Sunshine's Bottom Line

Is going solar really such a bright idea?

I was listening to the buzz and whir of my laptop one quiet night when I started to obsess about the flow of electrons through the power cord that plugged into the multi-outlet strip connected to a printer, a scanner, a floor lamp, an iPod charger, an electric pencil sharpener, and half a dozen miscellaneous gadgets. I did a mental appliance audit of the house: stereo, TV, microwave, toaster, coffeepot, fridge, clock radio, space heater, ceiling fan.... How could it be that the electricity bill on my gizmo-cluttered desk in my overly consumptive, 1,400-square-foot California bungalow demanded a measly $31? I'm an excessive consumer! I am an environmental menace! Somebody, please fine me for my crimes!

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But alas, coal/gas/nuclear power is cheap. That's essentially what my friend Jesse—a solar panel installer—said as he shrugged off my request for a price quote on a photovoltaic roof system: "It won't pencil out." In truth, I was relieved to be let off the hook so easily. I wanted to pay my dues, but only to a point. Unlike kilowatts sucked from the grid, solar energy would require an up-front investment that could put a sizable dent in my budget for frivolous contraptions, among other things.

I confirmed Jesse's off-the-cuff economic assessment by consulting Clean Power Research, whose online Estimator (clean-power.com/nyserdaweb) told me that installing a $22,350 ($14,793 after state and federal rebates), 2.5-kilowatt system would save me $246 to $504 on electricity costs per year. Simple division told me that it would take at least 29 years to break even. With electricity rate increases, it would probably be more like 20.

From a purely economic perspective, the amount of energy you gobble up is the biggest indicator of whether going solar makes sense: The more you consume, the quicker the payoff. My meter registered 259 kilowatt-hours last month, about half of what the average California household consumes, and less than a third of the nationwide average (primarily because my household consists of just my husband and myself). Homeowners whose meters spin into the thousands can see an investment return in as little as seven years.

Geography also factors in, not so much because of sunshine ("If you put your hand out and see a shadow, there is enough sunlight to produce electricity," says George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project in Washington, D.C.) but because of electricity rates. Utility customers in states such as Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, and New York—where electricity is the most expensive—see faster returns than those in cheap-energy states such as Idaho and Washington, especially in places where the local utility allows residential meters to spin backward, sending excess energy to the grid and lowering power bills in the process.

State incentives can alter the economics significantly. New Jersey and Nevada, for instance, offer rebates that cut the cost by half. (See the database of state and federal incentives maintained by the North Carolina Solar Center at (dsireusa.org.) The vast majority of solar electric systems are in California, New Jersey, New York, and Arizona—all states that offer substantial rebates.

Of course, the decision to go solar is about more than the financials. "Some customers don't care that their solar system will take 20 years to pay back because they just want to have the satisfaction of their electricity coming from the sun," says Ryan Park, who sells solar installations. He expects his own home's system to pay for itself in 15 to 20 years. "I believe in the technology, and I also feel it is my responsibility to do what I can for our world."

Oh, right. The environment. The Estimator program also measured my potential reduction in carbon emissions: at least 4,735 pounds of CO2 each year, about the same amount that the TerraPass flight calculator told me I produced on a recent round-trip flight between California and Chile. It seems obvious that solar is an earth-friendly choice, but consider all the factors. Photovoltaic panels are made from unsavory materials such as silicon, lead, and ethylene vinyl acetate. Producing them—not to mention shipping and installation—requires energy. Researchers in the Netherlands recently calculated the "energy payback time," the amount of time needed for different solar panels to offset their production. The results ranged from 18 months to just under five years. "There are products that are greener than others," says Ian Gregory of Evergreen Solar, a manufacturer of photovoltaic modules that have an 18-month energy payback. "So it's good to shop around."

Another factor is timing. Assuming that the technology will become more efficient and affordable, is it smart to wait? "From the technology point of view, I think we definitely will see improvements," says Larry Sherwood, program manager for the nonprofit Interstate Renewable Energy Council in Latham, New York. "But it's the same kind of thing that happened with computers: You can always wait and get a better computer, but if you want the advantages and to use the computer, you should buy it today." Besides, incentives come and go. The $2,000 federal tax credit for solar photovoltaics, for instance, expires at the end of 2007.

"People analyze it to death," says Kurt Newick, a sales rep for Horizon Energy Systems. "The technology is extremely mature and reliable. There are no moving parts, there's nothing to wear out, they don't break. I mean, what's there to know?"

I'm still not sure I can afford the start-up costs, but I've begun soliciting price quotes and researching loans that could ease the initial sting. In the meantime, I'll unplug some unnecessary desktop gadgets—starting with the electric pencil sharpener. That's a move I'm sure will pencil out.