Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Costly Solar

Solar power is on my mind a lot these days.

We’ve looked into a simple solar kit for our camper, and think we could get into one for less than $500. It wouldn’t be the same as plugging into an electrical outlet, but it certainly would help us keep the battery charged on a long-term vacation, if ever such a thing were undertaken.

Solar for the house is something else. To be able to generate that kind of power, we’d have to install a roof-full of solar panels. And they simply cost just too much at that scale. I’ve seen prices ranging from $20,000 to $35,000 per home – and that’s just for one house. Can’t imagine being a utility and trying to install a massive solar project and recoup the costs. On an individual basis, even with the potential savings in electricity, it’s a no-brainer: It would take longer than your typical 30-year mortgage period to recoup the solar investment.

Once in a while, I get excited when I read something like this, one of a trickle of stories I see on companies like SunRun, which installs solar panels for you without an up-front payment, but then trickles the money out of you and subsequent homeowners over time. I suppose it’s good that the up-front costs disappear, but when I read things like this . . .

In Buller's case, his new solar panels (which SunRun paid for entirely) cut his $200-a-month electricity bill by $140, or 70%. Buller gets to keep $50 of the savings and pays the balance to SunRun, which uses it to cover the cost of buying the solar system and hiring a contractor to install and maintain it.
. . . I get less excited about the concept. How hard, I wonder, is it to “maintain” a solar panel system? I guess I’d have to find that out.

And as for leasing the equipment – that’s just trading paying money to the electric company to the leaseor. That’s not saving me money. I guess it’s a feel-good thing, however. And you avoid the up-front costs. But the up-front costs demonstrate how horribly expensive it is to “go green” on the individual scale.

So perhaps the idea is to start small – as with the kit we’re looking at for the camper. If that works out well enough, then we get a similar kit and hook it up to the house. If that works well, another kit. Bit off the energy savings a bit at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once. That’s slow-term energy independence, but at a much more manageable, incremental cost.

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