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Home improvement: The case for home solar

SETH LAPIDOW AND his dog show off the solar array he had installed for his home off Smith Street in Shoreham five years ago. A combination of the energy savings and government incentives has made the array a good investment.

We generally produce more than we consume, so our electric bill is often zero.
— Steve Koller

ADDISON COUNTY — Over the past two decades Americans have begun to embrace the idea that they can use solar energy to power their homes. The concept of capturing the energy from the sun and directing it not into some big government or commercial program, but into individual homes, has been accepted by thousands and thousands of homeowners, who have place hundreds of thousands of solar panels on their houses.
There were virtually no home installations of solar power arrays just 15 year ago, but this year there will be an estimated 19,000 in the United States, according to the Department of Energy.
The basic cost of solar systems has gone down, too. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that the cost of producing electricity using photovoltaic solar panels for residences has dropped from 51 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2010 to 15 cents per kWh in 2018. The DOE is aiming to help drive the cost down to 10 cents per kWh this year, and has set a goal of making photovoltaic panels produce electricity for homes at a rate of 5 cents per kWh by 2030 — nearly the same cost as using solar panels in the utility industry.
Some homeowners in Addison County have been among the pioneers who added on-site solar power to their residential electricity mix over the past few years. So far the results have been encouraging.
Seth Lapidow uses an “enormous array on top of a barn” to power his huge, drafty 18th-century farmhouse near Lake Champlain in Shoreham. 
To help pay for the array Lapidow worked with NeighborWorks Vermont, a organization that helps Vermonters lower their housing costs by retrofitting their homes to improve energy efficiency.
First, NeighborWorks helped Lapidow figure out just how much work needed to be done on the home to button it up — it was a lot. Lapidow said the home leaked air at remarkable rate.
“It was like we had a 30-foot hole in the ceiling,” he said.
The organization not only helped him plug the holes, but also come up with a plan to provide the appropriate amount of energy at a price he could afford. They looked to use electric heat pumps powered by solar panels for heating and cooling The array would also run appliances, which would enable Lapidow to reduce his dependence on fuel oil — an ecologically friendly choice. It misses out on the full potential of solar if you use it only to replace the electricity you now get from the electric company, Lapidow said.
“Having a big solar array to run (just) a refrigerator and your lights doesn’t make sense,” he said.
He didn’t fully divest of his oil-burner, but he said he lowered his monthly winter heating bill from perhaps $1,000 to an estimated $300-$400.
Lapidow leased the heat pumps from NeighborWorks and the organization gave him a modest loan with which he financed the purchase of solar panels from Same Sun of Vermont in Rutland. He could have leased the panels from Green Mountain Power, but he opted to purchase them outright with the loan. At the time he installed the Same Sun solar panels in 2015 he also got a tax credit that made it financially a better deal. Government credits and incentives have changed since then, so you need to check on the latest inducements while figuring out how much your solar installation would cost today
Lapidow heaped praise on NeighborWorks for the service they provided, and was incredulous that more of Vermonters don’t take advantage of it.
“Very few people know about it,” he said.
Same Sun’s installation of the array at the Lapidow property was not terribly disruptive — in part because it was installed on the roof of a barn 200 yards from the house. 
“It didn’t upset life too much,” Lapidow said. 
He had to bolster the roof to support the weight of the panels. Lapidow didn’t want to put the panels in the yard or field because, he said, “They are ugly on the ground.”
Lapidow purchased a 17.95kW solar array that is rated to provide 2,636 kW hours of power per year. It was more than they needed at first, but the power company paid from some of the excess power produced. Eventually, Lapidow helped found the company Vermont Pure CBD, which now uses up the solar power that the home doesn’t use. 
Like Lapidow in Shoreham, Steve Koller mounted the 27 home solar panels he bought from Same Sun on the south-facing roof of a barn near his home. The location was perfect for him as a homeowner.
“Zero maintenance and completely out of sight and out of mind,” Koller said.
A relatively early adopter of solar technology, Koller had the array installed in 2013. He said it went very smoothly.
“Same Sun managed all the technical and bureaucratic details and even helped us subsequently add our camp to our net metering plan a couple years after installation,” he said.
Like Lapidow, Koller’s array at some point provided more electricity than they needed in the house.
“Our electricity consumption had gone down after the kids moved out, and we were producing more than we were consuming,” he said. So, while Lapidow in Shoreham ported his excess power to his business, Koller worked it so that the value of the excess power offset the power bill at his camp.
Koller said the solar array has brought him the return he expected. 
“We generally produce more than we consume, so our electric bill is often zero,” he said. 
Like any major investment, solar was a moneymaker on day one. After owning the solar array for seven years, Koller figures he is at the break-even point where his savings is covering the cost of his upfront financial outlay. He acknowledges that the terms he got for selling excess power to Green Mountain Power (called net metering) were probably more favorable in 2013 than they might be now.
But now that he has reached break-even and beyond, Koller sees sunny days ahead — electricity wise.
“From now until the panels reach there end of life — 20 to 25 years from now — it is all savings, not to mention the increase in the value of our property,” he said.
Both men said they would install solar power at their homes again. Lapidow noted that the tax credit was pivotal in his decision and availability of the credit would shape his decisions in the future.
Koller was even more effusive in his evaluation of his solar array.
“I can’t think of an investment that yields a better return on the dollar,” he noted. “That said, the peace of mind that my wife and I share in the knowledge that we have gained control of at least a portion of our carbon footprint is priceless.”

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