April 30, 2012

My husband's story: Solar Energy

Hello - this is Scott, again: We installed solar energy on our home a few months back - and we have had several requests to find out more about the impact on our overall energy usage (and our associated electric bills), so...

Now that we finally have seen a couple months of our electric bills - we can report: It is going GREAT!!!

THE PREP: Before we ever considered solar, we followed the 5 R's. We "refused" unnecessary usage by donating most small appliances (coffee maker, food processor, vacuum cleaner, microwave) and turning off electronics when not in use. We also tried to "reduce" our existing energy usage as much as possible by installing dimmers, painting our interior a light color, and taking basic steps around insulating (attic and basement insulation and weather proofing our windows/doors), and turning the thermostats down (in my office and the house).

OUR BASELINE: Our total electric energy usage for the previous 12 month period was 5431 kWh - mainly associated with lighting, home electronics, the blower on our gas insert fireplace, and the electric heating in my basement office (I wear a puff jacket on all but the warmest days). We use natural gas for our cooking, tank-less water heater, and our primary heating (our gas insert).

THE DECISION TO GO SOLAR: I like to do things by the numbers (hey, Bea is the "artsy" creative one, but I am an engineer by training, so I like numbers...). So there was no way that I was going to make an investment if it did not make any financial sense, especially working in a start-up these last four years (i.e., less than stable financial situation). Well, the bottom-line is that the numbers did make sense - we are using our savings from the zero waste lifestyle to fund a 20-year solar lease (to provide more than 90% of our anticipated power for the next 20 years) providing us with a return on investment of 13%.  The plan was also based on adding comfort to our lives (e.g., being to be able to work from home without a puff jacket) and making room for the future (one of our goals is to ultimately get an electric car).

THE IMPACT: So what has the impact been?  Well, we did actually turn up the heat - so I don't have to wear the puff all the time. But despite the relaxation of the "thermostat tyranny", we have seen a huge decrease in our month bills:
  • For our first full month (FEB 13 to MAR 14): We used negative 5 kWh (our meter ran backwards). Of course, in Northern California, we had a sunny, warm February, with virtually no rain. For the same period in 2011, we used 601 kWh.
  • For the 2nd month (MAR 14 to APR 13): We used 141 kWh. Last month was cold and very rainy (i.e., less solar power), we had guests and turned up the electric heaters. For the same period in 2011, we used 567 kWh.
  • Bottomline: Our total electric bill for two months is $17.50, plus $8.88 in unavoidable taxes, etc. For comparison sake, the same two months last year cost us $207.28.
  • Environmental Impact: As of Friday, April 27, Solar City happily informs me that we have generated 1579 kWh of electricity, eliminating 2022 lbs. of CO2 since installation (equivalent to 1.0 mature trees). 

I have to admit that we have learned a lot about solar energy during this process (e.g., solar installation, financing, net metering, etc.). But it did not stop there...In fact, as part of the deal, we also received an energy efficiency audit…and apparently I did not do such a great job on insulating our home during the "prep" step.  We found out that we were losing 43% of our heat (!) through air leakage, so we are taking further steps to better insulate our house, by adding insulation in the attic, and sealing the drafty floor boards from the crawl space below. We are also looking for more energy efficient bulbs to fit our dining room's chandelier. Next winter should show further improvement in energy savings!

I am sure that Bea has other plans in store as well...maybe we will "simplify" our kitchen by eliminating our gas-powered stove and replace it with a simple electric-powered hotplate ;)