By Emily J. Weitz
Our nation’s dependence on foreign oil is a subject that is impossible to avoid. With gas prices surpassing $4 per gallon and wars ravaging oil-rich nations, the need to find another source of energy has only grown more pronounced since it dominated the presidential elections in 2008.
While the link between oil and solar energy is not direct (a house that’s heated by oil is not going to easily morph into a house heated by solar), the connection is certainly there.
“Most of the solar systems are replacing electricity as opposed to oil,” says Mike Bailis, Co-Owner of SunNation in Southampton and Vice-Chairman of Long Island Solar Energy Industries Association (LISEIA). “But what’s the difference between a dollar saved on your electric bill and a dollar saved on oil? A dollar is a dollar.”
As people are finding their non-negotiable expenses rising to an unpalatable amount, they are starting to look at alternative ways to power their lives. And the sun might be the brightest idea there is.
Businesses involved in installing solar energy systems are generally run by passionate, progressive people who have a lot to say about the issue. But the consumers who invest in solar are growing more diverse. It isn’t just the greenest folks looking to make a political statement. It’s not even just about lowering your carbon footprint.
“Solar grew out here on the East End first because people like healthy living, and being in touch with the environment,” according to Gary Minnick, President of Go Solar in Riverhead. “It matches the lifestyle of a lot of people who want to live in the Hamptons.”
But then, once the federal and state governments and LIPA started offering incentives to make the investment more affordable, switching to solar became a good move financially.
“Now that [solar technology] is more advanced, it really makes sense financially. People are buying solar because it’s cheaper. That’s the new customer. Now solar is moving into the average household everywhere on Long Island,” said Minnick.
There have been people in solar powered houses off the grid for decades. But solar energy became much more mainstream in 1999, when New York State passed the Solar Choice Act. This basically allowed houses powered by solar to hook up to the grid.
“The law required utility companies like LILCO and LIPA to buy power back from those homeowners,” said Minnick. “That means when people’s roofs were generating energy that they couldn’t use, it went back into the larger system. Every house that has solar on it is a power plant. The power they generate from their rooftops is put out into the whole grid and infrastructure.”
If a homeowner produces more energy than he or she consumes, when LIPA comes to read the meter they will find that it has spun backwards. When this happens, the consumer will not just have a lower bill – he or she will actually get paid.
Everything was going swimmingly for the solar industry, with businesses reporting growth rates of about 30 percent per year between 1999 and 2009.
“In 2009,” says Bailis, “rebates were very high, tax credits were good, and the cost of equipment was dropping due to efficiencies of production and a glut of solar modules.”
But business got a little too good, and in October of 2010 LIPA could no longer afford to keep offering rebates. The program was shut down, and sales slowed. The harsh winter didn’t help, and “The industry took a hit,” says Bailis.
“But now we’re recovering,” he added. “There is some significant legislation that was moved forward in Albany last week.”
The New York Solar Jobs Act would set the target to produce 5000 megawatts of solar energy by 2025.
“This would make a huge difference in the solar industry,” says Bailis. “Right now there are between 70 and 75 megawatts in total produced in the state.”
Another big boost to the solar energy business on Long Island is the announcement just a few days ago that LIPA will be offering rebates again.
“LIPA will offer a rebate of up to $1200 to homeowners who install a solar thermal hot water system to preheat their water,” says Mary McPartland of SunStream USA. “This means, SunStream, as a solar contractor comes out to your house, puts in two attractive solar thermal panels, and uses the sun’s rays to preheat your home’s hot water.”
This rebate, in conjunction with tax credits, brings the cost of installation down to about $3700. And with $800 per year in savings on your hot water bill, McPartland says “the payback is just four years!”
Switching to solar can mean a variety of things. These solar water heating systems “pick up the heat from solar panels and transfer it down to the water,” says Minnick.
“This cuts down on the oil or gas you use, and it can get rid of your hot water bill,” he said.
Then, of course, there are traditional solar panels that can replace your electric bill. But unless a house is really built to be solar heated, you probably won’t be replacing your heating bill. A solar house is like “living inside a solar panel,” says Minnick.
“Solar houses take heat from the daytime and move it through the floor (slab of concrete) to store it,” he added. “Then when the sun goes down the floor is warm, and that keeps the house warm.”
Other exciting possibilities in the future of solar energy include solar powered cars and boats, both of which already exist but need development.
“What if we drove our electric cars to the train station or another hub, and then all day while we were at work, they were charging under a canopy that had solar?” asks Bailis.
But the primary thing that needs to happen before solar can really become a leading source of energy is an improvement in storage.
“We need a better way to collect energy during the day to use it at night, or to collect energy in the summer to use in the winter,” observed Bailis. “That’s going to come at some point. When that comes you’ll see solar electric plants all over… This is not science fiction. This is right around the corner.”