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Racing Toward Renewables



— January 15, 2019

Racing Toward Renewables

  • 'Alternative' energy is going mainstream in urban areas

Fossil fuels might still dominate our power grid, but solar and wind power continue gaining ground as renewable energy options.

Solar installations have increased from 1.2 gigawatts to an estimated 30 gigawatts since 2008, providing enough energy to power almost 6 million homes, according to the US Department of Energy. The American Wind Energy Association reports that wind power is expected to supply 20% of the country’s electricity by 2030.

While it’s not uncommon to see huge solar farms in the desert or spot turbines turning on vast expanses of farmland, renewable energies have been less common in urban areas—but that is changing, according to Rebecca Hernandez.

“We’re starting to see the number of solar and wind energy installations increasing everywhere,” says Hernandez, a professor at the University of California, Davis. “There are enormous economic and environmental benefits to [installing] energy infrastructure in areas where we live and work [such as] residential rooftops and commercial buildings.” Even in New York City, the last place one would expect to see solar panels, there is enough empty roof space to host installations capable of powering 1.2 million homes, according to one estimate.

A 2015 report found that 64 cities had installed more than 1,700 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity—almost as much as the entire country had installed five years earlier. The growth was attributed to strong pro-solar policies in urban areas.

Tax credits and other state and local financial incentives help homeowners cover (or recoup) the cost to install solar panels or wind turbines. Jed Jorgensen, senior program manager at Energy Trust of Oregon, believes that even in the absence of incentives, homeowners are taking the plunge, explaining, “In areas like Hawaii, you don’t even need [tax] credits because electricity is so expensive, the system pays for itself right away.”

Moreover, Jorgensen says, “The cost to install solar has decreased pretty significantly over the last decade and, in some areas, the homeowners are recouping their costs in less than four years.”

It’s not just the return on investment driving the demand for renewables in cities. Urban installations also make sense from an environmental perspective, according to Hernandez.

Unlike open areas, which serve as important habitats for plants and wildlife, rooftops and roads provide ideal settings for installations and require minimal additional disturbance to the environment. Superfund sites and brownfield sites that are too contaminated for other development are also ideal options for urban solar and wind installations.

Renewable power in urban areas could also go a long way to reducing fossil fuel dependence. Hernandez published a study in the journal Nature that found small-scale solar installations in urban areas could produce enough energy to power the entire state of California three to five times over.

“Critics say there isn’t enough rooftop space to install solar panels so we have to put them in the desert, but that’s wrong,” she says. “There is more than enough space in the built environment to meet our renewable energy goals many times over; we just need to start thinking differently.”

Solar Stands Out

Living in a Providence, Rhode Island, neighborhood filled with colonial homes, Kate Hanley knew her house would stand out. It’s not just the horizontal slatted fence or wraparound porch with a tin roof that captures the attention of passersby: The 1,600-square-foot home is also one of the only ones in the area with rooftop solar panels.

“We hear, ‘We love your solar panels,’ a lot from people who walk by,” says Hanley.

Hanley credits her husband, Scott, whom she calls “a huge proponent of green energy,” for the initial research into urban solar installation. The decision to place 12 solar panels on their roof was solidified when a solar-equipped neighbor shared his utility bills, which were significantly lower than what the Hanleys paid each month.

“Even though you can’t depend on the weather and don’t know how much energy you’re going to generate, we still felt like it was a good long-term investment,” she says.

Figuring out the best plan proved complicated. With options to purchase, lease or finance, the homeowners opted for the latter, paying off the panels over time, in part because the deal came with performance guarantees. Once the couple owns the panels, they have the option to store their solar power in batteries, which would maintain their power during frequent winter outages.

It took multiple entities to get the installation up and running. Different companies sold, installed, financed and serviced the panels.

But the effort was worth it: Going solar has paid off.

Although being “late adopters” for solar (they missed the best incentives), Hanley says that, in addition to a 30% tax credit on their $18,000 investment, the couples’ solar installation has generated enough solar power to reduce their energy bills by almost two-thirds during the summer months. The Hanleys also earn monthly revenue ranging between $25 and $95 from selling power back to the grid.

“We’re still drawing some of our power from the grid, but we’re helping decrease the amount of energy that comes from fossil fuels,” she says. “It’s been a good deal for us. We’re now starting to think, ‘Should we put solar panels on our garage?’”

Hanley doesn’t mind the comments from curious neighbors; she takes notice of them, too.

“I feel a tinge of pride when I’m walking the dog on a sunny day and come around the corner and see the solar panels on our house and know we’re generating our own power,” she says. “We have become, by default, ambassadors for solar power.”

A Capital Expenditure for the Environment

When Frank Schipani installed solar panels on his row house in Washington, DC, he considered it an investment in the environment.

Schipani and his wife, Kristen, decided to install the panels in 2013 after attending an information session at the local library that highlighted the benefits of urban solar installations, including the tax credits, savings on utilities and lower carbon emissions.

Several other DC residents at the information session were also interested in converting to solar power; the neighbors worked together to secure a deal with a local solar installer that earned them a 20% discount on the cost of panels and installation.

The Schipanis invested $14,000 in 14 solar panels and saw immediate return on investment in the form of $4,200 in federal tax credits. At the time of their installation, state rebates for solar installations had expired, but the installation qualified for Solar Renewable Energy Credits or SRECs, state credits for producing solar power.

“State governments pass laws that force energy companies to produce a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources,” Schipani explains. “Power companies can choose to build wind farms or solar arrays to generate that power but in DC, there’s no space for that. So the utilities purchase credits from individuals like me.”

The panels on his row house produce enough solar power to earn Schipani an average of 4.5 SRECs per year. The credits are tradable commodities, which Schipani sells through a broker; to date, the Schipanis have earned $8,202. Coupled with lower utility bills—the system generates about half of the family’s annual energy needs, triggering a huge reduction in their bills for heating and cooling—it took just five years to recoup their initial investment.

Though there is a financial case to be made for installing solar panels, Schipani notes, “We didn’t do it to save money; we wanted to be doing good by the earth.”

Schipani admits there is a calculated risk to installing solar panels in a densely populated area like Washington. The lack of space means neighbors often “build up” during renovations, adding extra stories to their homes, which could block the sunlight and impact the efficiency of the panels.

In an effort to address such concerns, more than 40 states so far have “solar rights” legislation on the books that establish public nuisance laws if landscaping or construction creates too much shade around a solar system. The Schipanis didn’t let the potential risk impact their desire to minimize their carbon footprint.

“We might have a much smaller roof than our suburban neighbors, but we still wanted to do something to have a positive impact,” he says. “There is no reason why you can’t do solar in the city—the sky is everywhere.”

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