Op-ed by David Neal
This past year, with the help of the Solarize Orange campaign, Orange County experienced a surge in the installation of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.
In 2015 the Solarize campaign helped 50 homes install rooftop systems that can generate a total of 298 kilowatts (kW) of electricity using sunlight. Each participant saved an average of $1,500 through bulk-purchasing of solar panels and related equipment. In combination with the two previous Solarize campaigns, solar PV systems have been installed on a total of 135 homes in Orange County, with the capacity to produce 1 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of clean energy per year! This is the greenhouse gas equivalent of not burning 740,000 pounds of coal or the amount of carbon stored in 565 acres of forest.
Some of our neighbors were spurred to go solar by the anticipated expiration of the state’s renewable energy tax credit, which our General Assembly let sunset at the end of 2015. For others, it was the dramatic decrease in the cost of solar panels and their installation. For some, an opportunity to reduce the amount of air pollution generated from the burning of fossil fuels, including coal, that supply much of our electricity was enough of a motivator. All three of these factors drove my family’s participation in the Solarize Orange campaign.
From the summer until December, the solar system generated or offset all of our electricity needs. During these short winter days, we will need to rely more on the electric grid for power, but our panels produce electricity every day, even when the sky is overcast.
Unfortunately, clouds of a different sort hang over the Solarize initiative. The expired state renewable income tax credit had made solar PV systems significantly more affordable, allowing homeowners to recoup up to 35% of their costs. Without it, solar is out of reach for many Orange County residents.
Those who balk at state or federal tax credits for renewable energy systems should remember that fossil fuels and nuclear power have received substantial subsidies for generations. In addition, the use of fossil fuels incurs social and health costs that we all bear in the form of increased rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, polluted surface waters, and altered landscapes. We should petition our state representatives to restore the state renewable tax credit and thank our congressional delegation for recently extending the federal tax credit through 2020.
In spite of the loss of the tax credits, between now and April 30, two of the biggest Solarize campaign organizers in North Carolina, NextClimate and NC WARN, are joining together to “Solarize the Triangle.” Besides increasing solar installations, the Solarize campaign is working to lower the cost of solar through education and easing access to more affordable financing.
On a larger scale, the market for residential solar could be expanded by changing state policies that prevent third-party power purchase agreements. In these arrangements, solar energy companies install solar panels for little to no cost and then bill the homeowner for the energy these panels produce. In states where these agreements are allowed, they have been very successful at bringing solar to homeowners who otherwise might not be able to afford solar power.
A solar system is a great hedge against increases in electricity rates, and provides tangible savings to those who otherwise may spend much of their limited income on electricity. My family is thrilled to have been able to afford the upfront costs and participate in the Solarize Orange campaign. As a community, let’s find a way to make the benefits of solar available to all of our neighbors.