Go Solar

BEC explores alternative energy
By: 
Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, Henry Dykema, owner of Sundance Solar in Roscoe, came to the Beartooth Electric Cooperative, Inc. (BEC) office to present solar energy options.
He described three types of solar power systems. First, there is the off grid system, the photovoltaic panels collect the energy from the sun and it is stored in a battery. When it reaches full charge it shuts off.
Second, there is the grid tied solar system with (inverter) no battery back up where the homeowner can sell power. However, if power fails the homeowner is also out of power.
Third, there is also the hybrid of a grid tied system. It has an inverter that applies the energy to all the loads of the house, sells the excess to the power company and also has a battery backup. Then if power fails at the utility, the homeowner’s battery kicks in and hopefully keeps the home going until power is restored. A generator could be added to keep the batteries charged longer. Each had its own benefits and limitations.
Dykema was asked whether solar panels collect the sun’s energy on a cloudy day. “Yes,” he replied.
It was also important to know that the capacity of a solar panel does not mean that is the wattage it is collecting 24/7. There can be a large amount collected in the morning but in the afternoon there may be a decreasing amount and none at night. That 200W solar panel may make 20 watts on a cloudy day.
With an off grid system, you change to “more natural” behavior such as doing laundry when the sun is up.
Sunlight is good but solar voltaics “don’t like the heat,” he said. If temperatures reach 90 degrees or more, energy collection may decrease.
BEC is in the process of installing net meters that can calculate any solar excess being sold to the Utility.
“It’s up to you how you deal with the way this is being back fed. To me, the net meter is best,” said Dykema, “because I can tell my customer you’re making an investment in power-you’ll slow your use of utility power down or you’ll get the same retail rate (from selling the power) as the utility is buying it.”
"Some companies say it’s unfair because they’re providing the transmission lines and they’re giving you the same rate as others. They should only give you the value of the electrons, not the available transmission."
Dykema said people could put in two meters to keep track of what this system makes and what you use. For example, the customer might be given 5 cents for every kilowatt hour produced and then the Utility charges back 7 cents per kwh for what is used.”
BEC General Manager, Kevin Owens indicated that the digital meter upgrade project taking place at BEC this year will only require one meter to be installed.)
“Obviously from my perspective,” Dykema said, “that reduces the power of my system by a third or by two thirds.” He does understand the logic.
He said NorthWestern Energy (NWE) is trying to find a way to make net people pay.
His response is “Everyone who changes their light bulbs to LED and reduces their power-you’re not going to say you’re going to pay more because you’re using less. You’re going to get into trouble if you do that. This is essentially the same.”
Likewise, Dykema argues it costs more to bring electric lines further than someone nearby but you’re not charging that person more. “So you shouldn’t be able to charge these people more.”
Dykema said by not charging more, “that’s what gives the most value to this (solar) system.”
Hopefully, you end up with a net zero electric bill but usually it just lowers the bill because people are used to using so much more power.
Dykema said, “Part of this thing is conservation. First thing is to look at all your loads and then we can get them down to a comfortable minimum. What I don’t want to do is to have is an electric glutton who just wants to do everything he wants to do and then also wants solar. I usually would say that’s dumb.”
Solar panels are pretty good in hail but heaters are not practical for snow on panels. “It's best to leave them alone. The total energy expected calculates lower production in winter.”
Having the grid tied system with sales to the Utility and battery backup costs over twice as much. A regular “grid-tied” system runs about $3/watt. That makes a $10,000 watt system cost $30,000 dollars.
If it’s also a battery based system it leaps to $6 or $7 watt.
“Once you get into the battery thing there’s huge variation-$30,000 or $10,000.”
A 3-5 year battery bank may last 3-5 years and need some maintenance. To last longer and be maintenance free will cost more, but he saw little need. “We’re not days without power, but hours.” Some solar survivalists will plan for Armageddon, “to be the only light on in the neighborhood.”
Instead he said, “You can get small battery bank. I know most people say the power doesn’t go out more than a half hour.” While “not entirely true” he said, “most of my customers on your grid are very happy with consistency of your power. Not all utilities are like that but you get high marks on consistency from these people.”
Costs have decreased with technology. In 1994, Dykema sold a building block panel with a 12 volt 75 watt capacity for $400. Now, he sells a 300 watt panel for $350.
BEC General Manager Kevin Owens said, “We’re surveying members. One of questions is if the co-op sets up solar and sells panels to members.”
Dykema said, “It’s like Fergus Electric (Co-operative). I think that’s a brilliant way to do this. A lot of people want to invest in solar but they may not have $30,000 but have $1,000 or $600 and can feel they’re part of the cooperative spirit in building a solar farm. Fergus was a big success. I think they sold their panels quickly.”
He cautioned, “You should probably price it at higher rate than I would sell for use of the panel.” BEC would be doing the installing, adding the wiring, etc.
The amount to charge was discussed from possibly $500 or $600 for Fergus while Owens heard it depends on land, range, etc., ranging from $500 to $900.
Weather maps show the amount of sun capacity expected in an area similar to maps for wind capacity. Calculate the voltage panels needed on the NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab) site.
Dykema reflected, “I say to NWE, if you push this too hard, if you say, ‘You’re a drain on the system, you’re costing us too much money, we’re going to give you half the rate instead of the full rate…’ Ultimately, this is my advice: They’re going to get off the grid altogether. The technology’s there now for pretty seamless off grid living and the desire is there. If you give people the choice–to have no power bill and still have ‘my lifestyle’, that is the sentiment.”
A board member commented, “If you have an extra $100,000.”
Dykema predicts, “In the next 10-20 years technology is getting to point in instead of costing $100,000 it will be $20,000 (to get off grid). That could be a bigger hit than buying their power. That is the possibility, especially with the technology.” Utilities pressuring with charges could lose all their solar customers “100 percent.”
He said, “Once they can change their lifestyle a little…no laundry at night…It isn’t hard to live off the grid.”
Dykema has lived off the grid since 1992, because no other source was available. “The goal was that when my mother-in-law came to visit she wouldn’t notice.” He smiled. “It failed. She commented how, ‘Our lighting was a little dreary!’”
But, “We had all the comforts of home, raised two kids, video games, cd’s, and we weren’t buying any power from the grid. Things do change pretty quickly.”
See beartooth.org for a solar powerpoint.

Funding assistance for Solar Installations:

State: $500 tax credit; Renewable Energy Systems Exemption—An exemption from property taxes for solar arrays, up to $20,000. DEQ’s Alternative Energy Loan Program—Renewable energy loans for up to $40,000 with a fixed interest rate of 3.25%. Note: Due to a recent Legislative fund transfer, the Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program is projected to receive more requests for loans than funds are available. Check site for criteria of prioritizing applicants.
Federal credits to 2019 The amount of the solar rebate subsidy varies by program, but some are generous enough to cover up to 30 percent of your solar power system cost. The federal government allows you to deduct 30% of your solar power system costs off your federal taxes through an investment tax credit (ITC).
According to Energysage.com:
“The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is a generous incentive from the federal government. It was put in place to encourage uptake of solar energy and other renewable energy systems in 2006. It has been tremendously successful in this goal: the number of solar installations in the US has increased 1,600 percent since the ITC was introduced.
About the Investment Tax Credit for solar: How it works
The key thing to remember about the ITC is this: In order to benefit from it, you must first have sufficient tax liability. That is, you must owe at least as much money in taxes as the amount of your credit.
You will be eligible to receive the credit if you have a solar electricity system or a  solar hot water system in service (i.e. fully installed and connected to the grid) through the end of 2019. After that point – unless Congress intervenes by extending the duration or otherwise changing the requirements – the ITC value will be scaled down each year until 2022 when the incentive will expire.
The ITC allows you to subtract up to 30% of what you spend on your solar energy system from your tax bill, thus effectively reducing the overall amount that you pay. For example, if the net cost of your system (i.e. the cost after you deduct cash rebates available through your state government or local utility) was $10,000, you qualify to claim $3,000 under the ITC, reducing the total cost of your system to $7,000.
The ITC does not work like an up-front ‘discount’; it is not applied to the cost of your system at the time of purchase. Instead, you pay for the system up-front (or with a solar loan) and then it is your responsibility to claim for the ITC when you file your taxes. This means that you need to know ahead of time whether your tax liability will be large enough for you to take advantage of the ITC in the first place.
Please note: EnergySage has written on the topic of the ITC in good faith, with the aim of guiding you to make a well-informed decision about going solar. However, the US tax code is complicated, and what we have written should not take the place of advice from a qualified tax professional. Consult your tax advisor before deciding what is best for you.”

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