May 20th update on our 1st group of solar installs

Two more homes have their panels connected to the grid and generating electricity for a total of three!

See the updated chart below listing the steps required to fully implement rooftop solar, along with the status for each of our 12 initial households.

Green = number of households that have completed each step
Red = number of households not yet completed.

Dara Bortman from Exact Solar is managing each of these steps to ensure a smooth process.

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Where are we with our 1st group of solar installs?

Kicked off last October, by the end of February, we had 12 area households step up for rooftop solar installations. Two and a half months later, 3 homes have panels on their roofs. One of these is connected to the grid and generating electricity.

We’ve learned there are quite a few steps to the installation process. See the chart below listing the steps required to fully implement rooftop solar, along with the status for each of our 12 initial households.

Green = number of households that have completed each step
Red = number of households not yet completed.

Dara Bortman from Exact Solar is managing each of these steps to ensure a smooth process.

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Springtime & power tools

It’s springtime. Time to start thinking about lawnmowers, chainsaws, weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and…

Earth Day.

Many of us sense that the path to a livable planet, to bringing the climate back into balance, hinges on the mantra: Electrify Everything and Upgrade the Electricity Grid.

So, if you’re in the market for any new power tools, we recommend you consider the battery-powered ones. Sure, we’re all used to the cordless drill.

Last spring, we bought a Kobalt brand lawnmower from Lowes, and more recently a chain saw that uses the same type of battery. Home Depot has a variety of models, also.

Our lawnmower has been great.  It has a battery that lasts for about an hour and only takes 30 minutes to recharge.  We got two batteries, which means, in theory, I could mow forever!  I tend to let the grass get way too long, but the lawnmower has had no problem cutting right through. Don’t believe anyone that says battery powered lawnmowers are not up to the task.

I cannot comment yet on the chain saw, as we haven’t managed to get outside to use it, yet, but I’ll let you all know as soon as we do. Bottom line is – no more gas can in the garage or on the side of the house.

We currently buy our electricity from The Energy Coop, so we know it’s all from the wind and sun. Once we get our solar panels this summer, our lawn mower will be powered by our very own house.

Our Friends at Germantown Meeting manage a local

photo credit: gfsnet.org

community garden, the Old Tennis Court Farm. At this garden, you’ll find panels on their shed roof, providing  electricity for a well pump that fills up water barrels for use by gardeners.  Over time, they’ve added an inverter and invested in an electric lawnmower and weed whacker for use by all gardeners.

We’d love to hear your stories about Electrifying Everything; write us at nwphlsolar@gmail.com.
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Roofs and Rooftop Solar and the Federal Tax Credit

One issue with installing rooftop solar is the pre-existing condition of the roof.

Even though rooftop panels extend the life of a roof, it’s better to begin with a roof that’s newish, or in good condition. So, in the past few months, several people ended up calling in a roofer while we were together analyzing their solar proposals.

Some of these people have decided to tackle the roof first, and the solar

Image credit: nhenergychoices.com

panels… maybe the following year. Some other people asked us… since there’s a 30% federal tax credit for rooftop solar, could this also apply to the roofing job?  The answer is “maybe.”

The page explaining the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit does not specifically mention roofs. It states that “expenditures include labor costs for on-site preparation, assembly or original system installation, and for piping or wiring to interconnect a system to the home.” Some people consider the new roof, or some part of it, to be on-site preparation.

To obtain this credit you need to fill out IRS Form 5695. Instructions for Form 5695 Residential Energy Credits states that:

Qualified solar electric property costs are costs for property that uses solar energy to generate electricity for use in your home located in the United States. No costs relating to a solar panel or other property installed as a roof (or portion thereof) will fail to qualify solely because the property constitutes a structural component of the structure on which it is installed. The home doesn’t have to be your main home.”

Not very clear, we agree. One of our co-op members called up his accountant who interpreted the above as…If there’s a structural concern with installing panels on a roof; or there’s a prerequisite repair before the panels can go up; and both jobs are within a reasonable time frame, which we interpret to be within a month or so of each other; then the cost of the roof repair could also, in effect, be reduced by 30% from the tax savings.

As to whether the whole roofing job, or just the area beneath the panels is eligible, we suggest using your own judgement when filing. Be reasonable.

Image credit: maximumwindowprotection.com

If in doubt, please check with your tax advisor. And know that we are not tax advisors, and therefore not liable for this advice.

In this member’s case, the roof didn’t need to be replaced. And he will happily get to include the repairs along with the solar job when he files his 2017 returns.

Currently, we get to reduce our taxes by 30% of the cost of a solar installation. Know that the longer you wait, the more likely that this encouragement will disappear. Here you can see a timeline for the tax credit for homes with solar electric installations, also known as photo-voltaic systems.

  • 30% for systems placed in service by 12/31/2019
  • 26% for systems placed in service during 2020
  • 22% for systems placed in service during 2021
  • No plans yet for systems placed in service after 2021

Get ’em while the tax credit lasts…

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Sun Blessing

Image: wikimedia.org

That what it reveals
we will have no cause
to fear.

That what it illumines
we will greet
with joy.

That each place
where it rises
will be at peace,
and every place
where it sets
will be at rest.

That we will bless
what lives in its path.

That we will blaze
with its gracious light.

From PaintedPrayerBook &JanRichardsonImages, via Viv Hawkins

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see your PECO bill online

Ever wondered how much electricity you use in a year? Or how all your energy saving devices actually reflect on your electric bill? You can see this and more at peco.com, even compare your usage with your neighbors. Here’s how:

  • You’ll need to setup an online account on your first visit to peco.com.
    1. Go to peco.com
    2. Under the log-in boxes, click Register
    3. Enter your account number, your primary phone number associated to your account and the last 4 digits of the primary account holder’s social security number or business tax id.
    4. You will then need to create a password.
  • Once logged in, you can see your current bill, check out the history, enroll in auto pay and other payment options.
  • To get a copy of your bill, go to My Bill Details where you’ll see a button that says Download Bill PDF.  Scroll down to bottom of page 2, where you’ll see Your Usage Profile. The Total Annual kWh Usage shown here is used to determine the system size when you inquire about rooftop solar. If possible, print this page 2 when you come to one of our member meetings.  On average, each Pennsylvanian home uses about 10,000 kWh per year. With energy efficient devices, it’s possible to use only about half that.

  • You can also see how your energy use compares to neighbors with similar sized homes. You can find this under My Account, then choose My Bill & Usage,  and then click on the neighborhood comparison tab under View Bill Details.
  • Want to see your usage over time? To see charts of this overlaid with the average monthly temperature, go to My Account, choose My Bill & Usage,  and then, on the Electric Bill Usage tab, scroll down and click on View detailed usage“.

The site has a lot of other information as well where you’ll discover you can check for outages, even report outages.

Curious about how to use less electricity? You should be when considering investing in solar, since you’ll need fewer panels to generate enough electricity for your needs. See tips for saving energy under Ways to Save.

If you need help deciphering all this data, come to our next member meeting where neighbors await to translate this for your life.

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Financing residential solar

When deciding on residential solar installations, people often ask whether it’s better to own or lease the project.

We’ve found it best to own the project outright, paid from personal savings. A home equity loan is next best, and for those who may not have equity in their home: an unsecured loan.

To get rooftop solar with no money down, there is an option to lease which used to be the best option when solar projects were more expensive. Though this could still work for some people, we are not keen on it because a large portion of the savings goes to the solar installer / financier rather than the homeowner.

 

Personal savings

Paying for solar installations from personal savings is typically the best option, since savings account rates are typically well below 1%, while the return on investment for residential rooftop solar in Pennsylvania is about 11%, with a payback period of about 10 years.

Home Equity Loans

In the Philadelphia area, Washington Savings Bank and Ambler Savings Bank had the best home equity loan rates (about 3.5%) when one of our members checked a few weeks ago for 10 year home equity loan rates. Dollar bank, based out of Pittsburgh, offered home equity loans at 3.54%.

Unsecured Loans, not tied to Home Equity

Looking at bankrate.com’s page on Home Improvement Loans,  we learned that “Using personal loans for home repairs can be done without depleting your home equity.” Sample projects have solar installations alongside kitchen remodel, deck & fence projects.

We also learned about the PowerSaver Program, a Federal government supported program that will guarantee loans up to $25,000 from a list of 18 banks and/or credit unions. Currently, the lenders participating in this program include:

Admirals Bank – AFC First Financial Corporation – Bank of Colorado – City of Boise, Idaho – Energy Finance Solutions – Enterprise Cascadia; HomeStreet Bank – Neighbor’s Financial Corporation – Paramount Equity Mortgage – Quicken Loans – SOFCU Community Credit Union – Stonegate Mortgage Corporation – Sun West Mortgage Company – The Bank at Broadmoor – University of Virginia Community Credit Union – Viewtech Financial Services – WinTrust Mortgage – W. J. Bradley Mortgage Capital Corporation

According to the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) website:   “PowerSaver loans will only be available to homeowners who have the wherewithal and motivation to make energy improvements to their home. Borrowers must have credit scores of at least 660 and their total debt to income ratios cannot exceed 45 percent. The combined loan-to-value ratio for all loans on a home, including the PowerSaver loan, cannot exceed 100 percent.”

We have a local installer as well as a local customer who have worked with one of the above banks: Admirals Bank, whose Renewable Energy Lending program, especially the Solar Step Down program sounds quite interesting. 

Solar Loan Superior to a Car Loan

Local bankers have told us that they offer unsecured loans for cars but not for a solar installation. Why? They tell us that a car is collateral; i.e. they can roll it away if someone doesn’t pay the loan.

We say the car is devalued the day it rolls off the dealer’s lot, whereas photovoltaic systems systems don’t lose value. Oftentimes, rooftop solar increases a home’s resale value by about $15,000. Rooftop solar projects also don’t take a bite out of the household budget, like a car does with insurance, registration and fuel costs added onto the purchase cost. Instead, a solar installation helps to reduce a household’s energy bills in the long run.

 

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Solar at the edge of the woods

Hearing about the 2015 Solarize Northwest Philly pilot program, and like me, having dreamt for over 30 years of solar panels powering her home, this resident of Marion Lane in Mt Airy went to a discussion at Germantown Friends Meeting last January.

She was impressed with Mark Bortman of Exact Solar and easy explanation of the process of joining the clean energy revolution. The discussions after Mark’s presentation really helped to cinch her decision to invest in rooftop solar, and, as the story goes, she signed up on the last day of the program.

photo: Exact Solar

The system of 19 panels cost her $15,000, with the final cost about $10,000 after the federal tax credit. It is designed with a 4.94 kW capacity generating about 5100 kWh per year, which is pretty good for a flat roof with some shade. There are even 2 panels on the tiny front roof, at the far end of this photo.

Why did she spend such a large chunk of her retirement funds into something on her roof that she never really saw? She tells me in one word: Climate.

The system should pay for itself over time with the greatly reduced PECO bills. The solar installation covers 100% of her electric usage except in the winter.

 

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Solar in our Midst

Pole Mounted Solar for the backyard

A friend in Flourtown really wanted to go solar, except that she had a tiny roof and two beautiful gigantic spruce trees near her house which made it difficult.  However, she also lived at the end of a street and her backyard faced a field with trees in the distance. She decided to put up a 12 panel solar array mounted on a pole.  With the assistance of a solar installer, she worked through all the details including trenching the cable back to the house, and she now has a very large, and to some, beautiful, structure in her backyard. It is invisible to the street.

The system is rated for 3.5 kW (kilowatt), which means at peak sunlight she would get more power than she currently needs, even with the planned electric car and the high efficiency heat pump she hopes is in her future. Over  the course of the year she should see a net contribution to the utility grid with a check from PECO, our local power company,  to pay her for that extra power that has gone from her house to power other people’s houses.

On October 5th, 2016 she turned on her own personal electrical power plant. This is similar to solar on a rooftop, but feels more substantial when it sits in the back yard. The panels, US made by CertainTeed, are wired in series and lead into a giant inverter on the back of the pole with a meter showing power generation.  

On December 13th at 9:30 AM, when this picture was taken, it was generating 492 watts as the sun rose over the trees, increasing to 860 watts by 10 AM on a grey day.   Note that this was very near the winter solstice — in other words, hardly optimal “sun” time. 

There is an “eye” on the top of the panels that is watching the sun and it will tell the mechanism behind the panels to adjust the panels so they are at an optimal angle to the sun. This system does bidirectional tracking (east/west plus more/less tilted to the sky). This cost for this about $2200 more, but should increase output by 33%, estimated to generate about 4690 kWh the first year. 

In June, expect to see sunflowers planted along the walkway, that have known how to track the sun for eons. The solar panels reset to the southeast every night, ready for the sun to come up the next day.

This is a small system capacity by any standard, but felt enormous as we stood beside it, towering beside the decades tall spruce trees. In an effort to merge this large object with the landscape, the owner added landscaping around the panels to soften their visual impact, using only native plants, most of which will provide food to butterflies and bees, come warmer weather. Shocked by the size of the panels, the owner reached out to her neighbors to reassure them that the new plantings would mostly cover the backside of the panels, but most didn’t seem to be bothered by the visual, and instead complimented her.

The inverter, by Fronius, converts the direct current (DC) that is produced by the solar panels to alternating current (AC) that is needed for all the electrical loads inside the house.  The AC current is sent down a wire inside a conduit which goes underground then through the basement to a meter in the front of the house. 

This meter is paired with another meter that comes in from the power company. One meter calculates the energy being sent out to the power company and the other tracks the power coming into the house from the power company. There is also a very important shut off box that is needed to cut the power from the solar panels in case of a fire or other emergency.  She is working with the local fire house to figure out the best way to notify fire fighters about this box. It may be a sticker next to her “Save my pets” sign on her front door, already addressed to them.

We saw a cool tracking app made by Fronius, the company that made the inverter. This homeowner is now not only a tree-hugger but also an inverter hugger, saying she loves her Fronius! I can see why; the phone-based application shows the energy generated in the past few days, as well as the cumulative the CO2 reduction, the money saved, and equivalent trees planted. The EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator shows that generating 4690 kWh with solar panels is like reducing 3.3 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, or not driving 7899 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle, or switching 117 incandescent lamps to LEDs, or the carbon sequestered by 85 tree seedlings grown for 10 years. 

The cost of the system was just under $20,000.  She will get 30% of this back when she files her taxes because of the federal tax credit that is in place until 2019. She will also receive a small amount of money for the solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from the power company, a monthly savings on her electric bill since she won’t have to buy the electricity from PECO, plus an annual check for all the surplus energy that she generates.

She figures 8 to 9 years for this system to payback, but the real payback has already happened.  She loves her panels, loves her inverter and is very happy knowing she’s making her own clean power.

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