Features and Occasionals

Solar Becomes More Affordable and Efficient

By Shane Farver

When Doug Hasbrouck looks across his horse property in Riverton to his barn, he sees more than a place to keep hay and horses. He sees a powerhouse. The south side of his barn is bathed in sun, so in 2008 Hasbrouck outfitted the south roof with 18 200-watt solar panels and took energy production into his own hands. “I basically don’t have a power bill anymore, which is nice,” he says.

The initial bill, though, was a doozy. After installation, design and equipment, he spent $30,000 on the project. Even after a $12,000 federal tax credit and a $2,000 state tax credit, he estimates a return of investment will take 12 to 15 years. The equipment should last for about 15 years after that, he says.

However, those interested in solar power might not have to choke down a bill of that size anymore. Since Hasbrouck installed his panels five years ago, the price of photovoltaic (PV) panels has been plummeting—from a median value of $8 per watt for systems 10-100 kilowatts in 2008, to $5.6 per watt in 2011, according to a Depart­ment of Energy report.

The report attributes the fall mostly to reduction in PV module prices, but indicates that costs in labor, marketing and inverters, which are used to convert DC power to AC, have also dropped.

The amount of solar-produced energy in Utah has been on the uptick. At the end of 2012, solar energy production could supply power to about 1,900 homes, says Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy. Solar energy production in Utah has jumped from nearly zero kilowatts in 2005, the year that the federal government enacted a solar tax credit, to almost 4,000 kilowatts of residential solar PV capacity in 2012. Utah commercial solar PV capacity was at nearly 10,000 kilowatts in 2012.

The Utah Center for Climate and Weather estimates 125 clear days and 101 partly cloudy days in the year for the state. Because of that, Wright says solar makes sense.

“Utah is one of the sunniest states in the nation,” she says. “We have an excellent solar resource.”

Hasbrouck said he often generates more energy that he uses, which is then supplied to the grid and results in credits. He uses those credits to get him through the winter months, when he is using more power than he generates.

The process of going solar requires some navigation. Wright suggests that potential solar users keep track of at least a year’s worth of electricity bills to determine their energy use. Hasbrouck kept track of two years’ worth.

After determining power needs, the next thing on the list is to shop around for contractors, searching for the most reliable contractor at the best price. Those who want to stay on the grid or just keep AC appliances will need an inverter to convert DC power to AC power in addition to panels.

Hasbrouck saved by supplying some of the labor himself, but he decided to hire a professional when it came to the electrical work. He had to meet a few unforeseen demands. For instance, since he was merely putting something on a roof, he didn’t think he would need building permits from his city.

He did.

Those seeking solar don’t necessarily have to go it alone. Last year, Salt Lake County residents banded together to buy solar as a community. Residents took an online survey to become part of an effort that Sara Baldwin, senior policy associate for Utah Clean Energy, likened to a Groupon model for solar. In the end, 64 different homes were set up with solar power as part of the Solar Salt Lake Project. “We were more than thrilled with the result,” Baldwin, who coordinated the effort, said. A similar effort is underway in Summit County.

Since going solar, Hasbrouck stands by his decision. There was that one time that his inverter went out, but he’s had no problems aside from that. He originally switched to solar to lessen the impacts of greenhouse gasses, but he now praises the system’s efficiency.

“That’s my experience actually doing it, not just reading about it.”

Is solar right for your house?

Want a new start with solar? Thinking about solar panels? Calculate your home’s solar potential at slcgovsolar.com. The website is part of the Solar Salt Lake Project. The process is calculated by taking a 3D map of the city and projecting solar capabilities by accumulating the impacts of shaded areas by trees.

Solar Salt Lake Project is a partnership among Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah Clean Energy and more all with the goal to facilitate at least 10 megawatts of solar installations by 2015.

See website for details. http://slcgovsolar.com
For solar incentives: http://utahcleanenergy.org

This article was originally published on June 28, 2013.