For the Sustainable Living Center, the spring and summer months bring many opportunities to interact with the public at community events. We get many questions on a variety of sustainability topics, and we share information and ideas to, hopefully, inspire and help bring about change. However, questions about solar energy have been a constant in our experience.
Since the beginning of time, the sun has held the key to life on planet Earth. Before modern times, when we have harnessed the power of the sun through technology, ancient civilizations used passive solar techniques such as orientation, overhang and thermal mass to benefit from its immense power. The fascination with the sun and its incredible potential continues today — the urge to embrace this resource seems so natural and basic. Let’s explore changes taking place in residential solar, why it can make sense to explore solar photovoltaics for the home and how advancements in technology will continue to shape the future of solar and its role in electricity generation.
For most, harnessing the power of the sun means offsetting home electricity use through the installation of solar PV panels. In our local climate, for homes using electricity as their primary heat source, solar PV can make a lot of sense and the relatively high upfront cost will generally be ‘paid back’ in 5-10 years on systems that can last for thirty years or more. For nonelectric heated homes, the cost of switching to an electric heat source should also be considered, as space and water heating are among the top energy users in our homes. The adage ‘you have to spend money to save money’ rings true in the case of solar, meaning that if a utility bill is small, the time required to pay back the investment will be longer. However, the decision to install solar is not always a financial one. That solar is clean renewable energy that sets a positive example for others and reduces one’s carbon footprint is reason enough for many.
In recent years, the cost of solar PV systems has decreased dramatically even as panels have increased in efficiency and power output. Advanced technology, such as the use of micro inverters, can provide better solutions today and even considerations such as choices in frame color are signs that the residential solar industry is responding to consumer feedback. Storage options or battery backup systems have also advanced, becoming more cost effective and increasing in capacity. These can provide interim power in the event that there is a grid failure. Incentives to install solar are also available. In Washington and Oregon, net metering is legislated and requires utilities to credit the difference between the production of the solar PV system and electrical use, if applicable, to the customer. A federal tax credit of 30 percent is in effect on PV equipment and installations completed through 2019, reduces to 26 percent in 2020 and 22 percent in 2021, when it expires altogether. Loan products that encourage investments in renewable energy, such as Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union’s Energy-Smart Loan (psccu.org), help homeowners fund systems at great rates. Finally, SLC has the great fortune, thanks to the generosity of a local donor, and within the framework of the SLC’s Community Energy Efficiency Program, to offer a local rebate of $3,000 max for a limited number of PV installations in the Walla Walla Valley. All of these factors are helping contribute to increased solar adoption in the residential sector.
What does the future hold for solar? According to a May 2019 article in PV Magazine, the impact of tariffs on Chinese goods has had a negligible effect on the industry as major suppliers are producing, or shifting production, of panels and inverters in Europe, India and Mexico. Costs are decreasing for utility-scale production, as battery technology, cost and capacity are helping make solar an increasingly viable option. Based on a recent Forbes article, a utility in CA will be able to produce solar electricity for just two cents per kWh, less than current production methods using nonrenewable fuels. Finally, advancements in the science of solar production continue to bode well for the future. News from MIT earlier this month stated that breakthroughs are being made on a decades-old effort to enhance the efficiency of solar panels. To say the future looks sunny then, would not be wrong.
We look forward to continuing to having great conversations with our community about solar energy and its potential, helping deploy solar in our Valley and seeing solar energy become as ordinary (and extraordinary) as the sunrise each day. For links to article sources, please visit our blog at slcww.org/blog. We can also be reached by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone us at 509-524-5228.
Erendira Cruz is the executive director of the Sustainable Living Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Montana State University.