There’s (solar) gold in them thar hills!

The Thinker by Rodin

If you own a gold mine, it’s a pretty good investment until of course the gold veins run dry.

But there’s a kind of mine that never runs out: solar gold, you might say. I’ve already gotten a share of this solar gold. For three years, we’ve had 20 solar panels on our roof. According to the obsessive statistics I keep, we’ve generated 20,076-kilowatt hours (kwhs) of clean energy since it went online in June 2016. It’s the equivalent of planting 363 trees.

But twenty solar panels turned out not to be enough. The remainder comes from carbon-free wind energy, but perhaps not much longer. A solar farm is under construction in Gardner, Massachusetts. We’ll probably get the rest from that solar farm when it is operational in March 2020.

The electricity from our house’s solar panels is free, after we recoup the cost of the system, which should happen around 2023. The same can’t be said for this solar farm under construction. We won’t own any of these solar panels. Instead, we’ll be renting them. Unlike our wind energy, for which we pay a 3.8 cents/kwh premium, we’ll get this solar power for less than it would cost to draw it from the grid. So we can go greener and pay less for the privilege.

How this works is that our “share” of the solar farm’s electricity is credited to our electric bill. So if our share generates 500 kwhs a month, presumably we’ll get a $0 bill from the electric company and see that as a credit that we draw from in future months. Of course, we still pay for our “share”. I’ll get into how that is done in a moment.

There are solar farms going up all around us. Land is relatively cheap here in Western Massachusetts, at least what there is of it. A lot of it is set-aside as conservation areas. But areas that have been deforested might as well become solar farms: huge arrays of solar panels that do nothing but wait for sunshine and sell it to the local electric company, National Grid. These solar farms have done the math and basically everyone wins.

  • Society wins by reducing the amount of carbon pollution
  • Electric companies win because they buy the power at a wholesale rate, and mark it up for retail pricing. Also, they don’t have the investment costs of creating new power plants.
  • I win because I get a discount on power compared to what I’d pay National Grid for their retail price
  • Solar farm gets to claim SREC (Solar Energy Renewable Certificates) payments for putting up a solar farm, plus they get the income selling the power to National Grid. These solar farms also make profits from the 15% discount I get compared to National Grid.

Moreover, there are no fields that need planting and harvesting. It’s all passive income. Maintenance costs for solar systems are almost zero. I imagine they might need to replace some inverters from time to time, and build a tall fence to keep people out, but that should be it. In thirty years or so they will probably swap the panels, or if new panels become much cheaper and more efficient, it might make sense to replace them long before then.

What I’d like to do is add more solar panels to my roof. I’ve looked into it but for reasons that look entirely bureaucratic, I’d have to put up a completely new system, with separate pipes, metering, etc. This frankly makes no sense but I’ve found no way around it after trading many emails and a phone call with National Grid. The cost of a separate system compared to adding to what I have amounts to thousands of dollars.

But even so, there’s a limit to the amount of panels I can put up. Realistically, it would be hard to add more than four panels to my roof. Putting more up in my backyard is not an option. First, I may be in a single-family house, but it’s a 55+ community, so we’re technically a condominium. Second, I have no backyard to speak of. I have about four feet of it. Otherwise my “yard” is a steep hill with about a 15% incline. There’s all this plus my new car is a Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid. So it is now drawing energy from the grid too. At least it’s all clean energy.

As we look toward a carbonless future though, it’s clear to me that these solar farms are leading indicators of what 2050 will look like. There will be lots and lots of solar farms. People who have roofs that are reasonably unobstructed will add solar panels. One state, California, requires it for all new construction. With the cost of solar panels continually dropping, pretty much any surface that points toward the sun and is unobstructed will have them. In time, they won’t look like solar panels, but will blend in naturally.

Lots of condo, apartment and city dwellers though will want to buy their share from solar farms. It’s likely that they will save money for doing so … and help save the planet.

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