Get Your GreenBack Tompkins: Falling prices make solar a solid buy
Written by Guillermo Metz Guest columnist
Feb. 21, 2013
Solar energy prices are “falling precipitously,” according to a report released in November by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The government lab’s annual photovoltaic price report looked at more than 150,000 solar installations going back to 1998.
In the last few years, the price has fallen to historic levels. At this point, solar power is not only the cleanest, most reliable electricity-producing technology available, but those mainly concerned about its cost will be happy to know that it is now also one of the cheapest.
Your greatest savings will still be realized through energy efficiency, but in some parts of the world, large-scale solar is now the cheapest way to make electricity on a per-watt basis. Of the more common kinds of systems we see around here — residential and small commercial systems — the solar panels themselves account for roughly half the cost of a system; the other half consists of labor, permitting and grid connections. And that’s where homeowners are starting to take matters into their own hands.
It can be as simple and informal as a few neighbors going in on a group buy. Approach a solar installer with the promise of 100,000 watts (10 to 20 typical-sized residential systems), and chances are they will give you a better rate than if you went it alone.
Not only will they benefit from buying a truckload of panels at a time, but also from being able to set up shop in one neighborhood for several weeks while they install them. And they will likely be willing to pass on some of those savings to homeowners.
Some communities have started organizing solar soirees or solar salons to serve as Tupperware parties for solar (except the host generally isn’t selling anything). Others are conducting solar tours through their communities that allow interested homeowners to talk with neighbors who have installed systems.
And then there are leasing options, in which a solar installer will basically rent your roof space for the right to put solar panels there. With enough rooftops, they become a power company — in the process qualifying for a host of government incentives available to large clean-energy producers — and make a profit by selling the power back to the grid.
A successful model that combines the best of these options — and is gaining traction across the country — is “Solarize.” Designed to address the most common barriers to the adoption of solar — high upfront cost, customer inertia and complexity of the systems — the model hinges on a formalized group taking the initiative.
The group (typically a planning board, community not-for-profit or community volunteers) chooses one or two installers through a competitive bid process and then holds public meetings to talk about the benefits of solar and how the systems work, providing a venue for homeowners to ask questions. At the same time, the chosen installer describes what they are able to offer — the type of panels and per-watt cost of the systems, often with a tiered pricing structure so that the more customers who sign up, the cheaper it is for everyone.
The first Solarize program in the Southern Tier is in the works. Formed by a group of Dryden, Caroline and Danby residents, they just released their request for proposals to installers and will hold meetings starting in late April. Go to solarizetompkinsse.org for more information. Other towns have already shown interest and may be forming Solarize groups as early as next year. Clearly, the time is now to go solar.
Guillermo Metz is on the Energy Team with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. The Get Your GreenBack Tompkins column appears weekly in The Journal during the heating season. For more information on how to reduce your energy consumption, call 272-2292 or visit getyourgreenbacktompkins.org or www.upgradeupstate.org.