Solar party: neighbors make learning fun

New take on Tupperware parties: Get the information with your community, over wine and cheese
Alison Arieff

Like many people, I'm trying my best to do the right thing for the environment. My husband and I have one car. We live in a walkable San Francisco neighborhood where a quart of milk, dry cleaner, sushi bar, and bistro are just a couple of blocks away. Our house is small (less than 1,200 square feet); our windows are double-pane. We shop at our local farmers' market and buy next to none of what author Michael Pollan calls "edible foodlike substances."

Doing most of this stuff is easy… maybe a little too easy. As a kid in the '70s during a long California drought, I remember having to hop in the shower, get wet, turn the water off, soap up, turn the water back on, and quickly rinse off. There was a looming fear that a continuous shower would alert the water police, who'd storm our suburban home to catch us in the act.

Today, facing an environmental crisis of global proportions, we hear public service announcements suggesting that swapping one incandescent bulb for a compact fluorescent is akin to taking 5 million cars off the road. Or something like that. Still, replacing lightbulbs doesn't seem to go far enough. So my husband and I have begun to think seriously about going solar.

We'd actually considered it a couple of years ago, when the weary 30-year-old roof on our 100-year-old house needed replacing. But we were under the impression that it would at least double our cost. Plus, we had a new baby and could barely remember our phone number, let alone calculate the return on investment on solar installation. So we took the path of least resistance and opted for a plain asphalt roof.

That decision nagged at us, especially as we started to see photovoltaic panels pop up on roofs throughout our neighborhood. After the octogenarian across the street installed them, we truly began to feel we'd made the wrong decision. I write about this stuff for a living, for goodness' sake

 

Serendipitously, I received an online Evite to a solar party, hosted by a couple in our neighborhood who'd recently had a system installed. (Forget Tupperware parties ― although bringing your lunch in reusable Tupperware, rather than disposable containers, is very PC.

The solar party promised the opportunity to talk to people who'd gone solar, inspect their system, and have one's questions answered by their solar representative. I sent my RSVP right away.

Now, I'm not usually one for home-repair workshops or drip-irrigation tutorials. That's why the solar party concept is so great: You can get rather technical information in a way that feels less like a lecture and more like a night out.

It was much like any casual cocktail party ― a little wine, a little cheese, a lovely cake. I joined 12 of my neighbors at our hosts' home, where we were introduced to Chris from SolarCity, who was encyclopedic in his knowledge not just of solar systems and their pricing and installation, but also of the most up-to-date info on ever-changing solar policy.

I was sold. Eager to do my part against global warming, I scheduled a time for Chris to evaluate our home.

But this next part is bittersweet. Before climbing on the roof ― before even looking at it ― Chris asked to see our utility bill, and laughed a little before telling us that we'd billed only 223 kilowatt-hours of electricity for the month. (Some people use 50 times that much.) With the cost of leasing photovoltaic panels, our electricity would cost us [I {twice}] as much with solar than it would without. We were stunned; I think we even asked how we might use [I {more}] electricity to validate our moving forward as planned.

It turns out that many of the largest electricity eaters are things we don't have: air-conditioning or, more surprising, recessed lighting systems (you flip one switch, and 10 lightbulbs go on).

We'd purchased highly energy-efficient appliances when we bought our house, so even though we seem to do the laundry continuously to fuel our preschooler's outfit changes, our monthly energy bill was still far below the $120 to $150 range the company cites as the break-even point for making solar cost-efficient.

Chris saw that we were disappointed (weird, right?) and had a suggestion: How about solar panels instead of gas to heat our water? Great idea.

 

Enter Noel Cotter, president of Luminalt He suggested a system combining two solar panels (three if we also chose to install radiant heating, which is tempting) with a 120-gallon stainless steel water tank. 

The tank not only lasts 30 years (compared with the average hot water heater's 8- to 12-year life expectancy), but also comes with a backup natural gas heater, so you aren't stuck with cold showers in cloudy weather. Noel also told us about a federal tax credit and a state rebate program that's in development, which would further reduce up-front solar costs.

If all this sounds confusing, well, it is ― and we're still mulling over our options. But I'm confident we'll proceed with using solar for electricity, hot water, or both.

Home energy costs aren't going down anytime soon, so if you're thinking about taking the leap, at least start the conversation. There are many smart people out there working to make solar a party to which we're all invited.

What I learned at the solar party

Orientation Not every roof is positioned or angled to take full advantage of the sun's energy. South-facing is ideal but not required.

ClimatIn assessing your situation, the representative will take into account rainfall and cloudy days, as well as altitude, humidity, and more subtle factors. The system should be designed for the worst month, so that you'll have enough electricity all year.

Cost The rough figure I'd had in my head was $40,000. But I discovered that, largely due to government incentives and rebate programs, we'd be able to have a system installed for closer to $10,000. Even better, we could avoid that up-front cost altogether and lease a solar system from SolarCity for about $68 per month.

Got too much energy? I had assumed that if, over the course of a year, you generated more electricity than your household could use, then you could sell it back to the utility in exchange for a check. In reality, most households use about as much energy as they produce over the course of the year; in months when they produce excess, their account is credited for months when they produce less ― say, in winter. But if you do make more than you use annually, that electricity just goes back to the grid.

Info  SolarCity (888/765-2489); Luminalt  (415/564-7652).

To learn about whether solar is right for you, visit researchsolar.com