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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Power Shift - Going Solar

Air Date: Week of
Race Traver fits panels on the rear side of the roof.

The sun powers the planet, yet few of us actually use sun power to heat, cool and light our houses. Living on Earth's Helen Palmer has just taken advantage of some solar power incentives in Massachusetts to put solar panels on her Cambridge home, and she's so excited, she won't stop talking about her new power source.


GELLERMAN: Let there be light... and there is: Our sun powers the planet – providing the heat to warm the world and the energy to grow everything we eat. But turning solar energy into electricity that we can use to power our cars, houses and factories - well, that’s another matter.

So while solar promises a cheap, inexhaustible supply of wattage - in practice, plugging into photovoltaics is expensive - especially for the homeowner. Nevertheless there are those who are solar power- current converts…and one of the latest is Living on Earth’s own managing producer - Helen Palmer.

Solar engineers up on the roof.

PALMER: Solar power seems like a great idea - for Arizona - or California - or Florida, the sunshine state. For Massachusetts - hardly. But my neighbor pushed me into it.



PALMER: Hi Eric!

GRUNEBAUM: Hey. I've been meaning to talk to you about looking into solar panels for the house.

PALMER: Solar panels? It’s too expensive, isn’t it?

GRUNEBAUM: Well, I mean, I keep reading stories about the prices coming down – and maybe we should just take a look at it at least.

Eric Grunebaum, his wife and 2 kids live downstairs. A few days later, when I came home…


GRUNEBAUM: Hey, I got some more information on solar panels… I got one price already, it’s pretty good…. There’s actually income now.

PALMER: Income - they pay you for having solar power?

GRUNEBAUM: Ah… pretty much, yeah!

PALMER: Federal and local incentives have helped give solar a gigantic boost in the last two of years - in 2011 the U.S. added 1.7 gigawatts of solar - enough to power about one and a half million homes. California leads the sun-powered pack - but Massachusetts ties Hawaii for second place, in terms of incentives and strength of the market. Richard Sullivan is Massachusetts' Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Half the panels up on the back of the house.

SULLIVAN: Right now there are great incentives. There's, certainly at the federal level, there's tax credits, there are here locally in Massachusetts and cost of manufacturing solar, the cost of installing solar, has also dramatically come down.

PALMER: Meantime my neighbor Eric was researching what those incentives and new efficiencies added up to in hard cash - he came upstairs… -


PALMER: Come in! Hi Eric!


PALMER: He had an armful of folders - -

GRUNEBAUM: So, I got a price from so far from one company called Sun Bug – the total price is $13,000 - but then there are these credits you get from the state and from the federal government - state credits are adding up to $3300 roughly. And federal is about $3000. Oh look, there's another state tax credit of $1000! So the cost after all the rebates is $6000. So it's actually cutting more than half off the price…

PALMER: There are dozens of tax benefits, grant programs and incentives to go energy green - 38 states have property tax breaks - 28 states have sales tax incentives - the list goes on! But this was the first time I learned about one of the biggest boondoggles of all - the cash you actually get paid.

GRUNEBAUM: Every year, for every 1000 kW you produce, you get what's called a solar renewable energy credit - which everyone calls an SREC - because it's too long to say that other thing - and it's because utilities required to buy solar power.

PALMER: Yeah there's a requirement that the state generate so much from renewables - right?

GRUNEBAUM: Yes, it's called Renewable Portfolio Standard.

PALMER: Thirty states have mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards - in most cases the green energy requirement goes up every year - Massachusetts demands 15% by 2020. And SREC prices vary from state to state - Pennsylvania paid less than $22 in June this year - while the Massachusetts price was $545. And the tax credits may go down.The federal credit's good through 2016 - but state Energy Secretary Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts' credits will sunset.

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, Rick Sullivan.

SULLIVAN: These rebates and incentives, if you will, are really designed, you know, to certainly encourage the growth of the industry. But then, over a period of time, those incentives and rebates will decline and eventually go away; and we are seeing that happen. We have seen the rebate that’s offered decrease, I believe it's 4 times - again the goal is to get it to be zero and have private industry be competitive, the solar industry be competitive, with the other sources of energy.

PALMER: To date - they've done their job - prices have dropped over 40% in the last four years and in Massachusetts, at least 200 solar companies are trying to persuade businesses and homeowners to slap solar panels on the roof. And my neighbor Eric was on a roll with his research.


PALMER: I was washing the dishes when he came by - with more solar bids.

GRUNEBAUM: So I've got Sunrun, I've got Sungevity, they all have good names - SolarCity - and then I got the one I mentioned, called Independent Power Systems - that that clean-tech venture capital recommended. I mean, of course, the system is a little more expensive, but it’s covering over 100% of our electricity.

PALMER: Still, with some $7000 in incentives and rebates per household, and companies eager for your business, there are creative low-cost ways of financing roof-top solar - you can even lease it.

GRUNEBAUM: You can put zero down and have a monthly payment, just like you're leasing anything. Or you can do what they call a ‘prepaid lease’ - where you basically pay all of your lease up-front. We could buy the system outright - I think it's about $11,000 to buy it outright, and it's about $8000 - this is for each of us - to do the prepaid lease.

PALMER: Eric had spreadsheets - he had cost and efficiency comparisons, he had run all the numbers by renewable energy experts - and my uncertainty was no match for his drive and decisiveness. He knew what he thought was best for us. Soon we were getting the low-down on that system.

ROBERTSON: My name's Alan Robertson - I work for Independent Power Systems as a design engineer and project manager.

PALMER: Alan had reams of paper too - he'd created a computer image of what solar would actually look like - two identical arrays, 10 panels each, either side of the dormer on our roof.


PALMER: Eric came up - over tea, Alan ran through some of the details - the kind of details that make the eyes glaze over.

ROBERTSON: We've got 6", we call them lug screws, the mounting screws, those go right into your rafter….

PALMER: For me, it was a steep learning curve - not just the details of direct versus alternating current - but questions of panel efficiency…

ROBERTSON: They hover around 18 – 19 percent efficient.

PALMER: What exactly does that mean - 18 -19 percent efficient?

ROBERTSON: That is talking about the total potential the sun offers opposed to what the panel actually converts into DC power.

PALMER: After Alan left, Eric and I looked at each other - he'd convinced us both - Free power! After we'd paid over our $8000 each, of course - but with the renewable credits we'll earn, the system will be paid off within four years. And there was a $350 rebate each from the company if we signed by the end of the month!

In the event, the actual signing was - well - kind of uneventful - the contract came by email, and we e-signed. Soon a whole team set up shop on the gravel driveway where we park the cars.


PALMER: They unloaded yards of black aluminum rail - that holds the panels in place. They measured, they cut…


PALMER: They set up anchors on the roof, they checked the plans…

SOLAR INSTALLERS: Hey those 2, those top 2 rows on the left side - are those all set? Yeah. So I can put rail there?


SOLAR INSTALLERS: What about the top rail on the right side? Doing that one right now…

PALMER: They drilled holes in the rail to attach the panels…


PALMER: And within a week, gleaming black panels stretched from gutter to roof peak on both sides of the dormer. But still no power. I went outside - and there was James the crew leader …

PALMER: Hey there!

BOUTIN: Hello - how are you?

PALMER: How's it going?

The finished solar array at the front.

BOUTIN: It's going good - we're just waiting for the inspector - he said he'd be here this morning but we're still waiting for him to show up.

PALMER: Getting all the approvals took longer than getting the panels on the roof. But, at last, it was done. And Alan Robertson was back for turn-on day.

ROBERTSON: Pop these guys on…


ROBERTSON: Then we'll go in the basement.


PALMER: Down in the basement - time to turn on the inverter - that converts direct current from the solar panels into the alternating current we use - and the monitor to track how much power the system was generating.

ROBERTSON: I'll take your panel here - this is your inverter and I’ll pop it on for you… Testing …

PALMER: Back upstairs, Alan showed us how to track our energy production by computer with the on line dashboard.

ROBERTSON: What this is showing you is instantaneous power, that’s in kilowatts. Once that little number underneath that speedometer says 1,000, then you’ll know an SREC is close by. So, it's on its waY!

PALMER: We haven't got the cash for the SREC - the renewable energy credit - yet - but in the three months since we switched on the panels, the electricity bills have been zero - and I have a $94 credit. The panels have generated 1,377 kilowatt hours of electricity - and they've offset 408 pounds of coal.

Helen Palmer’s computer dashboard, showing real time generation and savings.

And I have become the world's most boring person - obsessively checking my real-time solar monitoring - and droning on and on about it. For Living On Earth, I'm Helen Palmer.

PALMER: Hey Bruce - did I show you my solar dashboard today…?

GELLERMAN: Yeah! Only about TEN TIMES!



Follow Secretary Sullivan on Twitter

Visit the Energy Smarts blog

Massachusetts Dept of Energy and Environmental Affairs

Independent Power Systems

Computer plan of two solar systems on our house, separated by the dormer.

The "very efficient" panels installed on our roof.

A typical sized solar proposal.

Eric's comparison chart.


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