Solar Generation Partners Have the Power

Published May 18, 2012

Date: Thursday, May17, 2012

Those of us with solar panels on the roof tend to look at summer differently. Take, for example, that midsummer NES bill. You know, the one you dread opening because it’s been hotter than a lit firecracker and the AC has been chugging full tilt? Yeah, that’s Christmas in July for us.

When you become a Generation Partner, summer’s long, lazy days and cloudless blue skies mean one thing: peak power production season!We collect the energy made by that great nuclear reactor in the sky and send it to the grid, increasing available energy capacity during peak demand times, and decreasing the likelihood of summer brown-outs. And we do it all without destroying one East Tennessee mountain.

You can thank us later.

All hyperbole aside, “green” sensibilities and a desire for lower utility bills have spurred interest in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems lately. NES energy services agent Hugh Allen estimates the number of solar installations in its service area has quadrupled in the past three years — and that’s just the residential units. Allen says NES alone has commissioned 125 solar installations as of May 1 — and 54 of them are residential. Allen notes that Middle Tennessee Electric, which covers Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson and Cannon counties, has seen a similar increase.

Want to jump on the PV bandwagon? Here’s what you need to know.

Pay rays

First the good news: Solar panels are getting cheaper and more efficient every year. But they’re still expensive: A 4 or 5 kilowatt (kW) PV system will run you in the neighborhood of $25,000, says Steve Johnson, president of LightWave Solar. For those crunching the numbers, there are a few incentives: TVA buys the power generated at a rate of 12 cents per kWh above the base rate, which appears as a credit on your monthly electric bill. There’s also a 30 percent federal tax rebate and a $1,000 incentive from TVA when your system goes online. Beyond that, various grants for commercial and agricultural operations are available, but so far nothing for residential systems. Solar leasing, in which the cost of a PV system is shouldered by another company but homeowners get a piece of the electricity sales, has taken off out west. Stefan Partin, business manager for the Tennessee Solar Energy Association, calls it the future of solar. But the Tennessee state legislature’s threatened “solar property tax” effectively scared off anyone interested in bringing such a scheme to Tennessee.

So that means homeowners are still looking at shouldering some hefty initial costs. Alternately, you can change your perspective, says Partin. “Think of it as an investment. You can get 7-8 percent per year return on a solar system, whereas a mutual fund is 2-3 percent a year. That makes it look more attractive.” Indeed.

Up on the roof

Not everyone puts solar panels on the roof — some arrays are located in the yard — but that’s where most systems go. The best location is facing southeast and is shade-free. Steep, gabled roofs or rooftops chopped up with a lot of architectural detail can be problematic but not impossible, says Johnson.

You’ll also need to make sure there aren’t any homeowner’s association or local zoning rules precluding a rooftop solar system. Any shade trees blocking the sun from your rooftop will have to go, too.

(Tempered) glass ceiling

Solar panels are extremely durable and basically maintenance-free, and they even offer a degree of rooftop protection. During the recent hailstorm, Johnson said not one of his customers had broken panels.

“They’re tempered glass and tested for hail. That’s not to say hail couldn’t break them, but it doesn’t happen all that often,” he notes.

Johnson says one would be hard-pressed to find an unsatisfied customer. “No one has ever complained to me that they don’t like their solar. It’s fun making your own electricity.”