How Do We Know that Sustainability is better?

Nick Hein, 10/29/18

Do you have questions about solar? Know someone who does? Things are changing quickly for solar and some of the answers out there don’t apply anymore. Here’s what’s really up with solar right now. In a previous article we introduced the “Sustainability Stairclimb” to get us thinking about how we “do” sustainability. This month we’ll start the climb with the simple question “Why?” Why can’t we just keep doing things the way we have been, and how do we know that sustainability is better?

Chances are that if you’re a regular reader of this newsletter or Legacy customer, you already have your own answers. But along your climb people may ask you why you’re doing it. Many of these questions were actually asked recently, and they show that not everybody knows about the latest developments in sustainable technologies or the changing climate. In addition, out of date information lingers and some of the changes threaten fossil fuel industries, so there’s sometimes an incentive to spread inaccuracies and distortions.

The quotes have been paraphrased and each is categorized as being outdated (O), lacking context (C), or misinformed (M).)

1) (O) “How can there be enough sun in Wisconsin, two-thirds of the short winter days (and all of the nights year round) are cloudy or completely dark” 

Conversely, one third of the short winter days and large parts of the rest of the days are sunny. With a south-facing exposed roof, solar can now produce enough electricity to supply all the needs of a typical home. The fact that the sun isn’t always shining can be accommodated with net metering. That means on sunny days when you make more than you need, you can give it to the power company so they don’t have to produce as much. On Winter days if you aren’t making enough, you get credit from your earlier surplus when you buy it.

2) (O) “The payback period of solar PV systems in a northern environment exceeds the life time of the system. Not economical.”

Current solar PV modules are warranted for 25 years, and often last for up to 40 years. They can offset all of your electric use if you have a good site. If you are 30 years old and install panels now they can still be making all your electricity for after you retire. (Although inverters typically have to be replaced after 12 years, separate warranties can be purchased to pay for this replacement.) The cost of solar will always be less than 40 years of electric bills. Very economical.

3) (M) “Aren’t solar panels in limited use because they are not economical.”

Costs of modules, racking, installation and incidentals have come down drastically in the past 5 years. Payback periods are typically 5-6 years for residential owners. Commercial properties also get depreciation so they get payback even quicker. Solar installers have all the business they can handle as a result. Even obstructive tariffs haven’t slowed solar installations. They aren’t everywhere…yet…but it won’t be long.

(4) (C) “Aren’t PV systems subsidized by taxpayers? That means they cannot exist on their own in the free market place.”

Aside from this contradicting the previous point, solar PV is temporarily being given the same investment tax credit that businesses have always gotten for installing new equipment. This credit begins to phase out next year for homeowners, by which time the continuing drop in prices will make it a moot point. However, businesses will still get the ITC and depreciation credit–as they do on most other capital investments.

5) (O) “The payback period is dependent on ongoing subsidies and the price of electricity in a local area, how can I be sure they are worth it for me?”

The price of electricity everywhere in Wisconsin makes solar payoff in a reasonable time. Particularly when you consider that electric rates will continue to rise (3% annually based on past performance) after your solar PV system is paid for and giving you free power, and PV costs will continue to decline.

6) (C) “Aren’t Solar cells are made with corrosive acids and other chemicals that are environmentally harmful?” 

The context here is that solar panel manufacture uses the same processes and chemicals as any other electronics. This occurs once. Solar panels have a much longer life than most other electronics and produce electricity with no other inputs and no emissions. Conventional power and heat require you to keep burning fossil fuels (typically at 33% efficiency and with substantial emissions…indefinitely).

7) (C) “Don’t solar panels depend on fossil fuels for production, fabrication and transportation?” 

Same argument again. Use fossil fuels once then never again. It’s like the difference between food gathering where you have to continually go out to new places for harvest vs. just picking it from a nearby field–only easier. You are turning free solar energy directly into electricity for no cost after the system is paid for–and it comes into your home with no effort from you.

8) (M) “Don’t labor costs of manufacture and installation, hardware, sales rep commissions and administrative costs, high profits mean high costs?”

Same argument yet again. You pay these costs once and never again. Conventional heat and light require you to pay continuously. It will always be cheaper to install a system that makes free electricity forever than to pay for dirty electricity forever.

9) (M) “Energy from the sun is not free, and the effort to derive it does not cover the benefit that is realized.”

Energy from the sun IS free. The cost (in dollars and environmental terms) to harvest it is paid only once and is much less than a lifetime of electric bills.

(10) (M) “Since Wisconsin doesn’t have as many sunny days as states like California, does solar provide enough benefit for the cost?”

Wisconsin has every bit as much solar potential as Germany, which got 36% of their electricity from renewables (wind, solar, hydro and biomass) in 2017 and in the first half of 2018 they’ve provided enough power for the whole year. Germany has taken advantage of solar and other renewables as quickly as economics allow, and are already getting their payback. Wisconsin is lagging behind instead of moving forward. But you don’t have to. Call Legacy Solar Co-op today to find out how you can win with solar.