“It’s just a normal dryer, but I air-dry clothes,” after spinning them in the dryer for 10 minutes, she says, to fluff them up. “Clothes get just as dry that way.”
After a few months of refining their energy-saving techniques, they had cut 30 percent off their monthly energy bill—the amount of the impending rate hike. Mission accomplished, end of story?
“We still weren’t satisfied,” she said.
Taking the plunge
Instead of just saving energy by shielding themselves from the law of supply and demand, they decided to sidestep economics altogether and produce their own supply. In August 2009, a local solar contractor installed a $58,000 solar electrical system with rooftop photovoltaic panels capable of generating up to 8,100 watts of DC power in peak conditions. The installation process took just two days, and the results were immediate.
“It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and our electric meter was actually running backwards,” Tami Wilson says.
But how does saving a few hundred dollars a year on electricity for a 1,500-square-foot house justify a $58,000 system? Only in recent decades have solar panels been seen as a practical way of producing electricity. And even then, many economists argued that because of their high price, they’re not economical when distributed on buildings or homes like the Wilsons’ house in Pennsylvania because they don’t take advantage of economies of scale, as centralized generation does, solar or otherwise.
That’s changing quickly, many solar energy experts contend. Just as flat-panel TV displays once commanded a steep premium but fell in price as they gained popularity and production ramped up, solar prices are falling as well.
“System prices have recently dropped by half,” says Travis Bradford, founder of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, a Chicago-based alternative energy research firm. The combination of falling prices and subsidies from the government and utility companies means that consumers who install a solar electric system now can generally expect it to pay for itself in 10 years–or even five years in the sunniest locations, like Southern California, Bradford says. “Once it’s paid back, you have free power for as long as you own the system.”
Though Harrisburg isn’t the sunniest place, the Wilsons estimate they’ll recoup their investment within five years and begin enjoying free electricity. The biggest factor in the equation is a combination of state and federal tax rebates and incentives, instituted by legislatures to drive demand for solar energy and reduce greenhouse gases. Pennsylvania’s current rebate is $2.25 a watt of installed solar capacity. That effectively lopped $18,225 off the price of the Wilsons’ 8,100-watt solar panel system. A federal measure will generate another $17,400 in rebates.
Such rebates are sometimes characterized as a waste of taxpayers’ money. “If the Wilsons or any other family wants to invest in solar panels or windmills to save money, they should be permitted to do,” energy policy researcher Nick Loris wrote for the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But they shouldn’t do it with the taxpayers’ help. There’s a reason renewable energy only meets a very small portion of our energy needs. Wind and solar cannot survive without preferential treatment through subsidies, mandates, and tax breaks.”
But solar advocates say that if the point is to establish low-carbon renewable energy sources for the future, it’s worth it to pay a premium now. “The reason is partly to help develop a market to bring down costs over time,” says Bradford, of the Prometheus Institute.