Sun-powered green houses

by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, October 23, 2013

 Supplied photo courtesy of Cape Fear Solar Systems 

Ronald Hess updated his home on the Intracoastal Waterway with photovoltaic, solar thermal and geothermal systems.

Solar panels on residential rooftops, which are becoming increasingly common on residential houses in the Cape Fear region, are not just for aesthetics and environmental prestige. 

Homeowners and homebuilders are finding that greening up their homes can mean utility bill savings significantly outstripping the installation costs.

Earlier in October, Wilmington’s celebration of the National Solar Tour featured several local homes that have been using alternative energy and energy efficiency measures to cut costs and carbon footprints. 

John Donoghue, president and founder of Cape Fear Solar Systems LLC, helped organize the tour along with the American Solar Energy Society. During an Oct. 8 interview, he said the tour aimed to highlight the burgeoning consumer interest in solar energy, which includes photovoltaic, or PV, electricity, and solar thermal water heaters. While not as well-known as the electric panels, solar water heaters are more efficient than the electricity-producing PV panels, harnessing up to 85 percent of the incoming sunlight, versus 15 to 20 percent for PV.

“Typically, your hot water portion of electricity is 25 to 30 percent of the electricity bill, and solar [thermal] typically reduces your overall bill by about 20 percent,” Donoghue said, adding that PV electric generally lops off an additional 30 to 70 percent.

Many of his customers receive financing on their solar systems, which can cost more than $30,000 for a residential PV system alone. However, a 30 percent federal tax credit for new PV systems, combined with a state tax credit of 35 percent capped at $10,500, brings the upfront costs to a level that he said many customers view simply as a sound investment.

“We do comparisons with treasuries and five-year CDs,” he said. “When you have no level of risk, you typically don’t get high returns. The risk in solar is that the sun is going to come up.”

Additionally, Donoghue has been getting an increasing number of calls from home builders who are hearing more of their customers asking for solar systems in new homes. He said the monthly savings generally outweigh the incremental increase in the buyers’ monthly mortgage payments.

Ronald Hess, whose house on the Intracoastal Waterway was one of the highlights of the tour, said during an Oct. 17 interview that his house was updated with alternative energy and efficiency improvements, including PV, solar thermal and geothermal.

He brought an electricity-generating photovoltaic system online in April 2011, which generates up to 4 kW of AC power for his home.

“It just boggles the mind,” he said of his energy savings, which brought his 3,700 square-foot home’s annual electricity bill down by nearly 90 percent. 

He now pays about $10 per month, thanks in part to the additional installation of geothermal heating and cooling.

“We started having problems with our A/C units; they were about 10 years old,” Hess said. “Frankly, everybody we talked to said that on the outside air-to-air units, after ten years you’re living on borrowed time.”

Rather than replacing them, however, Hess found that a geothermal “pump-and-dump” system would cost just $500 more than installing the equivalent HVAC capacity of traditional air-to-air units and came with a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years. 

Regarding energy use, Hess said his geothermal setup is rated at far above the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) of an air-to-air system.

“The beauty of geothermal is that not only is it more efficient, but they’re two-speed,” he said. “At a normal speed they’re 43 SEER, and at high speed they’re 24 SEER, opposed to the top-of-the-line air-to-air units we looked at, which were around 14 SEER.”

Another stop on the solar tour was the Monkey Junction residence of Deborah Mosca, who, along with her husband, experienced with residential PV at their previous home in San Diego, Calif. 

During an Oct. 18 interview, she explained that they decided soon after moving east to do the same at their new home, due to both environmental and monetary benefits.

“The cost to get a solar unit on our house here was lower than in California,” Mosca said. “The real question is the reason you’re going into it. Is it just money? Is it increasing the value of your property? Or is it to have an impact on the environment? For us it was all of those.”

She added that they sell their excess energy to Duke Energy when they produce more than they use in a month. The program allows them to “roll over” energy credits through the year if they have a surplus in a given month. However at the end of May, Duke resets their existing credits to zero, meaning this year they lost many of the credits they accumulated while consuming less energy in the spring. Mosca added that she hopes to turn more of that excess electricity into transportation once they bring their electric car back from California.

Programs that allow residences like the Moscas’ to sell electricity to the grid are known as power purchase agreements, and include non-utility solar installations owned by residents, businesses and other third parties. 

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s (IREC) annual report, released in July 2013, showed that power purchase agreements accounted for 93 percent of nationwide solar electricity generation. The United States’ residential installations of PV, while accounting for less than 15 percent of overall PV capacity, nearly doubled between 2010 and 2012. North Carolina currently ranks sixth in the nation for installed PV capacity with a total of 207.9 MW.

The report points to North Carolina as an up-and-coming leader in PV capacity, having doubled its installations from the previous year. Its 122 megawatts made up 4 percent of installed capacity nationwide in 2012. This echoes Donoghue’s take on the local market, which he said has been rapidly accelerating since he started Cape Fear Solar Systems in 2008.

“Solar is going to become the new granite countertop for homebuilders,” he said. “I’d say in five to eight years it’s going to become pretty standard on new homes.”


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