EPA Region 3
Topic: Solar Panels at my House
Size: : 6,087k
Date: October 19, 2011
Steve Donohue: My ultimate goal is to have a net zero house. It looks like a typical suburban home, but hopefully I can get it to the point where I'm producing as much energy as I'm using.
Bonnie Lomax: Hello, I'm Bonnie Lomax of EPA's mid-Atlantic region, and welcome to Environment Matters, our series of environmental podcasts. Today's topic is solar energy, and our guest is Steve Donohue, who is an environmental scientist here at EPA and a homeowner who's using solar power. Welcome, Steve.
Steve Donohue: Hi, Bonnie. Thanks for having me here today.
Bonnie Lomax: So, Steve, tell me: why did you decide to put solar panels on your house?
Steve Donohue: It's a couple of different reasons, Bonnie. One of them is, I wanted to support the renewable energy industry. I'm also very concerned about climate change and energy conservation. I do these things at work, so it's kind of a natural progression to want to do them at home as well. I've been in our house for about 15 years and I've been working on the energy efficiency of the house all of that time. And my ultimate goal is to have a net zero house. It looks like a typical suburban home, but hopefully I can get it to the point where I'm producing as much energy as I'm using. And the reason I want to do that: 70 percent of our energy—our electricity, I should say, comes from the burning of fossil fuel. So that releases greenhouse gasses and promotes climate change. I also want to show my neighbors—they all know I work for EPA—if I don't do it, I don't know who's going to do it.
Bonnie Lomax: That sounds really fascinating. Were there any other key factors in your decision?
Steve Donohue: Well, yeah, we were lucky enough to have really good orientation, a south-facing roof. The roof was only about six years old, so that was really good. Plus we took advantage of state rebates and the final kicker was federal tax credits, that we were able to get. Between all those, it paid for about two-thirds of the system between all those rebates and tax credits.
Bonnie Lomax: Well, that's always an incentive. Tell me, what kind of system do you have?
Steve Donohue: We have a photo voltaic, or solar PV; solar voltaic system. It basically converts sunlight directly to electricity. The panels produce direct current, DC, up on the roof and it runs a wire down to the basement into an inverter. And the inverter converts that direct current, DC, to AC, which is alternating current. And that's what you use in your house to power your hair blowers. Everything in your house uses alternating current. The system is 26 roughly 3-foot by 5-foot panels, and they each produce 235 watts. It's all mounted on the roof, on that south-facing roof, and that makes it a total 6.11 kilowatt system. But the projected output of that, based on a website the Department of Energy has, says that will produce 6,500 kilowatt hours a year of power. It's actually produced closer to 7,600 kilowatt hours, I'm happy to say, and our house uses about 11 or 12,000 kilowatt hours a year. So it's basically producing—I figured out it's producing in the first year we had it—over 70 percent of our electricity. There's no batteries in the system that we have. It uses the grid basically as a battery, so if I'm producing more than I'm using, it's exported out to the grid. And when there are times when I need it, I can draw back. It's all in my power meters from the electric company. So at the end of the month, they figure out how much I owe them or, sometimes how much they owe me. [Laughter]
Bonnie Lomax: How has your system performed, then, this year?
Steve Donohue: It's been great. We just passed a milestone which is 10,000 kilowatt hours generated. That's greater than was predicted; that was 72 percent of our power for the year is being produced. And there's no moving parts, no maintenance. I think the worst problem was the snow in February of this year. For awhile there we weren't getting any power. The panels were covered with snow. But other than that it's been great: my bills have been $20 a month for an all-electric house. It's been working great.
Bonnie Lomax: $20 a month, that's amazing. Have you calculated the payback for this investment, then?
Steve Donohue: Originally we thought it was going to take five to six years to pay it back. And even as short as a couple of months ago, we thought that was the case. But there's a lot of uncertainty and volatility in the renewable energy credits, which are used to pay off, to pay back the system.
Bonnie Lomax: Well, what advice would you give to others who are considering solar panels?
Steve Donohue: I think the first thing I'd say is you really have to conserve energy first in your house. You need to do efficiency so you make sure you're not wasting energy. You can produce clean or green energy, but if you're wasting energy, it's terrible. You want to reduce your energy first, and then if you can, put renewable energy on your house, such as solar panels—that's great. For an existing home, if you don't have any shading problems and you have the orientation, you can take advantage of financing, tax credits and rebates. There's also lease options now, which weren't available even a couple of months, where for little or no money down you can get a system installed on your house. The same for a new home, again, if it's oriented correctly, I would take advantage of that. You can even build the cost of that in your mortgage or leased panels in an existing home. If you can't put solar panels on your house, many electric companies have an option where you can buy green energy. You can buy energy that's generated by wind, solar. That's a way you can support the industry as well.
Bonnie Lomax: Steve, I want to thank you for sharing your solar energy experience, and I want to thank our listeners.