By Peter Bacque | TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Published: October 31, 2010
Richmond, Va. — In a world where worries about energy are common, John Roberts has more than enough electricity for his needs.
“I’m currently generating more than double what I use in a year,” he says.
Roberts can do that because he’s installed a 2-kilowatt solar electric system on his house on Richmond’s North Side.
The photovoltaic system, which makes electricity from sunlight, cost Roberts $13,400, but he received a $3,500 federal tax credit and a $2,700 state renewable energy rebate that together reduced his expenditure to $7,200.
“And I did all the work myself” under the direction of a licensed electrical contractor, Roberts said.
Roberts uses only 1,400 kilowatt-hours of electricity for an entire year. “Most people use much more electricity than I do,” he said. “I do heat with gas and I do have a gas stove, and I don’t use much air conditioning.”
But the sun’s energy powers homes that consume much more electricity than Roberts’ does.
Tim Dolan’s Newport News house uses almost 10,000 kilowatt-hours a year, he said.
The 8.1-kilowatt solar electric system Dolan uses cost $55,000. That was offset by a $16,100 federal tax credit and $14,000 from the state’s renewable energy rebate program he received, bringing his price down to $24,900.
“Even on an overcast day . . . it’s still making more than I’m using,” Dolan said.
Solar power can be used to generate electricity through photovoltaic cells or to produce hot water, and Virginia has sunshine for those uses. The state estimates solar energy could produce 11,000-13,000 megawatts in Virginia.
But 2-kilowatt systems are what Blue Crump’s company, Urban Grid Solar Inc. of Richmond, typically installs, Crump said, at a cost of about $15,000.
Though solar technologies are too costly for widespread use in wholesale power applications, the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration said, government and utility incentives for renewable energy encourage small-scale solar-electric generation, which is expected to grow rapidly over the next 25 years.
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Residential solar photovoltaic and hot-water systems are eligible for a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the system’s total cost, with no upper limit.
Interest in Virginia’s solarand wind-power rebate program far outran the money available, and the state has stopped taking applications. The federal economic stimulus program gave Virginia $15 million to provide rebates of $2,000 per kilowatt, up to 10 kilowatts, for solar electric systems, and $1,000 per kilowatt-equivalent for solar thermal systems.
Home electricity generators can also sell credits for the energy that their systems generate.
Solar renewable energy credits — RECs — represent the clean energy benefits of 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity from a sun-powered system. Utility companies buy the credits to meet the state’s renewable energy goals.
RECs are selling for about $300 apiece now. “That produces a positive cash flow,” Crump said.
For example, Dolan will earn about $3,000 this year from the sale of his renewable energy credits, he said.
“The value of the RECs is going to grow,” Crump said, particularly as industry comes under pressure to produce more clean power.
. . .
Payback times for solar installations vary depending on the cost of the system and the home’s location, experts said, running from as few as nine years up to 18.
“With the power we make, the RECs and government incentives, my payback is nine to 10 years, assuming no inflation,” said Hugh Joyce, president of James River Air Conditioning Co. Inc. in Richmond.
Joyce installed a 2.5-kilowatt solar system — with panels that track the sun — on his energy-efficient home at 9214 Hungary Spring Road in Henrico County. Meanwhile, the cost for solar electric energy is coming down.
“Systems are now selling for between $4,500 and $8,500 per kilowatt installed,” Joyce said. “They’re becoming more and more competitive. There’s a little bit of a glut in the market . . . right now.”
Simpler and less expensive, solar thermal systems are especially cost effective for heating water.
With the federal tax credit and the state rebate, “it’s not difficult to get a five to seven year return, which is a pretty good investment in saving energy and saving money,” said Al Christopher, director of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy’s Energy Division.
Virginia has seen installed solar generating capacity soar from essentially zero in 1999 to 2.47 megawatts by September of this year, according to the State Corporation Commission.
“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of customers who have requested net metering to accommodate alternative generation,” said Dominion Virginia Power spokesman Jim Norvelle.
“Just three years ago — 2007 — we only connected 21 customers,” Norvelle said. “In 2010 . . . we have connected 209, with two months to go.”
So far, however, solar energy makes up only a small part of the state’s total electric production. For instance, Virginia power companies and electric cooperatives have more then 23,400 megawatts of generating capacity in the state.
Of Dominion Virginia Power’s 2.4 million customers, located largely in the more densely populated parts of the eastern two-thirds of the state, 355 residential customers are using solar generation, with an average system size of 5.4 kilowatts.
Solar system owners can take advantage of Virginia’s net-metering laws to sell excess power generation back to the owner’s electric utility.
Net metering allows customers generating power from a renewable resource like solar energy to interconnect with the electrical grid. Their solar energy output offsets electricity purchases from Dominion, and customer is billed monthly only for the net energy consumed.
“My last month’s electric bill was $23,” said Donny Talley, who installed a 2-kilowatt photovoltaic system to power his Chesterfield County home. “On a good day, you can actually watch my meter count down.
“Some days,” Talley said, “it’s pretty nice to sit there with a cup of coffee and watch that puppy work.”