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The Power of Facts and Numbers

Paul Kando

In North Carolina, state representative John Szoka (R), has unexpectedly changed his mind about renewable energy. Elected in 2012 as an opponent of solar energy, the conservative lawmaker believed solar power was unproven, expensive and dependent on taxpayer money. But, at a lobbyist’s urging, he did some research of his own. The lawmaker found that, while solar estimates usually include capital costs, such as the installed cost of the panels, fossil fueled system estimates typically do not. That’s comparing apples to oranges.

I can't believe how warm and cozy our heating is.  And it's solar powered.
photo credit: Newcomb

An oil-fired baseboard heating system and a combined solar PV / heatpump heating system may each cost in excess of $20,000 to install (ignoring any incentives). However, operating the oil fired systems may cost $3,000 per year for fuel, compared to free solar electricity. So the solar/heatpump system will pay for itself from fuel-cost savings in 7 years. Thereafter, until the equipment wears out, the oil fired system will continue have an annual fuel bill, while the solar/heatpump system will heat the house for free. Assuming the oil price stays level (an unlikely scenario), the total cost of the solar/heatpump system will be $20,000 over 7, 10 or 20 years, whereas the oil fired system will cost $41,000 over 7 years, $50,000 over 10 years and $80,000 over 20 years.

If either system can be financed as part of a new home’s mortgage, the solar/heatpump combination wins hands down. Abandoning an existing fossil- fired heating system and converting to solar is a good move for anyone who can invest the initial $20,000. If one can’t, a third party investor can step in, make the investment and sell the power generated by the solar system to the home or business owner at a rate lower than available from the electric grid. The customer will not enjoy free electricity, but heating costs will still be halved, thanks to the lower electric bills and the superior efficiency of the heatpump. With zero up-front investment, these costs may total only $25,000 over 10 years and $40,000 over 20 years.

Rep. Szoka authored a bill to allow companies to own and operate solar panels on a customer’s property. Instead of selling power to the utility, the company would sell it to the customer directly. With this approach, homeowners, industry and the military could all meet their clean energy goals more affordably. The legislation also applies to wind power, small hydro-electric dams, generators that use bio-waste (e.g. wood waste, animal manure), geothermal energy and other such resources, as long as they generate power at the customer’s site. Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility, is opposed, trying to protect its monopoly. But the bill is backed by businesses, including Walmart, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Target, Family Dollar, Unilever and Cargill.

In North Carolina or Maine renewable energy is a partisan/ideological issue only for those who refuse to work the numbers. For the rest of us it’s a business opportunity. This representative did the homework and found that, by the numbers, renewable energy systems pay for themselves.