Search for the Solar Grail – Part 2

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Continued from Part 1

10:30 AM – the doorbell rings on Martin Luther King day. It’s 12 degrees out and the guy at the door – in blue coveralls with the NStar logo – is from the electric utility company. Carmine – that’s his name – is here to install two “net-meters” to prep for our upcoming Photovoltaic installation. He explains that normal electric meters go only one direction, but net-meters go forwards and backwards as well.

A Story of Saving More on Electric Bills

In the last few weeks we’ve signed all of the paperwork and so we’re on our way to an early February installation date with our PV vendor who beat out four other bidders. If you saw my prior post, we went with “Vendor 2” which – drum-roll please – is Independent Power systems. Based in Boulder, Colorado with branches in Massachusetts and Montana, they offered the best price per kW of capacity and are using SunPower panels, some of the most efficient on the market. This means we can install more panels and produce more electricity. And that means we’ll make more money selling the SRECs and save more on our electricity bills. IPS was also the only company that took the time look inside the attic crawlspace at the roof structure and then clambered up on the roof to get exact measurements. IPS went the extra mile and consulting with confirmed my review of all the numbers.

And about all that paperwork – there was a fair amount of it with all of the incentives and credits and companies involved. It’s something the industry should definitely try to streamline, but all told, it probably took no more than a few hours of work, even factoring in that I actually read every one of the 26 pages in the pre-paid lease contract.

So today the utility is getting its ducks lined up too. All of those documents and notifications have led NStar to my door. What I still find amazing, though, is that the electric utility which makes money by selling electricity is actually helping me to buy less electricity. I’d be remiss if I didn’t applaud the enlightened utility regulation which rewards them for saving electricity and not just for building new power plants. Sometimes this is referred to as selling “negawatts.” To paraphrase Ben Franklin, a power plant saved is a power plant earned.

How Net Meters Give You Instant ROI

And here’s how it works with our utility: those net-meters meters will give us credit for all of the electricity we generate on our roof. And when we’re making more than we’re using, the meter will run backwards, effectively storing up credit for us to use at night or on a rainy day. If our system is in balance, as our installer predicts, each year we should produce almost exactly what we use, and our bill will be a very amount of under $10 month for use of the transmission lines. At the end of the year, if we generate more than we use, although we can’t sell it, we can give the “extra” electricity credit to a relative or friend.

The thought that we will soon break a small link in the energy monopoly and help build a new distributed generation economy is appealing. There are many people today who say we cannot possibly run the world without fossil fuels. Yet the evidence tells us otherwise. There are more jobs in renewables and efficiency, and most of them cannot be “off-shored.” And when the cost of renewables is nearly on par with fossil fuels then we can see that the world is changing. We are truly at an inflection point and as Richard Branson’s Independent Power systems Carbon War Room puts it, “Over 50% of the climate change challenge can be addressed today – and profitably – by existing technologies, under existing policy. This is an opportunity marked as a crisis – arguably the largest wealth creation opportunity of our lifetime.”

And if we actually priced coal and oil properly, with all of the hidden costs to society factored in, then the benefits of cutting fossil fuel use would be even more starkly defined.

Maybe because it was Martin Luther King Day I was reminded of a quote from another civil rights pioneer, Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy spoke about sending forth a “tiny ripple of hope” which would cross with “a million different centers of energy” to grow in strength and change the world. Our solar panels may only be a single installation, but they have the potential to inspire many more, and gradually we will wean ourselves from a dependence on fuels which harm our health and the planet.

Best of all, we can do this not only because we will leave our children a better planet, but also because it can save us some serious money while we’re here.

Eric Grunebaum
Cambridge, MA

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