As prices drop, demand for solar picks up
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Charles Gerena has long been a fan of the “green” movement and renewable energy. A web designer who works downtown, Gerena was so impressed when he started driving an electric-powered Nissan Leaf that in 2014 he founded Drive Electric RVA, a chapter of the Electric Auto Association, to promote all-electric cars. But he knew he could cut more than gasoline from his energy diet.
The next step? Solar.
Last spring, Gerena and his wife, Dorothy, decided to install solar panels on the roof of their colonial-style home in Settlers Landing off of Robious Road. Sigora Solar handled the $19,000 job. After installation in September, the Gerenas’ October electric bill dropped from its usual $100 to less than $50. Slashed bills are a welcome effect of the shift to solar, but, Charles Gerena says, “The main thing is to generate more of our power in a sustainable way.”
The Gerenas are among a relatively few Chesterfield homeowners who have gone solar. Other states such as California and North Carolina are far ahead of Virginia in solar power, but that might be starting to change as cheaper equipment makes solar more financially attractive. “It’s a growing industry,” says Jon Proffitt, director of business development and commercial sales for Sigora, a solar company that is headquartered in Waynesboro and has an office in Richmond. In two years, his firm has grown from just a handful of workers to 40 employees.
The cost of installing solar systems has dropped dramatically in the last few years. A system that used to cost $30,000 now can be purchased for $15,000. As technology advances, panels, metering systems and batteries have gotten better and cheaper, industry executives say, driving up demand for solar systems.
“It’s been growing for every year, especially last year,” says Sean Ingles of Integrated Power Sources of Virginia.
Still, the industry faces hurdles. “The biggest issue is homeowners’ education, what [solar is] and what it won’t be,” says Trent Taliaferro of Teakwood, a solar contractor that operates out of Fredericksburg and Tappahannock.
Solar panels on single-family homes are usually placed on a roof facing south, ideally unencumbered by trees. The Gerenas’ panels – smooth, brownish rectangles – are on the frontal slope of the roof of their yellow house.
When it’s sunny, these panels produce electricity that displaces the power the Gerenas buy from Dominion Virginia Power. When the panels are especially productive, a “net meter” can pass the electrons back onto a grid, which Dominion uses to pass this energy on to other customers. The Gerenas receive monetary credits for being a small supplier.
Until at least 2020, homeowners who buy panels can get a 30 percent federal tax rebate. Bill and Buni Eagar, who live in a custom-designed steel house on an eight-acre site off of Riverway Road in southern Chesterfield, say they’ll get a $3,800 tax credit on the $12,000 solar panel project they installed in November.
Still, in Virginia, many are reluctant to embrace solar. One problem is that homeowners associations sometimes prohibit panels for aesthetic reasons, although the law tends to favor solar enthusiasts. Often, such restrictive neighborhood covenants were written years before solar power became an affordable reality.
People in the solar power industry say Virginia is lagging other states on solar because Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, wants solar to evolve on its terms.
Unlike states such as Maryland and North Carolina, Virginia doesn’t mandate that electric utilities generate a percentage of their power from renewable energy sources. Most of Dominion’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels and nuclear energy, but the company says it’s aggressively growing its renewable energy portfolio, which includes solar, wind, biomass fuels and water.
Solar industry officials, however, say Dominion enjoys a legal monopoly on electricity sales and balks at buying power from independent sources.
Not so, says Daisy Pridgen, a media relations specialist at Dominion Virginia Power, adding that Dominion is committed to developing 400 megawatts of solar generation by 2020, enough capacity to power 95,000 homes.
“Dominion is fully committed to the development of renewable energy in Virginia and has numerous programs available for customers who want to install solar generation at their homes or businesses,” she says in an email.
Among such projects is the Solar Purchase Program, a five-year pilot program that Dominion started in June 2013. Pridgen says the program allows customers to sell excess electricity and solar “Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)” back to Dominion at a rate of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour. Some 137 customers are participating.
Another 2,100 customers are part of a net metering program in which they use the electricity they produce themselves and any excess is put on the energy grid to offset future usage by the customer, Pridgen says.
For Bill and Buni Eagar, going solar just made sense. Five years ago, the Eagars built an unusual house with energy efficiency in mind. The floors are tiled. The family room features a large brick wall that stores heat during the day in the south-facing house, which is made of corrugated galvanized steel. (During the planning process, Buni, a former realtor, says she read 22 books about all-steel houses that have extra-thick insulation and windows.)
“No one wanted to build it,” she says. Finally, they found a contractor, Ronnie Hancock of Amelia County, to do the job.
Adding solar power seemed a no-brainer. They contacted Integrated Power Sources of Virginia, which got to work on permits. Installation took two days in November.
The effects were dramatic. They used to pay about $50 a month for electricity. The first bill following installation was $28.67.
As with all owners of solar-powered homes, the Eagars can get credits from Dominion or other utilities for the electricity they put back in the system. Bill Eagar even has a cellphone app that tracks how much electricity his home is producing and what he may be credited for.
“At the end of the year, you get some money back,” he says. ¦