solar energy

Going Solar in Huntsville is different from Birmingham

Going Solar in Huntsville vs. Birmingham

Thinking about going solar in Huntsville or Birmingham?

One of the many factors in your decision probably has to do with how long it’ll take for your solar power system to pay for itself. Of course, since Huntsville and Birmingham are only about 100 miles apart, you might assume that the timelines are roughly the same.

Nope. Not so much.

If you live in Huntsville—or Madison, Decatur, Athens, Florence, or any other part of north Alabama under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—you can reasonably expect a payback on your solar investment within 10 to 12 years. But if you live in Birmingham—or most anywhere else in Alabama—the payback time on your solar project will be much longer. In fact, it might never happen. Well if you want to connect to the grid.

Why the difference? It has everything to do with policy.

 

An investment in your future

Let’s look at a couple of examples based on real solar projects right here in Alabama. The first is a 6,000-watt solar setup at a residence in Huntsville. The up-front cost was $18,000, for an average expense of $3 per watt. Subtract $5,400 right away for the 30% federal tax credit that all new solar projects currently earn. That leaves $12,600 to pay off. In this example, 71% of the residence’s energy needs would be offset by solar, which means that household would only need 29% of its energy from the grid—and would thus pay only about 29% of its usual utility bill. Imagine the savings.

Thanks to TVA incentives, going solar in Huntsville has certain advantages.

In addition to that, the TVA pays solar customers the current retail rate for any electricity they generate. (According to the Huntsville Utilities website, the current rate is $0.08856 per kilowatt-hour for the first 1400 kWh.) This fair purchase price reduces the payback time considerably. For our example project, the estimated payback time is 10-12 years.

Think about that for a moment. Sure, 10 or 12 years might sound like a long time up front. But for residential solar generators, that timeline makes plenty of sense. After a dozen years or so, your solar system would produce pure savings. So if you’re in a house for 20 or 30 years, the incentive is strong. And if you build your solar array at the time of purchase and roll the cost into your mortgage, your earnings from selling electricity could be greater than the increased cost to your mortgage.

Either way, all of the savings come from simply running your system as you normally would any other time. So it’s not like you have to change any behavior drastically. Even better, you’re investing in yourself and your home.

Why incentives matter

The incentives for going solar in TVA territory are less enticing than they used to be. But then again, solar prices have dropped dramatically. That said, TVA’s stance on renewables is the best in Alabama. To understand why, let’s look at another example project, this one in Birmingham. 

Instead of reaping the benefits of incentives, many potential solar homeowners in Alabama are penalized by being charged a grid access fee. That means solar generators incur an extra tax of $5 per kilowatt of capacity to connect their system to the grid. This fee, which is one of the highest of its kind in the country, can reduce your monthly solar revenue by as much as 50%. Non-solar customers do not pay the fee.

Furthermore, most solar producers in the rest of Alabama are only paid what is known as the avoided cost. As of this writing, that’s approximately $0.025/kWh. This “avoided cost” represents a buyback of less than one-fourth of TVA’s and seriously dampens your return on investment.  This makes it virtually impossible for our example system in Birmingham, or any grid-tied residential solar array in the bottom two-thirds of Alabama, to pay itself off, regardless of how long it’s in service.

Of course, commercial solar is different. More on that next time!

How does solar work?

How Does Solar Work?

Solar, Solar, Everywhere!

But, how the heck does it work?

I admit it, this is a question I’ve had since long before I began working with Energy Alabama. I know that somehow the panels trap the energy from the sun then there’s some wires and stuff that convert that energy to something that is usable, but how?

So, I decided to do a little research and see what I could find out…. then I thought I’d share it with you, because while I’m sure some of you could explain it better than I ever will, others are probably going to appreciate my 5-year old level of comprehension on the subject.

Each solar panel is made up of many smaller units called photo-voltaic cells (because they make energy from the sun), usually made of silicon.

But how?  Says the 5-year old in me.

Ok, so let’s back up and start from the top.

First, we have the sun, which makes an unlimited supply of energy (until the sun eventually blows up but that’s a different story). That energy lands on the ground and buildings and just dissipates, often being wasted. Well, not really wasted, I mean that energy did just warm us up and keep us from staring at a dark and gloomy day. But, when sunlight hits a solar panel, the PV cells inside the solar panel break the sun’s energy up.

Light from the sun hits the solar panel, knocking the electron off the atom, and this somehow creates a flow of electricity. But how? (I really do sound like a 5-year old).

Each cell has a positive layer (made by adding phosphorous) and negative layer (made by adding boron) creating an electric field in the middle. As photons are absorbed in the cell, electrons are released and pushed through that electric field. The electrons then move to the bottom of the cell and exit through connected wires, creating direct current electricity. The solar system inverter then converts that electricity to the same electricity that you would get from the power company.

Most systems are set up to feed the electricity from solar back into the main power grid system. In many cases the owner of the solar sells back the electricity they are making to the power company, purchasing only what they need, in many cases making a profit to help pay for their solar installation.

I hope you have a better understanding of how solar panels work, I know I do!

Want more? Check out this TedEd video

Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative Co-Hosting Local Workshop to Boost Solar in Alabama

Huntsville, AL – The Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative, the National Association of Regional Councils and Energy Alabama are hosting “Solar Powering Your Community: Actionable Steps for Adopting Solar in Alabama” on April 28th, 2016. The workshop runs from 10AM to 3PM at the Terry-Hutchens Building in Downtown Huntsville and is open to all local government officials from across North Alabama.

Communities interested in learning more about solar development in Alabama are invited to work with national and local experts. This interactive workshop will provide actionable information on creating a local-level solar program, with a focus on:  

  • The benefits and barriers of solar development in Alabama;
  • Creating solar friendly planning and zoning codes and ordinances;
  • Understanding the regulatory landscape of solar; and
  • Innovative financing options for solar projects.

About Energy Alabama

Energy Alabama is accelerating the transition to clean, sustainable energy throughout Alabama. We accomplish our mission by educating young and old alike, informing smart energy policy, and providing technical assistance to help deploy more sustainable energy. We believe in 100% sustainable energy for all.

About Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative

The Solar Outreach Partnership (SolarOPs), the event co-sponsor, is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program designed to increase the use and integration of solar energy in communities across the United States. The SolarOPs program is part of the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, a collaborative national effort to make solar energy systems cost-competitive with other forms of energy before 2020. To drive down the cost of solar electricity, the US Department of Energy is supporting efforts by private companies, academia, and national laboratories, to innovate, educate, and apply best practices in solar energy.

About the National Association of Regional Councils

The National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) serves as the national voice for regionalism by advocating for regional cooperation as the most effective way to address a variety of community planning and development opportunities and issues. NARC’s member organizations are composed of multiple local governments that work together to serve American communities – large and small, urban and rural. For additional information, please visit www.NARC.org.

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If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Daniel Tait by phone at 256-303-7773 or by email at dtait@alcse.org.

solar isn't the answer to energy efficiency

Solar Isn’t the Answer to Energy Efficiency

We talk a lot about solar here at Energy Alabama and I think sometimes that confuses people and makes them think that that’s what we are all about, but it’s not true. Solar is great, solar is awesome, but solar isn’t the total answer to energy efficiency.

First off, there are many areas where solar just isn’t even a possibility. I live in the woods so installing solar on my house would just be silly because of all the tree coverage. However, there are many things I can do to improve energy efficiency and we’ve been working on that quite a bit lately.

In January we had Southern Valley Services come out to our house and provide an energy audit. We live in a home that was built in the mid-1960’s, and while it was well-built for the time, it has some issues and we knew it. It was pretty interesting to watch Tommy Marr go through our house with an infra-red camera and point out spots where the cold was getting in. He then provided a very thorough list of ways that we could improve our home’s energy efficiency. His list included things that would benefit older homes including a heat barrier in the attic area above our garage, proper insulation in a variety of areas (sometimes I wonder if the insulated this place at all), sealing of duct work, finding and sealing air leaks in our sunroom windows, and encapsulation of our crawl space.

None of these were huge things as far as price goes, but the all work together to cause major energy inefficiency. We’ve not done everything on the list yet but just the few things we chose to do first have made a big difference in our home’s comfort level.

You may recall our interview with Rick & Pat Trescott; their home is about the same age as mine. They’ve spent years improving their home’s energy efficiency before they finally reached a point where they were ready to install solar panels. They live in an area where they have the right solar access so solar made sense after they had completed all the other improvements. They knew that if they’d put solar on first it would have been a huge waste of money, because they would simply be grabbing energy from the sun only to have it escaping due to improper insulation, unsealed ductwork, poorly sealed windows and poorly selected blinds. The list of small things you can and should do to improve energy efficiency is endless. Solar is just the icing on the cake.

Here are just a few things you can and should do to your home to improve energy efficiency before you consider solar:

  • Seal all ductwork (including the spots where ducts enters the house)
  • Make sure that all walls and attic areas are properly insulated
  • Encapsulate your crawl space
  • Update your water heater and/or heat pump to ENERGY STAR rated versions
  • Update all light fixtures to LEDs
  • Replace all appliances with ENERGY STAR rated appliances
  • Replace windows with ENERGY STAR rated windows

So, the next time you start getting a little anxious that you don’t have solar yet, calm down. You might not be ready for solar yet. In due time. Look for the small things that you can do now to improve the energy efficiency of your home. Solar will just keep getting cheaper and it’ll still be there when you are ready.