Solar Panels: Our Story

December 2018

Mr. and Ms. Green Jeans

As a background to this story, I’d like to share our energy and consumption habits.  We have tried over the years to hold and maintain a green energy ethic, including conservation, re-use, and recycling.  We converted our old boiler from fuel oil to the highest efficiency natural gas boiler we could find ten years ago.  Our hot water is on demand.  When we buy a fridge, or dishwasher, or washing machine, we always look for the most energy efficient.  We’ve swapped out light bulbs for LED’s or CFL’s wherever possible.  We garden and we compost.  We cook from scratch a lot and stay away from pre-packaged foods, when we can.  We take our bags when we go grocery shopping, and refuse plastic bags whenever possible. We save and re-use when we can’t. We bundle our newspaper and fill the recycling bin.  We bought our house big enough to raise our family, but no bigger.  When I was working, I either bicycled to work or took the bus, keeping my driving in to less than a dozen times a year.  Our strategy is to buy quality new and then wear it out over a longer period of time before replacing.  If it can be repaired, we generally will fix it before replacing it.  (Other than books) we have shied away from owning things, especially now that the kids are out of the house.  

And in raising a family and living our lives, we have made knowing compromises with the environment.  The natural gas that warms our house and cooks our food is still a fossil fuel, and while cleaner than coal or fuel oil, is not ideal.  We have and use central air conditioning, increasingly so in recent years.  Either it has been warmer or we are older, or both, and no we are not getting rid of it. We still have two cars, and although one is a Prius, the other car is an small land yacht that gets 18 mpg (we try not to drive that one when we can).  I have a gas-powered lawnmower. We eat meat.   We fly across country to visit family, our contrails scratching across the sky.

Why Solar Now?

I would like to say that our decision to install solar photovoltaic panels came from a galvanizing moment, but in fact resulted from the convergence of a several seemingly non-related events.  In no order of importance, the first was probably my retirement from State Service.  For those of you who haven’t retired from the Commonwealth, there is a nice little cherry on top besides getting the sought-after pension.  If you have been reasonably healthy and have worked a reasonable number of years, you accumulate a healthy reserve of sick leave. At retirement, the Commonwealth will buy it from you at a set formula, which could result in your getting the equivalent of up to a dozen extra paychecks, all at once (closer to 7 in my case).  If you have any unused annual leave, that is thrown in on top.  So even after taxes, you find yourself looking at a last pay statement that could indulge most of your most modest fantasies.

The second event was our trip to Scotland, a week after I retired.  Now, almost nothing from the trip is relevant to this story.  It was a wonderful and exciting journey through the Highlands, worthy in its own right.  However, we did notice a proliferation of large wind mills and wind farms throughout the Highlands, as well as more than an occasional solar panel.  This in a country more noted for foggy moors than tropical sun.  It turns out that Scotland, the entire country, has set a goal of 100% renewables for electric energy by 2020, and 11% of all heat demand by the same year. Renewables in Scotland include wind (onshore and offshore), hydro, wave, tidal, biomass, solar, and geothermal.  Being Scots, yes, they are on target to meet those goals.  Now Scotland has a wee more than 5 million people, with 20% in rural areas, so it is not that large a country.  The United States has 22 states with more people than Scotland.  States close to Scotland in population include: Alabama, South Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado, and Wisconsin.  So you could visualize the equivalent of Scotland in several places in the US.  But in no state are renewable targets like Scotland’s being set and made.  The closest is Hawaii, with a target of 100% renewable but by 2045.  Scotland is a western, industrialized country. Hell, they invented industrialization. We are a western, industrialized country.  We’ve even acquired a lot of Scots through immigration.  But outside of a few pockets in California, Arizona, Texas, and the Southwest, there is not this level of commitment to renewables. Scotland is making it work, and they are not idiots, and (as Scots would have it) they are making it pay off.

The third event was the release of several world climate reports this Fall, beginning with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, released October 8th, followed by the Fourth National Climate Assessment (November 23rd), and the NOAA Report Card on the Arctic (December 3rd).  The tie between human-induced emissions of COinto the atmosphere and accelerating climate change was presented at Toronto 30 years ago with a call for world action.  Collectively, these 2018 reports reaffirm the science behind climate change and demonstrate that the original projections for the world heating up were in fact too conservative and that the rate of change is faster than we thought.  The bottom line is that unless we as a world society make substantial changes in the emissions of CO2over the next 12 years– emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels – our children will face a substantially hotter planet and everything that comes with it.  The call for action is now.

There was one other reason to fan the urgency for action. Currently, the Federal Government gives a 30% tax credit for installation of solar panels.  If you have an annual Federal tax bill, this is real money. The credits were due to expire in 2016, but were extended through legislation.  The December 2015 tax bill extended the credits through 2021, but the full 30% credit is only good through 2019.  As we have seen with this Federal Administration, there is an open hostility toward renewables, shared by many republicans in Congress.  Prior to the November 2018 election, there was a palpable chance that the credits could go away entirely in early 2019.  The clear message was that it was the time to act.

The elements for the decision to install solar PV panels were in place:  a predilection toward green energy, an urgency, a vision of someone actually doing this (the Scots), and enough funds to pay for it.  If there was anything resembling a triggering event, it was a domestic disagreement over the second car, a a big lumbering beast that gets terrible fuel economy (18 mpg). Nicknamed “the Couch” for its ride, both of us hate the car and hate driving it.  The saving graces were that it is paid for, mechanically sound, and is only used as a backup vehicle.  Both of us wanted to replace it, but we could not agree with what.  Linda wanted another Prius, which we both like and appreciate.  I wanted either to get rid of the second car entirely and go down to one car (probably not practical at our point in our lives), or to get an electric car like a Bolt or Leaf and make the electric our primary local car, saving the Prius for trips. Because we could not come to an agreement, and status quo could work, we dropped the idea for a change in cars. Instead, we took part of the payout to reduce the mortgage on the house and started our research into solar PV (photovoltaic) panels.

The Green Payoff

Solar PV systems can work financially, even in a place like Central Pennsylvania (see my post on Solar Economics).  However, to be clear, economics was not the primary driver for our decision.  We made our decision more for other reasons, but didn’t want to take a bath on the costs.

The recent news on greenhouse gases, especially CO2, is uniformly scary.  If we do not act now as a society, we (by we, I mean our children and our grandchildren) face a greatly warmed and destabilized planet.  Yesterday, I heard a vivid analogy.  Our house is on fire and our children and grandchildren are in the attic. How do we get them out?  I’m not saying that installing solar panels will save the planet, or cure cancer, or whatever. But I think this it is a meaningful act.  Here is what we are facing.  We are dumping carbon, in the form of CO2, into the environment at unprecedented rates. In order to keep world temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degree centigrade (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels, we need to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (in 12 years) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. This is what the Paris Climate Accords called for.  Even with only a 1.5 degree increase, we would face stronger storms, more erratic weather, dangerous heat waves, rising seas, and largescale disruption to infrastructure and migration patterns.  Past 1.5 degrees, we will see hotter summers, larger and more severe storms, longer droughts in areas, rising sea levels and an acceleration in rising sea levels, decrease in agricultural productivity, and a destabilized environment in places where there is currently political and economic unrest. Just look at Syria, for example.

Is our conversion to solar going to halt all this? Nope.  In the United States alone, in 2017, the electric power sector put 1,744 million metric tons of CO2 into the environment.  The current population of the US is 325 million residents, so each man, woman, and child is responsible for 5.37 metric tons of CO2each year, just from electric production.  Our modest 7,500 kWh of annual electric generation saves somewhere between 3.1 and 7.3 metric tons of CO2each year, about what one person would generate based on a national average.  Removing this CO2from the environment reduces US  greenhouse gas emissions from electric generation by 0.000000308 percent.  Whoopee!

Still, each of us has a responsibility to be good citizens, not just of the United States, but of the world.  And to quote Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

We want our action to be a call for action.  Conveniently we are just across from the New Cumberland Library.  Maybe seeing solar panels by patrons of the library will start a conversation.  We are trying to start a conversation by merely posting this blog.  We want everyone to go solar, as long as they can manage it.  Ask us how.  We want and need everyone to start thinking about energy conservation and how to reduce each person’s carbon footprint. And we need everyone to press their legislators on ways to support carbon emission reduction through public policy.  Upping renewable targets would be a start.  A carbon tax would be another.  Exempting solar installations from income tax and property taxes would be a good thing.  The Commonwealth should restart and fund the Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar Program, which ended in 2013. 

A rapidly warming planet is no boutique issue. Remember, the attic is on fire and our children and grandchildren are trapped in there.

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