Going Solar in Kent County

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Generating your own electricity and saving money with solar panels on your roof is an exciting prospect. But it can also feel daunting. That’s why back in 2015 I was thrilled to learn about a group working here in Chestertown to help people go solar, the Chestertown Solar Co-op. I had been thinking about going solar for several years, but was a little nervous since I really did not know much about it. My husband and I had the help of the co-op to guide us through the process from day one. The group helped more than a dozen people go solar and is looking to increase that number with a new round this year.

One of our very first questions was whether we even had enough daylight to make solar a viable option. The co-op partnered with MD SUN (Maryland Solar United Neighborhoods) – a non-profit that works to assemble a group of residents who are interested in solar in towns and cities throughout Maryland. MD SUN reviewed our roof and the available sunshine using satellite imagery to see if we qualified. They held meetings for those of us in the Chestertown group to ask questions and get additional information when needed.

MD SUN worked with us to develop and send out a Request for Proposals to solar companies to solicit bids to serve the group. They then put together a small committee to review those bids and select the final contractor. Because the Co-op consisted of many residents, the contractor bids were significantly below normal cost which added to the financial incentives for going solar through the co-op!

Once the work was completed the group’s selected installer helped us submit our application for the State of Maryland $1,000 grant for solar installations. More significantly, we were able to take a federal tax credit for about a third of the total cost of the project. The power produced by our solar system reduces the amount of electricity we need to draw (and pay for) from our local utility. In addition, we receive periodic payments from utilities which take credit for our production to meet their renewable energy requirements.

Our system also came with a web-based app that lets us monitor our energy production in real time. We can see our production of energy on an hourly, daily, monthly, and yearly basis and compare it with previous periods. And because our electric meter records how much electricity we draw from the grid and how much we generate ourselves, our monthly bill shows what our production was and how much we saved.

Going solar has enabled us have some control over where our electricity comes from, a clean source that is providing us a financial return. We will have paid off our solar system within 10 years of the system’s 25-year lifespan. A win–win–win from my perspective!

What are you waiting for – see if solar energy works for you. A new round of the Chestertown Solar Co-op is starting this summer. More information is available at www.mdsun.org/chestertown. The folks supporting this second Chestertown Solar Co-op will lead you and your neighbors gently through the process!

If you want to learn more there are two public information sessions being held in Chestertown Town Hall, 118 N. Cross St., June 1, at 7 p.m. and June 3 at 11 a.m.

Ellyn Vail

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Letters to Editor

  1. J.Richard(Dick)Durham 111 says:

    As the retired owner of Solar Energy Systems(started in 1978 at Hopewell Corner) I must add this: Domestic Solar Hot Water systems cost 1/5 to 1/10 of so-called “Solar Electric” systems and have NO impact on the grid. Whereas PV(electric) systems produce out-of-phase electricity, 59 cycle instead of 60, and send surges (and then total drop outs due to clouds) to sub-stations; Utilities like Delmarva are spending tens of millions to to upgrade their system to counteract the deleterious effects of solar electric(They are also raising their rates
    10% per year to offset these costs); the 75% of folks who cannot use solar electric are therefore subsidizing those who do(along with the taxpayers).

    When solar tax subsidies and incentives expire(and they will), most companies will disappear and systems needing service will be compromised. Solar DHW(hot water) systems produce 15 to 20 KWH equivalent at a fraction of the cost and with a 40 year life, whereas PV systems begin to degrade after 10-12 years. 50 of my 25 year+ systems still work fine, with no maintenance(Kent Youth on Quaker Neck Road has been in service since 1982).

    Other problems would be if a home needs a new roof, the cost of dismantling and re-installing a PV system would be prohibitive. And at the end of their lives, PV panels are almost totally NON-recyclable and contain some nasty compounds, like Gallium Arsenide used in the manufacturing process.
    As for field mounted systems, farmland is far more productive than solar electricity. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Finally, folks who have solar electric systems will eventually be paying the same as they would before, due to rate hikes; the best way to insulate oneself from energy costs is to super insulate the home, use nothing but LED lights, put every appliance,tv, printer, computer, satellite hookup,etc on plug switches or plug strips and turn them off when not in use, use low-e glazing PLUS additional glazings or window insulation treatments, also attic radiant barriers, on and on.
    (Without energy conservation and active participation in “off when not in use”, electric solar systems are merely a temporary stopgap. )

    My 3,000 sq/ft home has the above plus a simple batch solar water heater; the all-electric house(with swimming pool) has a electric bill of $55-60 most months.($30 ten yrs ago). (Note that solar water systems store energy for night-time use, something difficult or impossible to do with solar electric.

    We all need the grid, during inclement and stormy weather, and at night(16 hrs out of 24 in winter). While super-scale solar projects such as the megawatt plants in the Western deserts are manageable, smaller systems tend to add a burden to the grid, the utilities, and to non-participating homeowners.

    • Hi Mr. Durham,

      I’m the Program Director for MD SUN. We’re the non-profit that’s helping to launch the Chestertown Solar Co-op. While we focus on solar electric systems, I agree that domestic solar hot water systems should be acknowledged as an option for homeowners. I also agree with your points on energy efficiency and conservation. Solar PV is just one part of the larger energy picture. Our goal is to ensure that prospective solar customers are well-educated about solar when making their decision.

      You mentioned a number of points in your post and I wanted to respond to some:

      Out of phase electricity – Modern inverters conform to an international standard (IEEE 1547) that requires them to operate within the grid’s specifications for voltage and frequency.

      Raising rates at 10% per year – Rate increases are a great incentive to go solar, as doing so locks some or all of your electric costs in at a steady rate. Electricity costs continue to rise based upon the cost of fuel. The cost increases are not due to the addition of solar PV to the grid. In some places utilities have had to upgrade specific equipment due to high penetrations of solar, usually for large-scale installations. Solar project owners also cover some of those costs depending on the circumstance. Our electricity system is changing from an old centralized one to a more modern, distributed one where individuals and businesses can not only consume energy services but also provide them. This has costs and benefits for the system owner and for the grid. Publicly funded studies all over the country in places like Maine, Vermont, North Carolina, Mississippi, California, and others show that rooftop solar is a net benefit to the grid and society. This varies by location of course but here’s a list of them: http://www.seia.org/policy/distributed-solar/solar-cost-benefit-studies

      75% of folks can’t go solar – I agree that rooftop solar PV (and solar hot water for that matter) is not available to everyone in Maryland. That’s why we’ve supported the new statewide community solar program (we’re covering its progress here: http://www.mdsun.org/community-solar). It’s just about to open in Maryland in many utility areas and will allow folks who can’t install solar PV to get the same benefits as if it were on their roof.

      PV systems degrading after 10-12 years – Modules do lose a little bit of production power every year (less than 1%). That decline is very gradual and predictable. Module manufacturers include a production warranty for their modules that covers the expected decline. It’s common for these warranties to state that a module will produce at 80% or better of its original rating after 25 years.

      System maintenance – Any system is going to need maintenance from time to time. Solar PV is no exception but with no moving parts, the need is fairly low. The installed cost of residential solar PV has dropped by more than 50% since 2009 (http://www.nrel.gov/news/press/2016/37745) and the market is growing. While not all contractors will be in business in the future (true for any industry) the market is growing fast enough that we expect other companies to take up the need for any maintenance business.

      Need a new roof – You make a good point about the roof. We encourage homeowners to evaluate the age of their roof and its remaining lifespan before installing solar PV. If a new roof is needed before the solar array is at end of life (25+ years) the cost of removing the system and re-installing it after roof work in today’s dollars ranges from around $1,000 to $3,500 usually depending on the size of the system.

      Recycling equipment – The materials in standard monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon models (the vast majority of those installed) consist of silicon cells, wired connections (copper, silver, nickel), a plastic backsheet, a tempered glass cover, and an aluminum frame. While the market is small enough that solar panel recycling is in its infancy, as adoption grows recyclers should be able to handle many of these materials. You also mentioned Gallium Arsenide. This and some other more hazardous chemicals are used in some types of thin-film modules but not in the standard silicon-based modules most people install.

      On land use and field-mounted systems – I completely agree that some locations may not be suitable for solar PV. This should be a local zoning decision as much as possible. In the right context, ground areas can be a great use for solar PV. Local communities should decide how and where they want to permit and encourage solar. There are also some great innovations happening with native grasses and pollinator-friendly plantings used around arrays in agricultural areas. On a related note, hosting a solar array can create real value for a landholder. There are lots of things to consider when thinking about leasing your land for solar. We recommend landholders check out this guide if they are considering a solar land lease (http://www.seia.org/research-resources/seia-guide-land-leases-solar).

      Folks eventually paying the same due to rate hikes – One of the benefits of Solar PV is that you are fixing your costs for some or all of your electricity. So while your utility costs may go up you are avoiding those cost increases by making some or all of the energy you’re using for the year. Many people also enjoy the fact that they are more self-sufficient by producing some or all of their electricity on site.

      As you said, the grid is absolutely necessary. We all rely on it every day, including solar PV owners but that doesn’t mean we are burdening the grid. Solar PV has both costs and benefits to the grid and to the owner but overall when it’s studied in detail solar is shown to provide a net benefit. As solar and other distributed energy resources like wind, storage, etc. become more common we all need to be part of the conversation to make sure that everyone can share in the benefits and that costs are born fairly.

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