Solar panels gain popularity as price drops

Published February 25, 2013

Posted: February, 24 2013 in the Tennessean by Bill Lewis.

Mark and Bonnie Miller-McLemore bought a Nissan Leaf to reduce their environmental footprint, but the idea of recharging the all-electric vehicle with energy produced at nuclear or coal-fired power plants seemed self-defeating.

Their solution: The couple installed a solar power system on the roof of their home in the Grassland community. Now, when they flip on a light switch or plug in their Leaf to recharge for a few hours, the electricity they use is as likely to come from the sun as it is from a TVA power plant.

“The two things went together,” said Mark. “You’re basically your own little power plant. I’m like a little Watts Bar,” the TVA nuclear power plant on the Tennessee River in East Tennessee.

Mark and Bonnie are among a growing number of homeowners who are discovering the benefits of solar power, said Brian Bickel, director of sales and marketing for LightWave Solar in Nashville, one of several companies in the Nashville region that install residential and commercial solar-electric systems.

The number of LightWave’s residential installations has grown 113 percent in the past year as the price of solar panels has come down and more homeowners become convinced of the benefits of placing a system on the roof or in the yard, said Bickel.

“Globally, industry wide, it’s becoming more familiar to people. We’re seeing prices at an all-time low, and that message is getting out there,” he said.

Mark and Bonnie, who are both ordained ministers and teach at Vanderbilt Divinity School, saw solar as a way to put their faith into practice. Their 3.5 kilowatt system, which cost $20,000, provides half or more of the power their home needs.

“So for us, there are religious motivations for solar power as well, stewardship and care of God’s creation, which has been entrusted to us to use but not to abuse. Or in ‘backpackers terms,’ which we did a fair amount of, we are trying to travel lightly and leave no trace,” said Mark.

Another reason for solar’s popularity is financial. In addition to cutting their electric bills, homeowners who install solar power can qualify for a federal tax credit for one-third of the cost of their system. TVA offers a $1,000 incentive that can offset the cost of installation and buys solar power from homeowners at a premium price.

Mark and Bonnie figure their solar system will pay for itself in about 11 years. After that, it will generate a profit.

To Oak Hill homeowner Matt Powers, solar is a good investment financially and environmentally. He installed an 8.8 kilowatt system at his Curtiswood Circle house. He compared the cost to buying a sports car.

“But the BMW will decrease in value over time, and the (solar power system) increases in value,” he said.

In the five months the solar panels have been on his roof, they have generated 2,015 kilowatts of non-polluting power. Powers describes the environmental impact of that in terms of what didn’t happen. It prevented the release of 3,344 pounds of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — that would have been generated by burning fossil fuels. It’s also the equivalent of not driving 3,311 miles.

“There’s the benefit of saving the environment. I wanted to make a change. I wanted to help tip the balance. If everybody in Tennessee had solar, think what it would mean,” he said.

The new solar power system on the roof of Mike Roberts’ home in Nashville’s Belmont neighborhood isn’t finished yet, but he already has enthusiastic advice for anyone contemplating the addition of solar.

“Do the math. It makes sense to do it,” he said.

“Another guy in my office is planning to do it at his house after hearing about our experience and seeing our panels,” said Roberts.

In the area served by Nashville Electric Service, homeowners have installed solar power systems capable of generating 394 kilowatts of electricity, said Teresa Corlew, the electric department’s spokesperson. On average, they each receive a $100 credit every month for the electricity they sell to TVA.

Presently, 14 additional homeowners have applied to add solar power and participate in TVA’s Green Power Providers program, she said.

TVA is limiting the amount of solar energy it will buy from homeowners in that program this year. About half of the additional capacity has already been spoken for, which LightWave’s Bickel believes is encouraging homeowners to act quickly.

“If you really want to do solar in 2013,” he said, “you’re competing with everyone else.”

Contact Bill Lewis at 615-262-5862 or [email protected].

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