Living in the Sunshine State, it makes sense to harness this free, abundant energy to lower our electric bills and reduce our carbon footprint. That’s why I invested in four kinds of solar energy for my home several years ago. Solar heats my water, my pool, helps heat/cool my house and provides electricity. Some types I recommend. Others I don’t.
There are two types of solar technology: thermal and electric. Solar thermal is what heats the water in a hose left in the sun. This technology has been perfected over many decades. For me, it delivers the biggest energy savings for my investment and is highly reliable. Solar electric (called Photovoltaics or PV) is newer. It’s the technology used in commercial solar farms. Panels collect sunlight, which is then converted into electricity. Being in a state with NO public policies supporting solar users, I’ve been disappointed with my return on investment – and my experience dealing with the local power company. It’s been a nightmare! In most states, solar customers are rewarded for feeding energy back to the gird, making the ROI much better than mine.
SOLAR THERMAL WATER HEATING
Absolutely a no-brainer! I enjoy an abundant supply of free hot water almost every day. Best investment ever. The tank fits in same space as a conventional water heater. Mine is highly insulated and has a second tank on top for the liquid that gets heated by a roof-mounted solar collector. It works by heat-exchange, meaning the liquid that runs through the solar collector is not what we shower in. This “drain-back” technology protects the system during freezes. Words can’t express the pleasure of using all the hot water we want, knowing it’s absolutely free. And it gets really hot too, particularly in the summer! My son says it even feels healthier than electrically heated water. It has an electric backup when there are several overcast days in a row, which we rarely use.
SOLAR THERMAL POOL HEATING
Another great return on investment! So simple and effective. When the pool pump runs, water from the pool goes up on the roof where it’s heated in a series of solar panels. Then it’s circulated back into the pool until it reaches the perfect temperature. We like it toasty! We can now swim nine to ten months out of the year. It costs nothing to operate since the pump’s running anyway. And it’s an affordable upfront investment. Paid for itself the first year in what we saved not using gas to heat the pool.
SOLAR-ASSISTED AIR CONDITIONING
In the spring of 2011, I purchased a new type of solar-assisted HVAC. What a brilliant innovation in solar thermal technology! The roof-mounted solar collector supercharges a liquid that helps my heat pump use less energy. The brighter the sunshine, the greater the efficiency, even in winter. My old heat pump pulled 24 amps and never fully cooled my old, poorly insulated home. My new heat pump pulls half the amps and effortless maintains whatever temperature we like. I like it really chilly in the summer! I confuse…I keep my home at 70 degrees all summer and now use half the energy! For me, another no-brainer!
SOLAR ELECTRICITY (PHOTOVOLTAICS)
I have a 5kw photovoltaic system with 24 roof-mounted panels. My system is grid-tied, which means I feed whatever electricity I don’t use back to JEA (the Jacksonville Electric Authority). I generate power during the day, then use JEA energy at night. It’s like using the power company as a large, efficient battery backup, except that I’m unable to use my own solar-generated power when JEA goes down. I must be honest. I’m not thrilled with my return on investment – mostly because I don’t live in a solar-friendly state that fairly compensates renewable energy providers – but also because I have no electricity when JEA goes down.
I’ve also endured one nightmare after another with JEA. Because I was one of their first solar customers, it took them years to figure out what to do with me. They turned off my power three times because of their own mistakes in tracking my energy consumption. Then changed my meter three times – each time charging me for the energy I generated, instead of crediting me. In the summer of 2010, when I finally started seeing a savings, they forced me on Net Metering – yes, against my will. It’s supposed to track my power separately from theirs so I get a credit. It took them three months to correct the billing, so once again I paid them for the power I generated all summer when I should have seen my greatest savings. And, of course, JEA charges more for the power they provide than the power I provide… plus taxes and other fees! Such are the trials of being a solar pioneer.
In summary, I don’t recommend PV at this time. To me, it was an expensive investment that hasn’t delivered the return on investment I hoped for. 2011 was the first year JEA didn’t mess up my billing, change my meter or shut off my power (and water!). And yes, the savings were better than previous years. I know of other local PV users who are thrilled with their results. So please don’t shy away from solar PV based on my experiences. Even without big financial savings, I admit it feels good using earth-friendly, alternative energy.
I’m currently researching options for an grid-tied battery backup option so I can go off-grid when JEA goes down. I’m waiting for battery technology to advance and costs to come down. And who knows, Florida may some day implement policies that fairly compensate me for sharing my clean, renewable energy.
COSTS AND SAVINGS
Before solar I used around 20,000 kilowatt hours from JEA each year. In 2010, I used 7500 – and that’s with JEA charging me four months (instead of crediting me) for my solar-generated power. In 2011, with my new solar-assisted AC, I’m on target to lower my JEA use to 4000 kwh. That’s one-fifth the JEA power I once used. I’d save even more if didn’t keep my thermostat at 70 degrees all summer! After sweating it out in my energy-inefficient home for 22 years to save energy, you can’t blame a girl for enjoying some affordably cold air!
Keep in mind that JEA consistently raises rates, which we can expect because of the costs, wars, political unrest and inevitable shortages regarding foreign oil. So my old 20,000 kwh costs more and more each year. Without compensating for rate hikes, my JEA bills have gone from $2350 to $550 a year! That’s a lot of savings! And I never worry about rate hikes! After various rebates and federal tax credits (that were still in place when I went solar), my total investment was $22,000. Using simple ROI based on an annual savings of $1800, I’ll be enjoying FREE solar energy by 2022. That feels good!
I highly recommend all types of solar thermal technology (water heater, pool heater & solar-assisted AC). The initial costs are lower than PV and deliver my biggest return on investment. PV is expensive, particularly now that Florida no longer offers any rebates and has no policies like other states to fairly compensate solar providers for the energy they generate.
My favorite benefit is the feeling I get doing my little part to reduce our reliance on foreign oil and fossil fuel. When I hear my neighbors complain about their outrageously high, ever-rising electric bills, I empathize. I don’t dare tell them I actually look forward to getting my electric bill!
UPDATE May 2013. The Florida Legislature finally passed a bill exempting residential renewable energy investments from property tax assessments. My solar investment was tax exempt when I bought it. Then lawmakers let the exemption lapse, even though voters mandated its approval in a state-wide vote. Now solar equipment is once again property tax exempt.