Jack Morris

This blog post shares our experience in exploring sources of energy for our home that are not produced from coal. Our motivation stems from concern about the implications of humankind’s contributions to global climate change. We want to lower our carbon footprint. Plain and simple, we want to “practice what we preach.”

In technical terms, we use a photo voltaic-based solar array, or PV, for many of our home energy needs. PV arrays are generally more expensive than using solar only for water heating. But a PV array can be used for a much greater variety and range of tasks.

Is Kentucky Good for Solar?

The clear answer is YES! Kentucky has plenty of sunshine for generating electricity. Kentucky’s solar resources are on par with many states that have healthy solar industries. And in fact, Kentucky’s solar resources are actually better than all of Germany, which leads the world in percent of power needs supplied by solar.

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© NREL

However, Kentucky lags far behind the rest of the nation with regard to its net-metering law, which requires electric utilities to allow solar producers to connect with the grid and feed energy back into it. A couple things to note about that:

  • In Kentucky, utility companies prefer to compensate solar producers feeding energy back to the grid at wholesale rates (about ½ what is paid per kWh in Kentucky) even though these customers do not contribute to wear and tear on transmission equipment and provide significant environmental benefits to society.
  • Kentucky’s net-metering law limits the maximum size of PV systems allowed under net metering. This discourages medium and large scale commercial solar projects, the large-scale development of ‘solar farms’ and community solar projects. (Some community solar projects do exist, and the shareholders get a discount on their electric bill so that people who don’t want to or cannot invest in purchased installations—like renters—can participate in renewable energy projects.)

Should I Invest?

Before you dive in to solar, make sure you have stopped throwing away energy in other ways like with poor insulation and inefficient lighting. If you determine that solar energy is a good fit, prepare to make many decisions!

Solar installations can be expensive, but represent a good long-term investment. If you use a professional installer, have an average house and seek to supply all your energy needs, it will probably cost around $25K-$30K for the system. You will pay this off, but it might take a long time.

There are ways to lower up-front requirements. While Kentucky does not allow solar leases, low-cost financing is a feasible approach. Also, solar installation costs are going down rapidly and utility costs are going up.

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© Courtesy/Lisa and Jack Morris

Before you begin, be determine what you can afford, options for financing and opportunities to participate in an existing community renewable energy system. Gain clarity on what you want to accomplish (water heating only or general electrical needs; go completely off the grid or provide grid back-up). Take stock of your own skills, schedule and tolerance for uncertainty. If you are part of a Home Owners Association check in with regard to restrictions before moving forward. The answers to these questions will inform how to proceed.

Getting Started

The biggest decision to make—early in the process—is whether to use a professional installer or “Do It Yourself” (DIY). An installer will cost double the material costs. This may seem like a lot, but it also comes with less angst, the correct equipment and skills in line to do a faster and better job. Some tax breaks also require a certified installer. If the system will be tied into the grid, a licensed electrician will need to sign off on the electrical work.

We cobbled together a hybrid DIY/contractor project for a grid-tied, ground mount system. We hired someone to draw up a design. Then we did a lot of the low-skill, mechanical prep-work. A licensed electrician performed the wire hook-ups.

Then we set up and connected the inverter to an internet portal to monitor the system’s operation. (Some inverters even have smartphone apps for monitoring from anywhere.) Because of safety concerns, when the grid goes down, our system goes down even if the sun is shining. This is to prevent sending power to the grid with someone working on it.

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© Courtesy/Lisa and Jack Morris

Probably the strangest aspect of the system is that once it is set up, there is absolutely nothing left to do but sit back and let it work. Once per month, the utility company measures our demand, any excess energy generated beyond our needs and credits us accordingly. While the utility does the bookkeeping, the bill never reflects total power generated. If we generate an electron and use it immediately, the net-meter never sees that electron. It only shows what fed back to the grid. If you want to know what you have generated, you need to check the inverter’s monitoring portal.

With our system up and running, the only required maintenance involves mowing grass around the arrays in the summer and brushing off snow in the winter. We generate about what we need on an annual basis. In transition seasons (Fall and Spring), we generate excess power that we return to the grid.

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© Courtesy/Lisa and Jack Morris

Is Solar Worth It?

Numerous studies have been done to quantify the value of solar. Utility-funded studies tend to take a narrower view of what’s a legitimate “benefit” of solar; while studies by independent analysts often include an expanded suite of benefits. The more broadly one looks at the issue, the greater the value.

Pursuing this route is also becoming more affordable. While obstacles exist, the costs of solar installation are going down while utility costs are rising. In the end each individual should decide for him/herself. On that note, we close with some informative articles about solar energy:

If you decide to transition to solar power, we hope your story is as much of a non-story as ours was. Once the system was in place, we just turned it on, and it worked! And, it should work for the next 25 years. And in our eyes, it paid for itself almost immediately because we are no longer relying on fossil fuels for our energy needs. Maybe we don’t write a check for it, but we felt that we were paying dearly for energy coming from coal fired power plants. In that way, our goal to lower our carbon footprint has been achieved.


Lisa Morris is the Office Manager in The Nature Conservancy’s Kentucky Chapter. Her husband, Jack, is a retired engineer. Together they try to protect natural resources through leading by example at home and through their support of The Nature Conservancy’s mission in Kentucky and around the world. 

One thought on “Seeking Solar

  1. I wish to clarify the article’s description of Kentucky’s net metering law. Kentucky actually has a fairly good net metering law with uniform interconnection standards that streamline the approval process for residential and small-commercial scale solar PV systems. The greatest shortcoming of our net metering law is that it is capped at 30 kW, which creates a great market barrier for larger PV systems (e.g. for schools, factories and other larger businesses). For PV systems below 30 KW utilities are required to credit the net metering customer’s solar production at the retail rate, so the power you generate is worth the same as the power you buy from the utility. For larger systems, the utilities have the discretion to offer lower rates for the solar production and this effectively prevents many large systems from being installed in Kentucky. About 20 states allow net metering for systems 1,000 kW or greater, and this supports a much larger market for solar energy. The Kentucky Solar Energy Society, the Kentucky Conservation Committee and their partners have been trying for years to raise the net metering cap to 1,000 kW, but have been blocked by resistance from electric utilities. If you support solar energy, please contact your legislators and ask them to support raising the cap on net metering.

    Andy McDonald
    Director, Sustainable Systems Programs
    Earth Tools, Inc.
    1525 Kays Branch Rd., Owenton, KY 40359
    502-484-3988 main office

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