Solar System Synergy
Solar power users Deena Capparelli and Claude Willey find there’s more than one way to reduce carbon footprints
By Rebecca Kuzins 03/14/2013
From the street, Claude Willey and Deena Capparelli’s house in Altadena looks like any other 1926-era residence. But the backyard reveals a major difference between the couple’s home and the others in the neighborhood: An array of 12 photovoltaic solar panels covers the garage roof, while another six panels are installed on a platform imbedded in the grass nearby. The panels face south, so they can capture the largest amount of sunlight, and for nine months each year they generate all of the couple’s electricity needs. In fact, Willey and Capparelli often produce more power than they need, and give the surplus to Southern California Edison’s grid.
“We’re like a little power station,” said Willey.
Willey and Capparelli are among a growing number of people who are creating their own home-based solar power stations. According to a spokesperson for the Pasadena Water and Power Department, only 57 residential solar systems, with a capacity of 141 kilowatts, had been installed before 2008, the year PWP launched the Pasadena Solar Initiative. By the end of 2012, the number of residential systems had climbed to 379, with a total capacity of 1,494 kilowatts, and the utility is averaging more than 100 solar installations every year.
Willey’s six-panel system was installed in his backyard in 2006, while the garage roof panels were installed two years later. Both sets of panels are connected to inverters, which make the sunlight-generated electricity usable for home electricity needs. The inverter for the six-panel system generates five kilowatts a day during the peak period, from March through November, while the roof panels produce 18 kilowatts a day during the same period. An electronic meter connected to a wall in back of the house allows the couple to monitor how much electricity is being generated, and how much they are using.
Solar power has dramatically reduced the couple’s electricity bills. Willey said they receive only about two or three electric bills a year, each for about $1.25; before, their monthly bill was as high as $40. The electric meter helps them keep track of their electricity use, and they’ve decreased usage by reducing their consumption of heating and air conditioning.
“We don’t use the heater unless it’s very cold,” said Willey. “We leave it at only 59 or 60 degrees, and put on sweaters or sweat pants during the winter.”
In addition to lowering electricity costs, solar energy has the advantage of being nonpolluting and cleaner than electricity generated from fossil fuels. And most homeowners who install solar systems are eligible for rebates and tax credits.
When Willey installed his first solar panels in 2006, he was able to take advantage of a program sponsored by the California Renewable Energy Commission, which from 1998 through 2006 funded solar-photovoltaic home electricity systems in areas of the state served by investor-owned utilities, such as Southern California Edison (which provides electricity to Altadena). Since then, the program has been replaced by the California Solar Initiative, which provides rebates for customers of Edison and other investor-owned utilities who install solar energy systems at their homes and businesses.
In addition to the rebates, the Internal Revenue Service provides Federal Investment Tax Credits for homeowners who install solar electricity, solar water, small wind, or geothermal heat systems in their homes. The credit rate is 30 percent of the costs of these energy-system improvements.
The Pasadena Solar Initiative (PSI) offers similar financial incentives to city residents who are served by municipally owned Pasadena Water and Power. Homeowners who install photovoltaic systems are eligible for rebate incentives. In most cases, solar power companies that install energy systems for homeowners also apply for the incentives and the required building permits and arrange for the solar system to be connected to PWP’s power grid. The initiative seeks to have homes and businesses in the city install 14,000 kilowatts of customer-owned solar installations by 2017.
According to the PWP spokesperson, homeowners are currently receiving rebates in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 for their solar installations, depending upon their system’s size, equipment efficiency, and overall design. These utility rebates typically cover 20 to 30 percent of the total cost of the solar system. When combined with the federal tax credits, PWP customers usually save about 50 percent of the total costs of equipment and installation. Customers who generate 100 percent of their electricity needs through solar power also save money on their utility bills, paying only the basic fixed utility cost of $6 a month.
Willey said he received rebates of between $5,500 and $6,000 for his two solar panel systems. However, these cost-savings were eclipsed by the expense of purchase and installation. He estimated it cost about $23,000 for the roof-based system, and between $6,000 and $7,000 for the other panels. These upfront expenses, he added, are the chief disadvantage to residential solar electricity: “It’s like paying your electric bill 20 years in advance.”
However, a growing number of people are opting to lease solar systems rather than buy them and pay all of the costs upfront. According to Allison Fonte of Clean Power Finance, a company that arranges solar power financing, 75 percent of the residential solar systems installed in California in 2012 were financed either through a lease or a power purchase agreement (PPA) with investors. These financial arrangements enable homeowners to pay for solar systems, which can cost between $15,000 and $40,000, over several years, rather than in one payment at the time of installation. Fonte said the costs of maintenance, repairs, insurance and inverter replacement are typically included in financing contracts.
In the three years she’s been at Clean Power, Fonte said she has seen “a notable shift” in residential solar energy customer demographics. Solar energy used to be primarily the domain of the relatively affluent, and those with an interest in protecting the environment, she said. However, leasing and other financing options now make solar “more of a cost-saving strategy for middle- and even some lower-income households.”
Although Willey’s home is solar-powered, he is not an ardent advocate of this alternative energy source. While he described solar energy as “a great thing” that can reduce electricity costs and air pollution, he also pointed out that manufacturing solar panels is an energy-intensive activity that generates some emissions. “You have to look at the energy invested in relation to the energy returned. You have to determine how much energy went into making something,” he said.
Solar energy is only one of the ways that Willey seeks to reduce energy consumption and pollution. He does not drive a car, preferring to ride his bicycle to the urban studies and planning classes he teaches at California State University, Northridge, Woodbury University and the Art Center College of Design. In addition, he and Capparelli, an artist who teaches at Pasadena City College, have chosen not to have children as another means of reducing their environmental footprints.
“A lot of people look at solar engineering as some sort of magic bullet,” he said. “But it’s problematic. You need to use less energy, even with solar power, and can’t think some magic thing will make everything fine.
“People have fantasies about these amazing technologies. But behavioral change is the key to changing how we live,” he said.
A list of pre-qualified solar installers, and other information about solar energy, is available at gosolarcalifornia.org, whileinformation about PSI can be found at PWP’s Web site, ci.pasadena.ca.us/waterandpower/Solar/.