Solar for seniors: What is practical?

Several years ago my articles were based on the technology that I was studying at the time. Lately, my ideas have been inspired from conversations I have had with people in the neighborhood. This weeks article was inspired by one of our senior citizens who walked over to my house at 6:30 in the morning to ask me for my advice on purchasing a solar system for their house. My first thought was: why? At their ages (70 and 83), they will never see a return on investment. I told my dear friends that I had a few concerns about this idea of purchasing a solar system for their house.

Concern #1: Return of Investment. This should always be your first thought when purchasing any discretionary product that is not ‘needed’ for the comfort of your life style. 

A really good solar system for a house will cost about $25,000.00. With the state and federal government’s tax credits, the cost is still about $15,000.00. This tax credit only applies to earned income. If your earned income from social security and your investments is in the high 6 figures, then the credits will apply. But why?

Concern #2: Six feet under vs. six feet over. Anyone over the age of 70 has to ask that simple question. Will my life be better with solar panels suspended over my roof?  If your electricity bill is the average of $150 per month for the Roswell area, it will take 10 years to break even. Why would you give up a discounted $15,000.00 today for the same electricity that you can get for $150 per month and will make absolutely no difference in your standard of living except give you one more thing to worry about around the house?

A residential solar system can only be placed in two locations on your property as determined by city codes. Your roof is one location and your backyard is the other location. If you put the solar system on your roof, you have to consider the cost of a new roof before you do. Most solar systems are suspended and only have a few contact points on the roof but the entire system will have to be removed if your roof is damaged by the element – hail. A better solution is to place the system in your back yard. You may have to give up a tree or two to let the light shine through. But then again, what if you don’t have a back yard, as the case with my friends?

Concern #3: Solar house vs. solar farm. If you haven’t taken a quick ride out on East Pine Lodge to see the city and county solar farms, you should. These commercialized farm systems have expensive computerized controls that will track the sun from east to west. The house solar system also has some expensive mechanical parts that you have to maintain, besides just cleaning off the solar panels.

The tracking system allows the panels to be at their greatest efficiency most of the day, but never at night. When it is cloudy, the efficiency will drop. When there is a thunder storm with hail, the solar farm panels will automatically shift to a protective position to prevent damage to the panels. None of these features are offered on a discounted $15,000.00 solar system for the house. If you want insurance, you have to pay for it and one of those costs is having your house connected to your existing utility company for backup.

If you take a Sunday drive through the countryside, you will see more and more solar clusters that are providing farmers and ranchers localized electricity during the day. Electricity (and fuel) is the major cost of operating an active crop or dairy farm. Their cost of installing supplemental electricity from solar can easily be justified, even without the tax credits which will probably go away in 2017. But remember, solar doesn’t work at night, the best time for irrigating, so the farmers and ranchers still have to buy energy from the utilities.

Recommendation: Solar Least Program. This is the ideal situation for anyone who doesn’t have the upfront cost to purchase a home solar system. In Sacramento CA, the municipal utility district (SMUD) offers least programs through SolarCity for home solar systems. Our friend visiting from Sacramento this week told us about how her program works. There was no upfront cost for the system to be installed on her house. She pays a fixed cost of only $34 per month for full service on a 20 year contract and about $20 per month for the electricity they use from the grid, mostly at night. That is a $120 saving per month for them compared to a standard connection with utility company.

All their unused day time generated electricity revenue goes to the SolarCity leasing company. The home owner’s house is basically used as an energy generating site. The only requirement is that there is a multi-year commitment period and if you bail, there is a recovery payment. As a senior citizen, solar leasing is a program I could afford but I will never see anything that progressive in Roswell, New Mexico, in my life time.

As always, my preferred source of electricity is from a nuclear power station because it has the most energy from the least amount of natural resources (uranium and thorium) and as I always state – the smallest footprint on the ecosystems. As a society, it makes more sense to buy electricity from centralized and decentralized generating station around the world as long as it is maintained as an affordable source. Electricity is like water and sewage. You really don’t want to mess with either, especially senior citizens.

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