With utilities bills soaring, some Seattleites turning to solar power
Stephanie Brown is addicted to reading how many kilowatts her house's solar-powered system has produced. She records output and the weather...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Stephanie Brown is addicted to reading how many kilowatts her house's solar-powered system has produced. She records output and the weather daily.
Even when the sky is gray and cloudy, Brown's solar system often will generate a kilowatt or two, reducing her electricity bill through winter. In summer, she pays only about $15 per month.
Until 2003, Brown didn't think she could afford to install the necessary equipment to generate solar power on her West Seattle home. But she refinanced her house and used equity to install the more-affordable hot-water system (about $6,000) and the pricier solar electric system ($28,000), known as photovoltaic.
With current tax breaks and incentives, it generally takes 20 to 25 years to recoup the solar investment, said Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, an extension program of Washington State University.
But new incentives from the state that should be available to residents this year will significantly cut the time it takes to make the money back on a solar electric system.
"I decided it was worthwhile for me to be a pioneer," Brown said.
How solar makes sense here
Seattle's gray winters may seem counterintuitive to investing in solar power, but solar experts point to Germany, the world's leader in solar installations, which receives about 70 percent of the sun Seattle sees.
Since solar power is based on light, not heat, solar systems are still making electricity or heating water in winter. Utilities in Washington state also allow you to bank your summer production and use it in the winter.
The average Seattle home with a solar electrical system receives about 25 to 50 percent of its electricity from the sun, said Nelson. Use electricity conservatively, and it can go even higher.
Solar energy includes active solar, which converts light into energy using equipment or materials, and passive solar, which uses light and heat without additional equipment.
The two most common types of active solar systems for the region include:
• Solar thermal systems: This hot-water system uses solar power to heat water that — in a heat exchange — heats your hot water. The system, which requires a second tank, can be used with electric or gas hot-water systems, and even with on-demand water systems that don't include a tank.
• Photovoltaic systems, or solar electric: This system uses photovoltaic (solar) panels to collect electricity from the sun and transfers it through an inverter into your home's electrical system.
State law requires electric utilities here to provide net metering, which allows you to "bank" electricity your home produces that you don't use, which instead goes into the general grid. You get credit for the energy later.
What does it cost?
Conventional solar electric systems range from $6 to $10 per watt installed, according to the City of Seattle. A 2,000-watt or 2-kilowatt (kW) system would cost $12,000 to $20,000 and generate about 2,000 kilowatt hours per year. The average 2,000-square-foot house in Seattle uses about 10,500 to 11,000 kilowatt hours per year.
A thermal system for heating water typically costs $5,000 to $6,500, said Pam Burton, president of Solar Washington, a nonprofit solar advocacy group.
But the state has new production incentives for utilities to pay solar owners 54 cents per kilowatt produced from solar modules and inverters (which synchronize electricity collected to the grid) made in Washington. For a 3-kW system, that would be roughly $2,000 a year, Nelson said. (A new factory is being built in the state that should provide the modules later this year.)
With those higher payments and other federal tax breaks and state incentives, owners can effectively recoup their investment in seven years once the factory-built panels are available in our state, Nelson said.
When the state authorized production incentive payments of 15 cents per kilowatt produced in 2005, solar systems installed in Washington jumped from about 30 that year to nearly 450 in 2006, he said.
Net metering that lets you bank electricity also makes solar systems more affordable, and the sales tax on photovoltaic and solar hot-water system equipment and installation is waived until 2011.
Nelson considers solar systems an investment similar to the debate on buying a house vs. renting.
"Remember at the end of that time you spent your money, you [still] have it all," he said. "If you bought the electricity, you'd have a drawer full of receipts. The difference is, do you want to be a renter or an owner?"
For those who can't or don't want to invest in an active solar system, passive solar is another option that can be incorporated into remodels or new construction.
Passive solar means siting a building or placing windows, for example, in a way to take full advantage of natural sunlight and using interior materials that retain heat from the sun, such as water, concrete floors or adobe. It also can include natural ventilation, according to the American Solar Energy Society.
Passive solar makes more sense in Eastern Washington, where there is more sunlight, Nelson said, but designing your home with plenty of quality windows for lots of light and good insulation will conserve electricity and heat anywhere.
The big payoff
Barbara Roberts and Fred Huntsman, who added photovoltaic and hot-water systems to their 1929 Ballard home, also included passive solar design in their kitchen remodel, which floods the room with light and provides some heat. With almost no electrical costs in the summer, they say they are thrilled with the results.
"It just makes me happy that I'm doing something in a positive motion instead of being reactive," she said. "It's green, it's not going to pollute the air and I like that tremendously."
Stephanie Brown's electric bill is half of what it once was — $40 to $50 per month in the winter, down from $125 to $140 despite an electric baseboard heating system. Her gas bill is steady at $14 to $16 per month, and her three-person household never runs out of hot water.
She loves her solar lifestyle so much that she's considering installing a solar space-heating system for her basement, with radiant flooring that works by either the sun or water heater warming water in tubes underneath the floors.
"I had several people that said, 'Oh, I didn't think you could do all that in Seattle,' " Brown said. "Trust me, in the summer, the sun is north of us, we're getting plenty."
Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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