Monday, May 17, 2010

To Solar or Not to Solar...

Last week Town Meeting approved giving Community Preservation Act money to Habitat for Humanity to help build affordable housing. $20,000 or so will go towards solar panels on the roof.

I've been tempted to install solar panels (either photovoltaic or hot-water or maybe both) on our roof, so the fact that Habitat decided it's a good idea caught my interest.

It is definitely a good idea for them; it is a very clever way of pre-paying the electricity bill for the lower-income homeowners. Pay $20,000 now in capital costs (which, because solar panels are "stuff" and not a "service", are eligible for all sorts of subsidies) and save the homeowners $X-thousand dollars in electricity bills over the next Y years. Even if it doesn't make economic sense (if the net-present-value of X is less than $20,000) it fits their charitable mission to make home ownership more affordable for lower-income folks and it gives their donors the warm fuzzies to know their money is building green houses.

I don't know if it is a good idea for me. Should I spend a bunch of money and install solar panels on my roof now? Lots of people who will tell me "Yes! Absolutely!" ... but they're either well-meaning-but-possibly-misguided environmentalists or companies that want me to pay them a bunch of money to do the installation. Maybe I'd pay $20,000 to a company who will go out of business in a year or three, and maybe the system I buy is obsolete or breaks in a year or three. Maybe I won't save as much in electricity costs as they claim because most of our electricity usage is at night.

Maybe I'll end up paying an extra couple thousand bucks in a few years when we need to reshingle our roof because the roofers have to disassemble and then reassemble the solar panels.

If solar power is a slam-dunk financial win, they why isn't every Wal-Mart in America covered in solar panels?

I'm a technological optimist, and I think that solar panels will be a slam-dunk financial win pretty soon. They probably already are in sunny places like Arizona. The fact that companies are springing up with "residential solar lease" plans is a really good sign, and if I can find a residential solar lease company that operates in Western Massachusetts, offers leases of less than 10 years, and can point me to some satisfied customers I'd definitely sign up.

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