FFF #13 — Our plans to go solar

Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future. The strikers are probably all out of school today, since it is Christmas Eve, but the problem of climate change is not taking a break.

They do it on Lake Como. What prevents us?

The family lake house has an expansive roof. It looks like it could be good for solar panels if the trees do not overshadow it too much. We’ve got to do more about climate change, so we are exploring the possibilities. I’ll tell you what we are doing and you can tell me what I am doing wrong, OK?

Consumer nightmare

One of the reasons most of us homeowners are not going solar is because everything in the world is subject to consumer capitalism. The providers need to make a profit; that’s the “bottom line.”

On the way to that dotted line there are many issues. There are a lot of challenges associated with making and selling solar panels. For instance, polysilicon is the semiconducting material refined from quartzite used in most panels. China-based companies bake the material in giant ovens and treat it with chemicals until it condenses into ingots. Those ingots are sliced into wafers using diamond-edged saws, and then cut into squares to make solar cells that transform sunlight into electricity. Recently, several plants in China have been shut down due to ecological disasters. What’s more, gold, silver and solar glass, also used in the manufacturing, have been in short supply and more expensive. So increased cost to consumers is imminent.

Once I started researching this big purchase, I realized why solar energy costs so much. Global competition and conflict, greed and the disastrous shortcuts it causes, and opportunism all shadow every step the panels take toward our roof.

Finding a provider

We shopped around for a provider. Philly-centered Solar States did what they could by looking at our house with Google maps. But they don’t really travel to the Poconos. Green Power Energy, based in New Jersey, became the outfit we started with.

So far, the process is a bit like buying a used car before Carvana. We talked to a salesman who made a proposal from looking at the house from the air. I strung him along as I did some shopping. When I called back, he said he could give me $500 off if I signed up right now. He talked to the manager and came back with more discounts. Now I receive regular emails telling me I can get money for referring my friends — I get more if they actually buy  something.

I have a time constraint issue adding anxiety to my process. The 26% tax break for this project begins to expire in 2022. There may be more breaks coming, maybe not. “So buy now before it’s too late!” I will probably need to put a new roof on to do this project, which is also covered by the tax break but maybe only relating to the percentage of the roof covered by the panels. Nothing is really clear about the process immediately. Green Power works with a roofing company that would do the work. Do I have time to get another, possibly cheaper, roof on before the tax breaks expire? That remains to be seen.

After a lot of proposing based on the aerial views stored in the vast data available to anyone who cares to use it, a workman finally came to the house last week. He crawled into attic spaces, measured everything, and gave some advice he said he was not really qualified to give. He found out I already have a 200 amp electrical service, which is unusual and important since a lot of people need new electrical services when they add solar.

How to heat the home makes a difference

I began exploring the electrical devices I might install so I could get rid of my oil heat and have an all-electric house. The proposal the installers give to my utility (PPL) will not include these future draws, so I have to figure out if I would be over my limits somehow should I install electric heat. So far, my science buddy says I am good (I am not sure how he found this out). The solar sellers don’t really care about such things. They are primarily getting solar panels off their truck and onto the roof. This means I will have to find a heating company qualified to do our work and get into their profit making system.

Will the roofers, solar installers and heating contractors talk to each other and form a cohesive system we can use? They will if I become the general contractor who forces the issue, I suspect. My scientific friend, said I could call him every week about this project. That’s a blessing since he is fount of information. I need help. In this project like all our relationships with corporations these days. Whether we are going to the hospital or having the sewer line replaced (I’ve done both in recent days), we need to be experts on what we are getting into and project managers for the employees who have limited interest in us. Sorry to be cynical, but we can’t trust most of the systems we encounter to help us. They are mostly interested in  making their profit on their segment of the project. They will not be talking to one another. I could hire a project manager of some kind or trust Green Power Energy, but my experience tells me that is expensive and still unreliable. So I think I’m the guy for the job. That daunting assignment is another reason we aren’t all solar yet.

We also have to get our homeowner association board to approve the change we are making to our roof. Our solar panels will be visible from the road. Will they be beautiful? Will they be a blight on our forest? I am very sympathetic to the board’s desire to preserve the aesthetic of our little nature preserve. I would be more sympathetic if they were not assessing our project, of course! They recently approved someone else’s solar plans. I suspect our plans will demonstrate the slippery slope they were afraid of, since our positioning is much more intrusive. That is, our panels will be intrusive if you don’t see solar panels as a climate necessity.

Climate Change Strengthens Earth's 'Heartbeat' — and That's Bad News | Space
Seasonal temperature variations and trends are visualized and depicted on NASA’s “Blue Marble” image. (Image credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Should we so it?

So what do you think? Should we do it? So far, we are at an estimate of $31,000 minus $8,000 in tax credits for a total of $23,000. This does not count the cost of the roof or the cost of making the heating system electric. It does not yet consider just how much electricity we can generate due to our angle to the sun, shade from trees, and days without sunshine in wet PA. Will we recover our investment in less electricity cost? The initial estimate from Green Power says it will take 25 years. But the main savings would be in heating oil, which would likely cut that recovery time in half.

More important, are we actually doing our part for the planet? That is the main question that drew us into the process. I might be will to donate $10,000 to the charity called Earth if I thought Earth would actually get the benefits. I am worried about the Earth getting some benefits as we humans drive around in our cars wondering if we can do anything to end our contribution to climate change. The use of coal actually rose last year as the Senator of Coal, Joe Manchin (and fifty other Republican senators, of course), blocked the climate action money in the Build Back Better bill! I know my small actions may not push climate action to a tipping point, but I would rather go down swinging than wringing my hands.

You’ll probably get an update when we get further into the process. Pray for us and don’t be shy about giving some advice in the comments.

Leave a Reply