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Using solar to save money — and the environment

By BOB MOORE - | Dec 23, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED Bob Moore

If you’ve looked into solar in the past, you may be surprised to learn how quickly prices have dropped. The rooftop solar I recently installed on my home will pay for itself in under eight years and save me tens of thousands of dollars over the 30 years that it’s warrantied. That will represent more than a 300 percent return on my investment. Business owners Richard and Mead Johnson, of Bailey’s General Store on Sanibel, tell a similar story. In 2016, Bailey’s completed phase I of its solar installation producing about 15 percent of its electricity needs. In just four years, that investment has already paid for itself. Bailey’s just completed phase II of its installation, more than doubling the size of its solar production to 35 percent to 40 percent of the store’s electricity usage. “As a business owner, I consider anything with a seven-year ROI to be a good investment,” Richard Johnson said. “An investment like our solar panels that pay for themselves in four years is a no-brainer.”

Fortunately for local residents, Lee County Electric Cooperative was a pioneer among rural electric cooperatives in supporting the adoption of rooftop solar in 2009. By offering a robust solar net metering program, LCEC is helping both residential and business customers save money on electric bills. While Florida state law requires investor-owned utilities like FPL and Duke Energy to offer solar net metering to their customers (also good news for customers in those areas), electric co-ops and municipal utilities are not required to do so.

What is solar net metering? Typically an electric meter serving a home or business offers a one-way connection to the electric grid. Electricity is generated by a utility and travels along the grid to power your home or business. Net metering offers a two-way street. When you have solar panels on your roof, the electricity being generated is used to meet your electricity demands. If you need more than you are producing, the net meter allows you to draw extra energy from the grid. If you are producing more than you need, the net meter allows you to send excess energy into the grid to be used by customers in the surrounding area.

The LCEC net metering program gives you a one-for-one credit for excess energy you produce. That means excess energy you put into the grid during the day when the sun is shining provides a credit that can be used for power you draw from the grid at night. As a result, you save money on your electric bill, which is good news for you. It also can be good news for your neighbors. In Florida, peak demand tends to be during the heat of the day when air conditioners are running. If power providers have to buy extra power on the open market to meet customer demand, that electricity is more expensive. Solar customers can be part of the solution of evening off peak demand requirements, which helps keep electricity prices down. So it’s a win-win.

It is also a win for the environment. Here in South Florida, we are particularly at risk from the effects of climate change driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels. Stronger and more frequent storms, along with increasing sea level rise, for example, pose growing risks to residents, businesses, and the natural world we so cherish here in Florida. “At LCEC, we are happy to support customers who are looking to save money on their utility bill and do the right thing for the environment,” LCEC Chief Executive Officer Denise Vidal said.

In a fiscally conservative area like Southwest Florida, it would seem natural that solar would be front and center in local and regional energy planning. And solar energy has been growing rapidly in the Sunshine State. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fastest growing job in the United States is solar installer followed by wind turbine technician [1]. In Florida, solar production has more than quadrupled in the past five years and is projected to quadruple again in the next five years [2]. But there is still a long way to go. Less than 2.5 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar [3].

That presents a great opportunity for home owners and businesses. The cost of solar energy has plummeted in recent years. Residential rooftop systems installed today cost less than half of what they did 10 years ago. And the cost of utility scale solar has dropped over 70 percent in that time [4]. According to Bloomberg, “Today more than two-thirds of the global population lives in countries where solar and wind are the cheapest sources of new bulk generation” [5]. And a study just published by the International Energy Agency states, “With sharp cost reductions over the past decade, solar PV is consistently cheaper than new coal- or gas-fired power plants in most countries, and solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen” [6].

Federal tax incentives make the cost of installing solar even more attractive. Those incentives are set to expire at the end of 2021. If you are considering solar for your home or business, now is an auspicious time to act. In 2021, the federal tax incentive will be 22 percent. That means you can deduct 22 percent of the cost of a rooftop solar system off your 2021 federal tax bill. If you need to replace your roof, you can also deduct 22 percent of the cost of the portion of the roof covered by solar panels. When making a decision, speak with an accountant to understand your situation, but the savings can be significant. Once your solar system is installed, the electricity you generate from the sun is free.

In contrast, the cost of fossil fuel electricity will likely only increase in the coming years. And the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels make them even more expensive. Stronger storms, sea level rise, insurances increases and other effects of climate change are already costing taxpayers billions of dollars [7].

All of the LCEC customers that I interviewed for this guest commentary had nothing but positive things to say about their decision to go solar. Take Dr. John and Kathy McCabe, for example. Sanibel residents, they first installed solar panels and solar hot water on their home in 2008. In 2013, they installed even more panels on their home and are now covering 100 percent of their electricity needs. They are even powering two electric cars from their solar panels. “Having no electric bill and no gas bill for the cars really made the payback on the system go faster. We have already more than paid back our investment,” John McCabe said.

McCabe has also been paying back to the community. As a member of the board of directors for the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge, McCabe spearheaded a solar co-op back in 2015. That solar co-op resulted in solar panels on the facilities of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where they are serving to not only save money but also educate the public on the environmental benefits of solar. The refuge has a display panel in the Visitor & Education Center that shows the solar/electric generation and real time energy savings.

The co-op also resulted in solar installations on 20 homes and businesses that took advantage of the savings; one of those businesses was Bailey’s General Store. Richard and Mead Johnson are so positive about the savings from their solar projects that they are planning even more expansion.

A notable project in the planning stages is a reconfiguration of the parking lot at the store to allow for installation of shade structures that can also provide surface area for solar panels. “I see people drive around the lot today looking for a shady place to park their car. If I can provide that shade and generate more solar power from the structures, I think customers will really like that,” he said. While the project is still a ways off, it will further increase solar generation and cost savings for the business.

In addition to the cost savings, the Johnsons see their solar power as an important contribution to the community and one that their customers can get excited about. “One of the problems of my current solar panels is that they sit up on the roof where no one can see them. When people hear about what we are doing to reduce our carbon footprint, they truly appreciate the environmental stewardship,” he said. In fact, the Johnsons are working on a project now with their solar installer to place a large monitor in the store that shows in real time the environmental benefits of their solar power — presenting, for example, the reduction of carbon emissions from the system as an equivalent to the number of cars kept off the roads or the number of trees that would need to be planted to sequester that much carbon. “I think it’s just really cool that we can harness the power of that gigantic ball of gas Mother Nature is providing for us. We’re just taking advantage of what she has to offer,” Johnson said.

One of the major advocates for rooftop solar in the state is Solar United Neighbors (SUN). SUN advocates for solar-friendly policies in the state. In fact, SUN was recently part of a statewide campaign to save net metering in Florida. Net metering, like the program LCEC offers, is the lynch pin for making rooftop solar operate at a cost savings for homes and businesses. A consortium backed by utilities attempted to convince the Florida Public Service Commission to scrap its net metering rule. Utilities said customers are paying for infrastructure costs that solar users would have paid for, which they claim hurts low-income customers who shoulder these costs but can’t afford solar power [8]. However, a comprehensive review of studies by the Brookings Institute disputes these claims. In fact, according to the report, the accumulating national literature on costs and benefits of net metering show that “the economic benefits of net metering actually outweigh the costs and impose no significant cost increase for non-solar customers. Far from a net cost, net metering is in most cases a net benefit — for the utility and for non-solar rate-payers” [9].

As a show of how much support solar has in Florida, the Florida Public Service Commission received over 16,000 comments in support of preserving net metering — the most comments it has ever received on any one issue — and thankfully net metering was preserved.

SUN also helps homes and businesses get lower prices on solar installations by coordinating solar co-ops across the state. A solar co-op applies group purchasing power to bring costs down. This spring, they organized a co-op for Lee and Collier counties.

One person who participated in the coop was Jim Columbo, another LCEC customer. Columbo has had a long-time interest in renewable energy and energy conservation, but until recently he felt the cost of solar was just too expensive. By participating in the SUN co-op, Columbo saved over 20 percent off the average cost of solar installations in Florida [10]. With the federal tax incentive, which was 26 percent in 2020, Columbo decided now was the time to act. Based on his electricity bills, he expects a complete payback within eight years. “I would definitely recommend to others that they go solar,” he said. “Unlike other home improvement projects where you don’t see a return on your money until after you sell your house, with solar you start making your money back right away.”

The fact that rooftop solar provides costs savings and helps to address the growing effects of climate change makes it perfectly suited to the Sunshine State. And the LCEC net metering program helps make those savings possible. For businesses struggling in the current economy, reducing expenses can help to stabilize operations. And for homeowners, I can tell you that running your home on solar and receiving a $0 monthly electricity bill is an amazing feeling. There is a $20 per month connection fee for the LCEC net metering program, but that compares to an average $250-$300 per month we paid before our panels were installed. Solar provides proof that doing well financially and doing good for the environment can be one in the same undertaking.

Bob Moore is a Sanibel resident who co-founded the Lee County Chapter of the Climate Reality Project with his wife, Ariel Hoover. He also volunteers his time with other local nonprofits, including the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Committee of the Islands.

FOOTNOTES

1 https://www.seia.org/blog/solar-installer-fastest-growing-job-america

2 https://www.seia.org/state-solar-policy/florida-solar

3 https://www.seia.org/state-solar-policy/florida-solar

4 https://www.nrdc.org/revolution-now

5 Bloomberg New Energy Finance New Energy Outlook 2019, https://www.gihub.org/resources/publications/bnef-new-energy-outlook-2019/

6 https://webstore.iea.org/download/summary/4153?fileName=1.English-Summary-WEO2020.pdf

7 https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/2018s-billion-dollar-disasters-context

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/weather/hurricane/article243766772.html#:~:text=Major%20insurance%20companies%20are%20raising,decade%2Dlong%20lull%20in%20prices.&text=This%20year%2C%20reinsurance%20prices%20rose,insurance%20news%20site%20Artemis%20reported.

https://sealevelrise.org/states/florida/#:~:text=In%20the%20last%20decade%2C%20the,risen%20by%20another%206%20inches

Nichols, et al., OECD Environment Working Paper No. 1 (ENV/WKP(2007)1) (https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/ranking-port-cities-with-high-exposure-and-vulnerability-to-climate-extremes_011766488208)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP): Global-mean monthly, seasonal, and annual means.” https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts.txt

https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/pubs/extreme-heat-guidebook.pdf

8 https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/409691-the-problem-with-metering-solar-energy-customers

9 https://www.brookings.edu/research/rooftop-solar-net-metering-is-a-net-benefit/

10 https://www.energysage.com/local-data/solar-panel-cost/fl/#:~:text=Given%20a%20solar%20panel%20system,Florida%20coming%20in%20at%20%2413%2C250