Power to the people - Solar energy is finally feasible for homes
Tannenbaum for SF Chronicle 2001.10.27
many Bay Area residents, Richmond homeowners Brian "Buddy"
Williams and Joanne Tippett drew closer to home as a result of this
year's news barrage. First there was California's energy crisis,
followed by the country's nonparticipation in the Kyoto treaty on
global warming. Next came the events of Sept. 11, which reminded
the couple of the complexities of the Middle East and the region's
grip on oil production and our dependence on fossil fuels.
In response, Williams and Tippett decided to become more self-reliant,
to literally take power into their own hands. This past summer and
fall, they installed a range of solar technology-based systems including
photovoltaic (PV) power cells that transform sunshine into electricity,
a solar-heated water tank, an energy efficient refrigerator and
a solar tube skylight. They expect these systems will reduce their
energy consumption, wean them off PG&E's power grid, benefit
the environment and, best of all, not cost an arm and a leg.
"I knew I wanted to invest in renewable solar energy and
PV cells as soon as I could afford it," says Williams, a senior
design associate with Sausalito-
based Van Der Ryn Architects. "I also knew that California
has a very aggressive rebate system set up by the state Legislature
through the California Energy Commission. Roughly speaking, the
CEC will rebate close to 50 percent of the cost of your investment.
But even that can
be costly. However, once I figured out that with interest rates
dropping, I could refinance my mortgage, lower my monthly payments,
take cash out of
the equity of the house to buy the 1.5 kilowatt solar system for
$11,500, deduct the interest on my taxes, and still apply for the
rebate and federal tax
credit, well, it was a no-brainer to grasp that this was the right
thing to do. "
The Texas-born Williams, who moved to the Bay Area nine years
ago and earned a master's degree in architecture from the University
of California at
Berkeley, bought the modest-sized Richmond house with his wife in
1999. (Tippett is currently earning a doctorate in ecological planning
watershed management from Manchester University in the United Kingdom.)
From the street, it is not obvious which rooftop contains the
solar panels. That is because Williams has installed the PV cells
on the western slope of his
house, facing the backyard, the bay and San Francisco's city skyline
in the distance.
The couple have elected to stay connected to PG&E's power
grid, even though with conservation and solar power, they generate
enough electricity to
be self- sufficient.
In essence, they are using PG&E as their battery backup and
storage facility, generating an excess amount of power in the summer,
which they pass on
to the utility company, and then draw back from PG&E in the
wintertime at minimal cost when their system does not produce as
"My PG&E bill last month was $1.95," Williams laughs.
"And that was because one day I needed to use the dryer instead
of the clothesline when I was
in a hurry."
The centerpiece of Williams' system are his photovoltaic cells,
an array of 27 individual light-capturing panels set up on metal
racks and mounted to the
rooftop at a slightly raised angle. Altogether, these panels can
generate 1.5 kilowatts (or 1,500 watts) of electricity per hour,
given a conservative
estimate of five hours of maximum sunshine per day. The panels trap
solar power, creating direct current (DC) electricity.
Nonobtrusive electrical wiring takes the DC current into an inverter
- a small gadget and microprocessor the size of a bread box on the
side of the
house - and converts it to alternating current (AC), the type of
electricity used by a majority of household appliances and electrical
systems. The AC
power then either flows into Williams' house or, if not needed,
into PG&E's transmission lines.
An additional component, a digital "time-of-use" meter,
tracks the exact time when the system provides excess power to the
public utility. This enables
Williams to sell his electricity generated during peak usage hours
(between noon and 6 p.m.) at the same high rate that customers buy
it from PG&E.
"I cannot tell you how great it feels to read my meter and
see those numbers spinning backward," says Williams. "That
means I'm earning a credit from
PG&E - the utility, for a change, owes me."
STREAMLINING THE SYSTEM
Williams and Tippett represent a growing number of California
homeowners who are investing in PV cells and solar technology. While
the news has
been a motivator, improved technical options and state-decreed financial
incentives and regulations have also motivated more homeowners to
solar than anytime since the country's first energy crisis hit during
Last May, Gov. Gray Davis significantly increased funding for
the California Energy Commission's existing rebate program. This
incentive program is
designed to stimulate the adoption of solar technology by providing
rebates to homeowners of up to $4.50 per solar-generated watt.
One caveat: You must purchase equipment from manufacturers that
have been analyzed and approved by the CEC, which awards these rebates
basis of effectiveness. At the same time, the state Legislature,
having already created what is called the "E-NET" or "net
metering" program, clarified
several rules regulating PG&E's participation in this program.
It now requires PG&E to accept and compensate homeowners for
providing their excess electricity to the public power grid. The
ebb and flow of
electricity is reconciled over the course of a year, thereby enabling
homeowners to bank up their extra electricity during peak summer
months and then
draw it down during wintertime.
The numbers reveal the program's success. According to David Ore,
E-NET program manager for PG&E, only eight people had applied
program in January, 2001. That number grew to 66 in March, 107 in
June, and 117 halfway through September. All told, Ore says his
office is in the
process of handling 675 applications. The statewide CEC rebate program
(which draws upon a much greater population) has processed at least
AESTHETICS AND FUNCTIONALITY
"In the first wave of public interest in solar energy during
the '70s, many homeowners did not respond to the high-tech metallic
look of solar panels. It
didn't look homey," says Williams. Made of harvested silicon
material, PV solar panels were developed by Bell Laboratories and
came to prominence
when they powered one of the first U.S. satellites, the Vanguard
I, launched in 1958.
"Today," Williams adds, "we have more options as
designers create Ôbuilding integrated photovoltaic cells.'
When they are made of polycrystalline
material, the panel can bend and shape itself to the building's
structure. When they're made of polycrystalline, that can be set
into a glass glaze, appearing as a
purple-colored roof shingle. However, the most basic type, single-cell
crystalline panels, account for a majority of sales." According
to Williams, the easiest way for any homeowner to sort through all
their options is to hire the type of firm the industry has dubbed
"design/install" shops. To install his system, Williams
used a San Rafael firm, Sun Power and Geothermal. Equal parts consultant,
electrician and contractor, a design/install firm will evaluate
a household's energy needs, survey the location and present a range
of options before designing a system and purchasing and installing
In addition, these companies will obtain the necessary city or
county permits, present the plan to a homeowner's association if
necessary, and organize
all needed inspections by city officials and PG&E, who are required
to sign-off on any inter-tied energy installation. Last but not
least, they'll submit all the required paperwork needed to obtain
the CEC rebate.
"These firms provide an incredible value," says Williams.
"They have a level of expertise in dealing with all the regulations,
bureaucracies. They know the ins and outs of this so well that two
weeks after they submitted my paperwork for the rebate, I got a
check in the mail
for $6, 500. For that, I only had to make a phone call, get a few
references, and then sit down and meet with them."
Williams takes a moment to survey the range of equipment collecting
sunlight on the roof of his house. "I gave them a deposit and
signed the contract.
And my work was done."
ASSESSING THE COST OF A SOLAR SYSTEM
To price a photovoltaic system for your home, the first decision
to tackle is the amount of utility-provided electricity you'd like
to replace with solar
energy. Some homeowners want complete independence. They will need
to build a system large enough to provide 100 percent of their energy
invest in battery backups to store their own energy during nighttime
or cloudy winter months.
Other homeowners prefer to stay connected to PG&E, participating
in their inter-tied, net-metering program. This, in effect, uses
the utility company as
a battery backup, requiring PG&E to buy, or rather credit, their
excess solar power generated during spring and summer months, and
in return provide
them with an equal portion of free electricity during night hours
and winter months.
If the photovoltaic system generates only 50 percent or 75 percent
of their household energy needs, they will still get a PG&E
bill, albeit a significantly
lower one. "If you've got 12 months of your PG&E bill,
you can look at your pattern of usage," says Gary Gerber, president
of the Berkeley firm, Sun Light &
Power Co. "The manufacturers are well-enough established, and
have been so thoroughly tested and rated by the California Energy
Commission, that we know
exactly what a system will do. We can predict how it will perform
and estimate precisely how much energy it'll produce."
In addition, Gerber notes that regardless of style or manufacturer,
solar panels are priced competitively against each other. "The
price is pretty much
proportional to wattage," says Gerber. "If you buy 100
watts of a solar module, it doesn't matter whether you buy a single-crystalline,
polycrystalline or amorphous panel - they will differ significantly
in size and bulk, but not in cost."
Assume an average family of four with a 2,000-square-foot house
decides to purchase a 2.4-kilowatt-per-hour solar system. They will
to PG&E's power grid as a backup power source.
According to Dan Thompson, president of Sun Power and Geothermal
in San Rafael, the approximate retail price for the solar panels,
roof mounts and additional electrical components could run to $22,900
with an additional sales tax of $1,600. Installation for a 2.4 kilowatt
system could range from $1.5 to $1.75 per watt, for a range of $4,500
PG&E charges $277 to provide and install a digital time-of-use
meter that tracks power generation during peak usage hours. Many
cities and counties have permit requirements, adding a charge of
$125 to the total. Rounding up, the initial costs of a 2.4 -kilowatt
PV system could run as high as $29,702. But now for the good news
- factoring in rebates, tax credits and energy savings:
-- Savings No. 1. The California Energy Program offers homeowners
a rebate of $4.50 per watt maximum (depending on the efficiency
rating of the
system you purchase). For a 2.4 kilowatt/per hour system (2,400
watts multiplied by 4. 5), that could equal a rebate check of $10,800.
-- Savings No. 2. David Ore, program manager of PG&E's E-NET
metering program, says that this hypothetical family would have
a yearly PG&E bill
of $1,725. With a 2.4 PV system and time-of-use meter, that energy
bill would drop to $760 - a savings of nearly $1,000 a year.
-- Savings No. 3. Gov. Gray Davis recently signed into law SBX2-17,
written by State Senator Jim Brulte, which provides a 15 percent
tax credit after
rebate for homeowners who purchase and install solar energy systems.
While it goes into effect in January 2002, it will retroactively
cover any solar
technology investments made by California consumers after Jan. 1,
-- Savings No. 4. Should that household shelter an in-home office
or business, the homeowner could be eligible for a Federal Energy
tax form 3468 of 10 percent after rebate for the cost of investing
and installing solar power.
-- Savings No. 5. If homeowners finance this purchase by refinancing
their home mortgage, the interest incurred is also tax deductible.
"One last thought for anyone tallying up the costs,"
says Gerber. "Solar energy technology is not like buying an
appliance. It's going to add to the value
of your home. And, while the systems are warranted for 20 years,
all the analysis shows they are more likely to last for 30 to 40
years. After all, they
have no moving parts. So realize that the $10,000 to $20,000 you
invest will increase your equity by $20,000 to $40,000. Because
the bottom line is
that California's energy crisis is not going to go away. Rates in
the future are going to go in one direction - up."