LightWave Solar Customers featured in Tennessean

Published February 8, 2011

Most are in Tennessee, and an additional 200 such projects are in the pipeline. For each kilowatt-hour created — all of which are pumped into the grid — residents in many areas are paid more than double what the utility charges for the power.

NES customers, for instance, currently bring in 21 cents for every kilowatt-hour they generate, while they and other residents pay about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour for what they use.

Many, including attorney David Lyons on Seventh Avenue North, produce an amount whose payments don’t quite cover the cost of what they burn. Others have large enough arrays of sunlight-converting photovoltaic panels that they receive rolling credits for the year or year-end checks.

The Wansings, who installed panels in 2007, have left the year-end money on the table for the time being, to make sure months are balanced out when they might use more electricity.

“We build up our credit in the spring and the fall and use the credit in the summer and the winter,” said Carly Wansing, an architect with Street Dixon Rick, which also has solar panels.

The Wansings added a wood stove to their 1,500-square-foot home last year, and that has displaced use of their gas furnace, too.

“We’ve almost eliminated our gas and our electric bill now,” said Ed Wansing, a consultant with Architectural Energy Corp.

The major part of their gas bill is the service fee, with only about $1 in gas used each month, and that’s for a tankless water heater.

Their 2.16-kilowatt solar system, which cost $11,500 after incentives, should take 12 more years to pay off. The Wansings received a $2,000 federal tax credit and a $500 sign-up payment from TVA’s Generation Partners program.

Price has dropped

Since then, the price of solar panels has dropped while incentives have increased, including higher tax credits that would have totaled $4,000 for them today, and a $1,000 sign-up payment.

Still, the green-oriented couple said they have satisfaction in helping lead the way.

The same goes for Lyons, who has a system that he expects to be paid off in seven years. He would like to be able to claim a check, but so far he hasn’t, even though at the moment he has a credit for his solar-panel-topped law office in the Germantown neighborhood.

“I’ve never had a surplus by the end of the year,” Lyons said.

‘Zero electricity bills’

Winter isn’t always the best for solar energy, particularly with snow blanketing rooftop panels this year, but other seasons make it up.

Sudbrock said he was pleased to receive more than $2,000 for last year’s generation from panels placed on the barn at his plant nursery company, Nashville Natives.

“That doesn’t factor in all the electricity we didn’t have to pay for, either,” he said. “We had zero electricity bills all year.”

His utility, Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp., deducts the cost of the electricity he uses from whatever credits are received or have accumulated.

He is in the unusual position of having virtually paid for the solar system in the first year, thanks to some particularly favorable incentives.

About 95 percent of his $68,000, 8.28-kilowatt system came from a state cost-share program for businesses, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, a 30 percent federal tax credit, and a $1,000 signing bonus from TVA and the distributor.

“It took a year of grant writing and lots of paperwork, but we’ll never pay another electric bill, and it will be generating clean energy and income for at least 30 years,” Sudbrock said.

Popularity grows

The TVA- and distributor-sponsored Generation Partners program has grown increasingly popular, with Nashville Electric Service now having 63 customers generating power and 15 others about to begin.

It’s not for everyone. Because of the generally substantial up-front cost to the consumer, energy efficiency, including insulating a home and using energy-efficient lighting and appliances, is the most practical route for many to save.

TVA promotes Generation Partners as part of its vision for cleaner energy, according to Mike Bradley, a spokesman for the public power producer.

“Our hope is that this initiative continues to grow,” Bradley said.

The independent federal corporation that provides power to most of Tennessee and parts of six other states has relied heavily on coal to generate relatively low-cost electricity. But a costly coal ash spill at it Kingston power plant and growing concerns about health and environmental problems from the air pollution and greenhouse gases have put tighter regulations on the horizon.

Other clean energy programs are in the works.

Steve Johnson, owner of LightWave Solar Electric, said the 6.9-kilowatt system on his home would cost about $30,000 today, or $20,000 after incentives.

A person could expect to pay off a system in about 12 years rather than the 15 years it used to require. Johnson compared the acquisition to buying a home rather than renting one.

“You’re going to be paying Nashville Electric Service for 12 years anyway,” he said. “You’re just burning those checks. After 12 years of paying on solar, you have equity. You own something.”

Reach Anne Paine at 615-259-8071 or [email protected].