To Be Continued…

Taichung-Swallows-Nest-Vincenct-Cellebaut-011

Vincent Callebaut’s architectural design for “Swallow’s Nest“–a cultural center in Taichung, Taiwan that would incorporate natural light and structurally integrated photovoltaics, all in the shape of a mobius strip variant

I’m leaving you all on a cliffhanger—with our solar panels not yet installed, and the specter of climate change knocking at the door.  Since Amie and I are getting married in May, I’m taking a temporary hiatus from the blog to focus my energies wholeheartedly on making that wedding the best possible celebration of our love. I plan to return in June, with many more stories to tell.  In “Season 2” I’ll unveil the designs for our solar panels, discuss the sharing economy and solar’s role in it, release interviews with my neighbors who have panels, and, of course, share what it’s like to have the panels installed and providing electricity! In the meantime—take some time to look back through previous episodes in my solar journey:

  1. Introduction, Part 1: Climate Change and the Power of the Sun
  2. Introduction, Part 2: What is a solar lease, and is it a good idea?
  3. A Home in Beacon…and Ecovillages!
  4. A Friendly Passerby Tells Me How To Get Solar Panels
  5. Hardward Stores Are Secretly Magical
  6. We Make the Decision To Go Solar
  7. Doubt and Research, Part 1: Rare Earth Elements
  8. Doubt and Research, Part 2: Customer Complaints and Fear of Commitment
  9. A Post-Holiday Solar Site Assessment
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A Post-Holiday Solar Site Assessment

Time rolled on, as it is wont to do.  Everyone at Verengo Solar was very communicative during the intervening weeks, and we learned that the next step would be a site assessment to evaluate our roof in preparation for designing our solar panel system.

Farmigo's office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York

Farmigo’s office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York

In the intervening weeks, I had the opportunity to further connect with people working to create a more sustainable world, including the wonderful folks at a company called Farmigo.  They are a fascinating startup that connects local farms directly to consumers.  Cutting out the middle man of the supermarket allows consumers to buy more affordable local food while simultaneously contributing more of the profits directly to farmers (60 cents on the dollar vs. the typical 20% seen when selling through wholesale).  A certified B Corporation, their cofounder and CEO, Benzi Ronen, is a Microsoft veteran and has spent a great deal of effort making Farmigo an innovative company and a great place to work.

Their warehouse space in Gowanus (Brooklyn, New York) is a veritable treehouse playground—an open floor plan in a converted warehouse with hammocks and wooden ladders that lead up to the second level’s meeting rooms.  Farmigo is incredibly supportive of the local food communities they organize, and they look after their own staff with equal vigor.  The Farmigo team inhabits a workplace whose environment and culture provides consistent reminders and encouragement of their mission.  One small example—which I got to experience first-hand—is that every Friday, different members of the team make a healthy lunch with fresh, local produce for the entire workplace to enjoy.  They truly practice what they preach, and with over 100 communities getting food from local farmers because of Farmigo, they’re making a serious change in the way consumers and businesses think about food.

Not long after visiting Farmigo, the winter solstice holidays came around.  This brought out all the traditions of walking down Fifth Avenue to experience the Christmas Windows, getting candied nuts from street vendors more often than I care to admit, an epic “Latkethon” Chanukah celebration at my coworker’s family’s magnificent apartment, and Amie and I celebrating our first Christmas in our new home with her father, Dan—complete with a decked out balsam fir tree, newly invented holiday cocktails, and folk songs sung around the fire.

Two days after Christmas, two friendly gentlemen from Verengo came to visit our house for a solar site assessment.  The one who led the way introduced himself as Fernando.  I showed them our electric panel in the basement, walked them upstairs through the house, and listened as they talked about the support beams in our roof.  We have no attic, so armed with a flashlight, they peered through a small hole left behind from where they had carefully pulled out a light fixture.  Staring up into that space between ceiling and rafters at the very finite pieces of wood that kept our roof from falling in, I had the sudden sensation of all the weight that the solar panels would add and was glad we had a whole team behind us to carefully inspect everything and support this endeavor.

solar-jobs-638x534

The solar industry brings together a diverse group of skill sets and lifestyles.  Increasing photovoltaic efficiency is a sophisticated applied physics and engineering challenge, which draws in the minds of researchers.  As a technology that’s disrupting the incumbent energy production system, venture capitalists and startup founders are drawn to it for the massive growth that solar has seen and will continue to have as more people move toward renewables.  Policy makers and activists who support a more sustainable lifestyle believe in the cause of renewable energy and will fight to support it as climate change continues to shape our world in increasingly dire ways.  Contractors and electricians who were building houses and working on construction projects can apply their skills in this new targeted domain and meet a demand for skilled builders who can plan for and mount the necessary equipment.

All of this means that solar is responsible for an incredible amount of job growth across the globe and in the United States.  According to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, over 31,000 solar energy jobs were created in 2014 and the industry is growing almost twenty times faster than the overall U.S. economy.

Fernando and his colleague went out to the truck to get their ladder.  They climbed onto the roof to get the exact measurements of everything, including the dimensions, the shingle material, the pitch, and how much shade is cast on the roof.  For this last measurement they used a tool called a SunEye, which uses annual sun path and weather data to project not only how much shade is currently cast on the roof, but how much shade the roof will see throughout the year.  The data projection is here done programmatically with GPS and a fisheye camera, but tracking the shadows cast by the sun has an ancient legacy whose remnants can be seen in the great solar alignments of the world (like Abu Simbel, a temple whose construction was ordered by Ramses II, and whose inner chamber is aligned in such a way that twice a year the statues of Ramses, Ra-Horakthy, Amun Ra are lit while Ptah, god of the Underworld, remains in shadow).

Light pouring into Abu Simbel in Nubia, Egypt, illuminating Ramses II, Ra Horakthy, and Amun Ra, while Ptah remains in shadow

The sun’s light pouring into Abu Simbel in Nubia, Egypt, illuminating Ramses II, Ra Horakthy, and Amun Ra, with Ptah in shadow

As they packed up their gear, Fernando said everything was looking good.  They would give their data to the system designer who would map out the system and its technical specifications.  We would hear back from them in three weeks or so.

With the final all-clear from the site assessors, we prepared to ring in the new year.


P.S.:

Rum + Kahlúa + Eggnog + Chai = Reindeer's Delight

A post shared by Patrick Metzger (@prossm) on

Doubt and Research, Part 2: Customer Complaints and Fear of Commitment

So two major doubts about solar leasing had been resolved for me: it’s not simply a scam and the rare earth elements issue is largely blown out of proportion.  I continued diligently onward to make sure we were making the right choice.

In terms of public perception of how our house looked, we weren’t too worried what the neighbors would think.  Personally, I think solar panels look cool, and when it came to helping the environment, we were happy to be the Big Orange Splot house on the block.  And as it turned out, we weren’t even the first house in our neighborhood to get solar panels!  But that’s a story for another day.

The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

I knew that Verengo was incentivized to set us up with the most affordable panels available on the market that can still regularly produce energy, and for a moment I worried that we wouldn’t be getting the most efficient panels possible.  But I had to ask myself—efficient compared to what?  The amount of panels currently on my roof was zero.  The more expensive options were not something we could afford in the first place.  So yes, Verengo would seek to get the most profit by putting a lower cost system on my roof.  But you know what?  The panels will still generate electricity out of the light in the friggin’ sky.

So I went on to research Verengo Solar further as a company, and I found the Better Business Bureau’s site to be the perfect place to do it.  There I found a list of customer complaints that had been filed and closed with the BBB.  At first, I was worried that Verengo had any customer complaints at all.  But having been involved recently with the creation of a social media analytics app, I reminded myself that user feedback was a natural part of any business.

There are always hiccups or delays in a sales or operations process that can lead to customer anxiety, especially with something so complex as a rooftop solar panel system (which involves intricate technology, weeks of permitting, contractors to install the panels, etc).  What I found, actually, after reading through Verengo’s customer complaints (and their responses to those complaints) is that, by and large, as soon as an issue arose, Verengo was incredibly communicative and worked with their customers to resolve the matter quickly and smoothly.  The complaints ranged from misunderstandings about the kilowatt output of the system (resulting from DC to AC conversion), to someone whose roof was in bad shape and needed to be fixed after the panels had been installed, to complications arising from Verengo’s partnerships with other solar providers like SunRun. In each case, Verengo’s response eased my worry that they would not support their customers.

The Yelp reviews of Verengo were a bit overwhelming, and, unhelpfully, all the negative reviews seemed to relate almost exclusively to the sleaziness of particular salespeople.  Stephen Lacey wrote a great breakdown of the nature of the sales process in the solar industry where customer acquisition feels for many companies like a life-or-death imperative right now.  The article is accompanied by the best and worst Yelp reviews given to each of the top 5 US solar installers (Verengo is second in the country), which helped me to understand that this is clearly an issue facing all the major companies.  Since my sales process had gone smoothly so far and there were several glowing reviews of people who had undergone a successful installation, I felt satisfied that Verengo was “good as any, better than some.”

Improvements to solar efficiency since the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Improvements to solar efficiency since the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

My final concern was about just how long of a commitment the lease required.  20 years is a long time, and there’s no getting around that.  However, you can transfer the lease to a new owner if you sell the house.  And honestly, solar panels on a house are likely to be an attractive thing to most home buyers (and will self-select to attract the kind of buyer who wants them).

Getting panels immediately also quite simply allows us to start making an impact on the environment right away.  Given the urgency of the climate crisis, this was (and is) incredibly important to Amie and I.  Going solar allows us to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Lastly, solar panels will always get progressively more efficient.  If we were to wait 5 years until costs were lower, or until we’d saved up money to buy them ourselves, we would still find ourselves imagining five years from then when the panels would be even more efficient.  And in the process of waiting, we would have wasted money on our electric bills and continued to contribute to the production of dirty energy in the Hudson Valley.

The time for waiting was over.  We were ready for solar panels.

Doubt and Research, Part 1: Rare Earth Elements

Tellurium, produced in order to create cadmium telluride, used in some solar panels. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Tellurium, produced in order to create cadmium telluride, used in some solar panels. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

After running into that “solar fleecing” site that described solar leases as a scam, I had some trepidations about the contract we had just signed.  After all, this was a 20-year commitment.  Since we had a window of opportunity where we could cancel the process, I got online and did my research.

My worries related to that particular site were quickly dispelled once I realized that it was created with the ulterior motive of drawing in customers, preferably to their loan system (which simply makes you indebted to the bank rather than a solar leasing company; for a more rational, less partisan comparison of solar loans vs. solar leases, visit EnergySage).

The site also tries to convince visitors to patronize them by articulating something that I already knew to be true: leasing solar panels is not as good of a return on your investment as buying solar panels outright.  This argument seems to be articulated mainly for those people who can afford to buy panels in the first place—and as I’ve said before, for that group of folks, buying solar panels outright is the way to go.  It’s an amazing investment right now and you can more directly reap the benefits of the various tax incentives that are in place.  But as someone who can’t afford the upfront costs, this isn’t really applicable to me.

So further research dispelled that “solar fleecing” anxiety.  However, one big worry that lingered in the back of my mind was an issue that a couple of my friends had brought up—namely that many solar panels are made using rare earth elements.

As Stuart Elms (CEO of UK’s Viridian Solar) points out, “rare earths” is a bit of a misnomer.  While cerium oxide is sometimes used in the production of solar panels, most of the elements involved aren’t technically among the rare earth elements of the periodic table.  However, getting to some of these resources can be tricky.  Most notably, cadmium telluride (CdTe) is used to create inexpensive and efficient photovoltaic film.  Cadmium (Cd) is not rare.  It’s a waste product of many other mining and manufacturing processes and photovoltaics are actually a safe place to put it, since it can be hazardous when not combined with other elements.  Tellurium (Te), however, is three times rarer than gold, and getting your hands on it is geopolitically complicated (China controls about 95% of rare earth element exports and 47% of US imports of tellurium, for instance, so Chinese markets have a lot of global economic impact when businesses do things like reduce mining operations).  The worry is that solar panels might not be that great of an idea if they are dependent on finite resources and can’t genuinely create a sustainable future.

USGS_rare_earth_oxides_production_graph

This is a complex issue, and the debate continues from many perspectives.  My take on it: The use of rare earth elements and scarce resources is a real concern in the production of electricity-generating solar panels—but even more so in the production of energy-consuming products like computers and cell phones which also use rare earths, are totally pervasive in every aspect of our lives, and don’t contribute any electricity back to the larger system.  And while finite resources like oil and coal are simply burned away (emitting greenhouse gases that change our planet’s climate, with the energy produced never to be captured again), tellurium is being used in photovoltaics to contribute energy for 30 years or more, after which they can be recycled to be used in future solar panels.

Increased photovoltaic recycling has meant that there’s more tellurium to go around outside of its raw production.  If unit efficiency of tellurium continues to improve as predicted, the impacts of photovoltaic recycling processes are expected to create a decline in tellurium demand after 2020, even though more people will want solar panels at that time.

In addition, some solar panels are made without the use of CdTe, and research continues into the development and manufacturing of more affordable options that don’t use rare elements.

The Center for Alternative Technology gives a very thorough explanation of the less-than-perfect steps involved in the production of photovoltaics (all the way down to safety concerns involving Cadmium that only arise in industrial fires exceeding 1050 degrees C), but also gives a great response for why it’s still a good idea to use solar panels:

“…it is important to take these issues in context. All electronic equipment can cause these concerns, and whereas many electrical goods are only designed to last for a couple of years, PV panels are expected to last for at least 30 years (here at CAT we have some that are 15 years old and still functioning well). Furthermore, PV panels are used in place of other sources of electricity which have a much greater environmental impact per unit of electricity generated.”

Really what this whole issue brings up is the glaring fact that every aspect of the manufacturing supply chain (for any product) is steeped in millions of tiny lesser-evil decisions that add up to a massive unsustainable system.  For far too long the driving incentive behind our consumer culture (and corporate culture of the bottom line) has been affordable materials, with little thought to hidden costs and externalities.  Externalities basically occur when entities outside the (imagined) closed system of a private business are unwittingly harmed or benefited by the actions of that business (such as people breathing toxic fumes from a factory, or any ecological impact that a company has).  As many scholars point out, when private businesses minimize costs from their own manufacturing process, it is often the natural environment (and the people it surrounds) that take the actual burden of that cost.  In the study of externalities, there’s even an argument to be made that arrangements like solar leases—where companies share the burden of risk with a consumer—can lead to the reduction of environmental externalities by encouraging companies to innovate.  More on that later.

Put simply, we need more companies built on systems thinking.

Having fewer tchotchkes in our lives (and recycling those items that we’re done with—especially electronics) is a good thing.  Getting solar panels is a good thing.  They may look like really big tchotchkes, but they’re actually busily displacing their carbon footprint through the production of renewable electricity.

We Make the Decision To Go Solar

From Prometheus Garden, claymation animation by Bruce Bickford

In order to start the process of designing the system for our solar panels we needed to wait until we had a bill from our utility company.  Amie and I had just moved in, and with Central Hudson’s billing system, this meant we needed to wait two months before we could fully dive in.

Weeks passed.  We hosted a haunted housewarming on Halloween and projected Bruce Bickford animations on the living room wall.  We visited my dad in Baltimore for a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat (featuring a Quorn Turk’y Roast and all the best fixin’s).  The plans for our wedding in May started to crystallize and get put into action.  I turned twenty-seven.  Then one day we got a call from Verengo, and we were ready to get things rolling.  So we scheduled a time for a salesperson to come visit our home to tell us more about Verengo’s solar leasing program.

Our salesperson, Michael, arrived at the somewhat farcical hour of 4:30pm…exactly 24 hours before we expected him!  Luckily, Amie and I were in for the night anyway and more than happy to welcome him to chat about solar for a while.  We got him a glass of water and sat down to talk shop.

I wanted to know everything, and I tried to think of all the questions I had considered before Michael arrived.  Yes, Verengo would come and do maintenance if any issues arose.  No, we would not need to pay any money upfront for site assessment, permits, or installation.  I learned that we’ll be able to log onto the web and watch the energy the panels are collecting in real time (which totally makes me drool as a data analyst).

In between questions, we got to know Michael.  Aside from being a sales representative with Verengo, Michael Balkind, as it turns out, is an author.  He has written four sports mysteries.  His most recent book, The Fix, was co-authored with NBC Sports journalist, Ryan Burr, and follows a college quarterback and a football referee as they tumble further into the world of sports gambling.

Horizontal_Verengo_Logo_(3)

In between getting to know Michael, I got to know Verengo.  The company has been around since 2008 when its co-founders (Ken Button and Randy Bishop) acquired a small California home improvement company called Jemstar Builders and turned it into a home solar installation business.  Since then the company has grown to install over 13,000 residential rooftop solar panel systems, earning $115 million in revenue in 2013, with over 1300 employees across the country.

We gave Michael our 2-month utility bill to run the numbers and make a projection for what our usage would be like throughout the year (accounting for fluctuations in the summer when window air conditioners would pull more juice from those wires in the wall).  There was a certain amount of data entry and processing that needed to run before we’d get an estimate for what our payments would look like.  So I headed to the kitchen to grab a snack.

While numbers were crunching in the other room, Amie—diligently skeptical—gave me a look and handed me her computer.  This site was open—describing solar leases as a scam.  I scanned through the page while she talked to Michael in the other room.  I slowly got the sinking sensation that maybe we were being swindled.  I knew it was too good to be true, I thought.  I was foolish to think that there’s a system in place set up by corporations where everybody benefits.

I have since found that there are plenty of these sites on the internet that will tell you that solar leases are unequivocally scams (usually sites with low-quality web design to accompany their own scam-and-spam language).  These are usually created by solar companies that do not offer a leasing option, and are therefore trying to convince consumers that it’s a bad idea to lease (to get more people coming to them to buy the panels outright).

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, a solar lease is not the best return on investment you can possibly get for solar.  It is, however, one of the only practical solutions available to consumers who can’t afford the up-front cost of buying panels themselves (i.e., $20-40k).

The data projection finished.  Our numbers came back and I was openly astonished to see that our regular monthly payments would be half of our average monthly utility bill.  On top of that, we learned that we would get a tax rebate covering every single payment we made to Verengo for up to five years.

It took a good amount of thorough conversation between Amie, Michael, and myself, but by the end of it all we were convinced.  Seeing it all laid out, by the end it seemed like a no-brainer: lower cost electricity, maintenance and upkeep covered by Verengo, the ability to transfer the lease to a new owner if we sold the house, immediate environmental impact.  We read and signed the proper documents and came to the close of a 3-hour endeavor.

We bade Michael farewell.  He wished us luck with our wedding.  And we were one step closer to getting solar panels.


  • For those interested in more detail on solar leases, I cover them in more depth here.
  • If you live in the New York area, I highly recommend Michael Balkind as someone who can help you go solar.  You can contact him here.

Hardware Stores Are Secretly Magical

Me splitting wood outside my house in Beacon. Photo credit: Amie Anderson

Me splitting wood outside my house in Beacon. Photo credit: Amie Anderson

After we got a house, hardware stores suddenly gained a kind of mystical, temple-like power.  As someone who had only ever been loosely involved with a few small-scale construction projects in my life, I had always felt a bit overwhelmed and out of my league walking in to peruse the implements of creation and destruction that are doled out at such places.  So I didn’t think much about taking a quick trip to one in order to pick up some supplies a couple weeks after we moved into our new home.

But seemingly overnight, something had changed.  The nails and drills and pipes and caulk that line the walls of these hallowed institutions had gained a newfound purpose.  The two-by-fours shimmered with possibility—the dreams of future compost enclosures and raised beds in which to grow vegetables.  The paint buckets were ways to coat our walls with colors and moods and fuel our dreams.  Everything that came into view was a way to repair or amend or supplement the place that would keep me warm in winter, shelter my friends and housemates, and surround the songs and stories that we would craft there.

I had already learned the hard way that an old used ax from the flea market is liable to break after about fourteen swings.  So it was that I found myself entering the great kingdom of Home Depot to buy an ax (for splitting logs for our wood burning stove), loppers (for pruning our apple trees), and a snow shovel (for…shoveling snow).

But before I reached the shelves to retrieve my journey’s boon, I saw a woman greeting people at the door to tell them about solar panels—they being the newest development in the human manipulation of time and space to benefit daily life (for that is the great mission to which hardware stores are solemnly dedicated).  At this time, I was in prime solar panel research mode, so I stopped in to hear what she had to say.

Matthew McConaughey, Photo Credit: Erik Thureson / Fox Sports

Matthew McConaughey,
Photo Credit: Erik Thureson / Fox Sports

The company was NRG Home Solar.  They’re a national company, and while they’re not exclusively focused on green energy (they have a good number of plants powered by nuclear, coal, oil, and natural gas), they have become a leader in green energy, reducing their carbon emissions by 40% since 2005 with plans to reduce them by another 90% by 2050.  NRG acquired Rooftop Diagnostics last Spring to get into the home solar market.  They offer various financing options both to consumers and enterprise customers, including a solar leasing option.

The woman who had greeted me to talk about NRG was very kind and knowledgable, and wrote down their website for me.  While they do have a great 1-minute pitch video (laced with Matthew McConaughey’s dulcet baritone voice-over), in the end I decided not to go with NRG.  Largely it was personal preference.  The type of solar lease that NRG offers is quite similar to other options I had researched, and the rates and system design may have been comparable (though I never got far enough along in their sales process to get an estimate).

By this time, I had taken the appearance of a solar salesperson on my street in the first week of owning a home as a sign.  I had established a good one-on-one relationship with my solar company of choice, and I was happy to let the various options stew while moving steadily down their sales funnel.

So I got my ax, loppers, and snow shovel, and went home to split some wood.

Afterthoughts:

By various turns of events, I am now technically a customer of NRG.  Just a couple weeks back they acquired Verengo’s Northeast operations.  I think it speaks to Verengo’s well-crafted business model and excellent customer service that NRG would bring Verengo’s forces on-board to bolster business.

It’s part of a larger trend across the industry where solar and green tech companies are being consolidated together.  This wave of consolidation is driven, in particular, by the renewable energy tax credits that are set to be reduced at the end of 2016, but it’s a practice seen in just about every market as growth becomes powerful enough that the larger companies want to maximize profits and add fuel to the fire by acquiring other smaller established companies.

A Friendly Passerby Tells Me How To Get Solar Panels

A few days after moving into our house, I found myself out in the yard picking up the windfalls from our apple tree in order to use them in a salad that afternoon.  The sky was clear as a prism.  The sun was a hot bath on my back.  The wind around me was alive with birdsong, and I was breathing in my town.

Pete Seeger and his banjo.  Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

Pete Seeger and his banjo. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

Beacon, as a city (and the Hudson Valley in general), has a long legacy of environmentalism.  For one, Pete Seeger made his home in Beacon.  It was here that he gathered friends and community members together to build and found the sloop Clearwater as a way to educate people about the need to clean the Hudson River.  It used to be that you could tell what color General Motors had painted the cars that day by looking at the color of the Hudson River.

That river has come a long way, in large part thanks to the efforts of Pete Seeger and the folks at Clearwater, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and environmentalists across the country who worked for policy change (like the Clean Water Act of 1972).  Now you can swim in the Hudson River, and the Clearwater’s biodiversity education programs continue to this day.  There’s power in people gathering together to stand up for their community’s health and environmental restoration.

I was pondering Beacon and the bright song of the day around me when I saw a friendly-looking redheaded gentleman walking down my street.  I called a greeting, and we began to chat over the fence.

Xavier, as it turned out, was a representative for Verengo Solar.  He asked if I had ever considered solar panels, and—having just heard about Amie’s interaction with the inspector—I assured him that we’d just been talking about the best way to get some up on our roof.

He told me about Verengo’s solar leasing option, which would allow me to get solar panels for negative dollars (if you counted the savings on my electric bill and the tax incentives we’d receive).  I gave him a thorough grilling to the extent that I could right there on the spot.  What was Verengo’s story?  How did they make money?  How long had he been working there?  (A few brief answers were given, but I explore these thoughts in more depth in future—and past—posts.)

As our conversation deepened, we stepped into the shade to rest our skin from the sun’s rays—noting the irony that the best sales pitch for solar panels on this sunny day was coming from that ball of plasma way up in the sky.

Wall painting by Giulio Parigi from the Uffizi Gallery, Stanzino delle Matematiche, in Florence, Italy, showing Archimedes' mirror being used to burn Roman military ships. Painted in 1600.

Wall painting by Giulio Parigi from the Uffizi Gallery, Stanzino delle Matematiche, in Florence, Italy, showing Archimedes’ mirror being used to burn Roman military ships. Painted in 1600.

The sun is 93 million miles away, but it sure can pack a wallop at human scales here on Earth.  In the 3rd century BC, the Greek polymath, Archimedes—a long-time fascination of mine—is rumored to have invented a way to set enemy ships on fire using polished shields as a parabolic reflector to focus the sun’s rays on oncoming ships.  Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used solar energy to passively heat their homes.  And modern Western science has researched practical applications of solar technology since Horace-Bénédict de Saussure created a solar oven in 1767.  The first photovoltaic cell was built in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel, and the technology has been getting steadily cheaper and more efficient since the first practical photovoltaic cells were made by Bell Labs in 1954.

As Xavier and I continued our discussion, I became ever more aware of all the sunlight falling mutely on my plain roof shingles.  Considering that I could be powering every light in my home, every power outlet, my refrigerator, my microwave—all from solar energy…well, it felt frankly foolish not to be utilizing that energy.  When he gave me his card and went on his way with a smile, I felt as though I’d been given the calling card for my next phase of initiation into the secret world behind things.

I had become the newest member of an ancient lineage of solar harvesters who had the wisdom to use the gifts that fell right on their heads every day.


Afterthoughts:

  • I’m pretty much obligated to link out to this fantastically gorgeous video that NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) put out last week, which shows some of the most beautiful moments of the sun that they’ve captured from the five years that the project has been running.
  • Fun fact: Clearwater has a project right now where you can contribute to writing an anthem about climate change!
  • There are too many fantastic environmental organizations in the Hudson Valley to list all of them in this blog post, but luckily the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has already done that!  Check ‘em out:
  • Same goes for the national and global levels.  Here I’m going to let my good friend Wikipedia do the work (crowdsourcing to the rescue!):
  • There’s so much to say about Pete Seeger–a legendary, down-to-earth, compassionate folk singer and activist who died last January–but here are some further resources:
    • If you know nothing about Pete Seeger, start with “If I Had a Hammer“.
    • The Power of Song is a fantastic documentary about Pete’s life and work.
    • Smithsonian Folkways has a great tribute to Pete, which includes many video and audio resources from their years of work with him as the record label for the majority of his releases.
    • Also, several episodes of Pete’s 1960’s television show, Rainbow Quest, are available on YouTube and are well worth exploring (with guests like Johnny Cash, June Carter, The Stanley Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, and many more).

A Home in Beacon…and Ecovillages!

Our house in Beacon, NY.

Cozy home in Beacon, NY.

In October of 2014, my fiancée, Amie, and I finally completed the last of our paperwork and moved into our new home in Beacon, New York.  We had been living in Hamilton Heights for 4 years after both of us graduated from Sarah Lawrence College (Amie staying a year longer to get her Masters degree in education).  While New York City has its good points, we had grown weary of sirens at all hours, nameless interactions at coffee shops and delis that tended toward distant apathy, and claustrophobic morning rides in a crowded subway car with all the other disgruntled travelers.  Manhattan was not helping us grow into the best version of ourselves.

We had never planned to stay forever, and when I got a job that could support us both for a short time while Amie transitioned to a new one, we made the leap and moved.

Beacon

We had visited Amie’s father, Dan, in Beacon on numerous weekend escapes while living in Manhattan as we tried to remind ourselves what mountains and trees and sky and nature really were.  Amie had grown up in Garrison, just two towns south of Beacon, and was a full-blooded Hudson Valley girl.  Having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee (another awesome river town), I felt immediately at home.  We fell in love with Beacon.  The more we thought about where we’d want to move, the more we realized just how special this little corner of the Earth was.  So by the time we were ready to make our move, the choice was clear.  And Beacon took us in with welcoming arms.

I won’t bore you with the entire process of buying a house (the many hours spent on Trulia and Zillow, countless open houses, lawyers, mortgages, paperwork, and living with Amie’s dad who graciously took us in for the summer).  Long story short, in the end we truly found our dream home.  The previous owners had put their heart and soul into the house’s renovations.  It felt like the passing of a torch from one family to another.  The kitchen had two ovens (two of them) and chalkboard paint on the walls.  The downstairs had beautiful old hardwood floors, and the living room was big enough for house shows and dance parties with friends.  The total square footage was 9 times the size of our apartment in Hamilton Heights.  There was a real yard.  With apple trees.

So we dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.  When we got the place inspected (a standard part of the home buying process), the inspector casually told Amie that because we had a south-facing roof we were good candidates for solar panels.  He said there were programs available for people who couldn’t afford the initial cost of the panels, and that it might be cheaper than our electric bill with Central Hudson.

Amie’s ears perked up, and she immediately texted me.

The Octagon Hall at Sirius Community in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.

The Octagon Hall at Sirius Community in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.

Ecovillages

You see, Amie and I had been thinking about the environment since we were kids (like many people in our hippie-parented, climate-aware, Captain Planet generation), and a couple years back we gathered together a group of friends and started having meetings as a community.  We started dreaming, and then getting practical about one day starting an ecovillage—a sustainable, educational shared living environment.

Ecovillages are akin to what people used to call “communes”, but that word has gotten a bit of a stain since the high-profile cults and failed farming attempts of the 1960’s.  Not to mention the McCarthy-era attitude that still has remnants today, where anything remotely akin to communism is seen as an insult to the American dream.

What most people don’t tell you is that a number of those farms and intentional communities that got started in the 60’s and 70’s (Twin Oaks and The Farm being major examples) are still running successfully today.  And with the advent of the Internet, there’s a wealth of publicly available information and community support for people trying to start a farm, cohousing community, or ecovillage today.  Not to mention there are thousands of ecovillages across the globe now, serving as examples of how societies can be more cooperative, egalitarian, and aware of environmental interdependence.

Part of the reason that Amie and I had gotten a house with trees, space for growing things, and space for housemates was so that we could directly continue forward winding threads of our planned ecovillage, Wildflower Farms, in our own home.

So, suffice it to say, when the inspector mentioned that we might be able to get solar panels on our roof right now—not fifteen years from now when we were “real grown-ups”, but right now—Amie and I had the first of many conversations about how to make this a reality.

The wheels began to turn.


Afterthoughts:

  • Here’s a great NPR story from last week that perfectly summarizes the situation many find themselves in.  Thanks to my dad, Rich Metzger, for this one!: The Great Solar Panel Debate: To Lease Or To Buy?
  • Research that was released last week highlights the megadroughts that are projected to hit the American Southwest if we maintain our current course of greenhouse gas emissions.  A good reminder of why we need to start changing our way of life right now.
  • Diana Leafe Christian’s work researching intentional communities is essential reading for anyone thinking of starting or joining one.  She has distilled a lot of the good, the bad, and the ugly experiences that fledgling and seasoned communities face, and she is expert at sharing what works best when bringing groups of people together to live in community for the long haul.
  • The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) are great resources for learning about ecovillages and intentional communities all around the world.

Some particularly cool ecovillages and intentional communities worth checking out:

Here’s a sampling of some of the other communities from the ‘60s and ‘70s still around today (with their founding dates—thanks to Laird Schaub for help with this list):

Introduction, Part 2: What is a solar lease, and is it a good idea? Disclaimers and research

Okay, so solar energy is a good thing and one way to help save the planet.  Got it.  Let’s get practical.  What is a solar lease?  How is it different from buying panels?  What kinds of companies are offering solar leases?  Is it a good idea?  How do companies profit from the arrangement?

This post will attempt to answer many of these questions with my own personal experience and research.  Many of the separate events that spurred on this research will be detailed in a more narrative format in the blog posts to come.  But I thought I’d collect some of the major points (and disclaimers) together into a summary post about solar leases and how I came to choose the company I did.

Disclaimers

First thing’s first, (spoiler alert) the company I chose is Verengo Solar*.  I am in no way affiliated with Verengo.  In fact, in a future post I’ll be talking about my neighbor, Ray—an independent rep with Viridian Energy (a green energy supplier)—and his family’s solar panels, which came from SolarCity (which offers a solar lease that directly competes with Verengo).

Also, full disclosure: it is my personal opinion that a solar lease is a good idea for the average consumer who can’t afford the upfront costs of buying their own solar panels.  No matter how much research I’ve done, that is an inherent bias of all the posts that will follow, and you should do your own research to decide what’s best for you—especially into any specific companies that you’re considering going into contract with.  The goal of this blog is to help with some of that initial research and to show that getting solar panels is a thing that real people do that isn’t as difficult as it might seem.

<Nerd Time>
You’ll also notice that many of the words on this page (and all my other blog posts) are underlined.  That’s because they’re hyperlinked!  I love links.  They’ve made the internet into a collaborative space where people can quickly cite their sources to all kinds of research and media without spending a bunch of time worrying about citation conventions like APA or MLA.  Sometimes when I turn a word into a link it’s a quick YouTube video.  Sometimes it’s a long research paper from a scientific journal on climate change.  Sometimes I’ll link to another post of mine where I explained a topic in more depth.  It is always purposeful and will provide more context on a subject for those who are interested (sometimes, for instance, I may make claims as if they are “just true”; in these cases I’ve chosen not to spend time on this blog discussing the matter and have instead linked to scientific sources that give evidence and analysis for the claims).  This is all pretty common practice in contemporary journalism and blogging, but I figured I’d point it out so that no one (who’s interested) misses out on the palimpsest of external content that’s running beneath the surface of these posts.
</Nerd Time>

The sun today, via the AIA's 193 angstrom channel. Courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.

The sun today, via the AIA’s 193 angstrom channel. Courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.

Solar Panels and Solar Leases

The sun is basically a giant nuclear fusion reactor, constantly fusing hydrogen atoms together to become helium.  Huge amounts of energy are released from this process, primarily in the form of electromagnetic radiation.  You can see some of this radiation as visible light giving color to everything around you, and you can feel the infrared radiation as heat when you’re walking around on a sunny day.

The basic idea behind solar panels is to capture and utilize some of that radiation constantly shining down from the sun.  Solar panels are made up of photovoltaic cells, which are little devices that convert the sun’s electromagnetic energy into electricity.  Harnessing solar energy is an ancient practice, and photovoltaic technology has been getting steadily more efficient and more affordable since the 1950’s.

A solar lease essentially means that I let a company (who owns the solar panels outright) use my roof as a place to stash solar panels for 20 years.  In exchange, I pay a monthly rate and get all the energy that the panels produce.

Of course, the complexity goes on from there.  The main selling point for me was this: I am paying no upfront costs for the inspection, design, or installation of the system.  And once the panels are up, our monthly electric bill will be roughly 1/2 of our average electric bill from Central Hudson—our current supplier (the exact amount of savings, if any, will differ for everyone depending on the state you’re in, the size of the solar array, the previous electric bills, etc).

And of course, there’s the obvious benefit that I’m moving to sustainable electricity immediately and easily—a goal I thought would take years of planning and saving to accomplish.

I will have a predictable electricity bill for 20 years (with slight increases over time that essentially match inflation).

I will never own the panels (I have the option to buy them at the end of the 20 year contract for a fairly low price, but by then they will likely be obsolete).  However, precisely because I don’t own them, maintenance, monitoring, and upkeep are entirely the responsibility of Verengo.  If something goes wrong, they’ll come out and fix it.

And because the panels are connected into the grid, I get paid (by Central Hudson, our utility company) for any surplus energy that the panels generate.  This is, admittedly, kept to a minimum, since the system is designed to match our typical energy usage as closely as possible.  But there is the chance that I’ll be cutting my electric bill even more with money generated from the very electricity the panels produce.

Grid parity in Germany--a similar trend is happening across the US.

Grid parity in Germany–a similar trend is happening across the US.

Where does the money come from, and where does it go?

All this ties into the question of, “How do companies like Verengo make money from a solar lease?”  First, as with any lease, since I am extending my payments over a longer length of time, I will end up paying more than the system would have cost if I had simply bought it today.  However, while I can’t speak for all companies, in the case of Verengo—as they have explained it to me—as of today, they make their money mostly off of the tax incentives from the government (and indirectly from utilities) for supplying renewable energy.  While our panels allow us to personally get up to $5000 in tax rebates for the first 5 years on our payments to Verengo (i.e. essentially free electricity for five years), Verengo gets all the other incentives from the state and federal government (of which there are many), and from the utility directly (since many utilities need to supply a certain amount of renewable energy to meet renewable electricity standards).

Tax incentives are always in flux, but there’s a huge push for renewable energy right now.  And as more and more states approach (and surpass) grid parity for photovoltaics—where the levelized cost of electricity from solar energy is the same as or cheaper than buying from the grid—it’s a good time to go solar.

Verengo will make a profit off of my panels.  They’re a well-funded business, and turning a profit is what businesses aim to do.  But that’s okay with me.  I’m helping them by offering up my roof where they can get tax incentives and some profit from my lease.  They’re helping me by letting me buy cheap, renewable electricity—enabling our home to be one less that runs on electricity generated mostly by a mixture of coal, gas, and nuclear power (by the way, you can find out how clean the electricity you use is here).

Getting solar panels through a solar lease is not a money-making endeavor.  It is not the best return on investment you can get from solar panels.  If you’ve got $20,000-$40,000 dollars in the bank—by all means, go and buy your own panels right now, because there are at least 13 states (some say 46) that are sunny enough with the right tax incentives and utility rates where you’ll be making a 10-24% internal rate of return (IRR), which is better than the average compounded annual growth rate of the S&P 500 over the last 50 years (9.9%).  So depending on how you play it, you could be beating the stock market by selling your solar power back to the grid.

If, however, you’re like me, and wouldn’t even be able to consider the upfront cost of solar panels if there weren’t a third party involved, a solar lease simply means saving money on electricity (since your electric bill is likely to be lower with the panels) and helping the environment at the same time.

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty sweet deal.


*Note: Last week, NRG Energy announced their acquisition of Verengo Solar’s Northeast operations (of which my solar panels will be a part).  I will continue to refer to the company I chose as Verengo for the purpose of this blog (since that is how I knew them over the past few months that these entries describe), but technically I am now a customer of NRG Energy.

Introduction, Part 1: Climate Change and the Power of the Sun

The Setting of the Sun Over the Pacific Ocean and a Towering Thundercloud, July 21, 2003 As Seen From the International Space Station (Expedition 7); Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

The Setting of the Sun Over the Pacific Ocean and a Towering Thundercloud, July 21, 2003 As Seen From the International Space Station (Expedition 7); Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

My name is Patrick.  I live in Beacon, New York with my fiancée, Amie, and we’re getting solar panels on our roof.  This weekly blog will predominantly be a first-person account of the discrete events leading up to the installation and activation of those panels as part of a solar lease.

However, I thought I’d start things off with two “big picture” entries: the first about why solar energy is important in the first place, and the second detailing some of my research and how we came to choose the particular solar leasing company that we did.  For many, this first post may cover familiar territory, but I think it’s important to reflect on how the things that we do fit into a larger global and societal situation (as they say, “Think Globally, Act Locally”).  Because, for me, getting solar panels is my own small way of changing the world for the better.

So.  Let’s start with the basics.  Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face as a species (another interconnected challenge being social and economic inequality, but for now I’ll let Robert Reich do the talking on that one).  Many people, places, and animals are already heavily impacted by the effects of climate change.  Droughts are amplifying water crises in the United States and abroad.  Species across the world are facing extinction.  The Maldives and other island and coastal nations are sinking due to rising sea levels.

And we are the cause.

Annual Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies, 1880-2014; National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Annual Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies, 1880-2014; National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The world’s scientific community has repeatedly demonstrated that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are the main cause of climate change.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) last year—100 ppm higher than any time in the last one million years.  According to the EPA, the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is electricity production (which accounted for 32% of all US greenhouse gas emissions in 2012) because “70% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.”  We need to change where our energy comes from, and we need to do it yesterday.

Solar isn’t the only solution. Wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power can all be great renewable solutions when they’re done right (with nuclear power being a complicated, “lesser evil” stopgap measure; however, when things go wrong with nuclear energy, people die, oceans are contaminated, and even when things go as planned we still don’t really know what to do with the waste it produces).  Governments can invest in dams.  Large companies can invest in wind farms.  But among these alternatives, solar is the most practical consumer solution available today.  And solar leases make getting panels possible for a huge population that wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford them (something I’ll get into further in the next post).

Neil deGrasse Tyson sums up solar’s potential well (in episode 12 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey) by pointing out that, “More solar energy falls on Earth in 1 hour than all the energy our civilization consumes in an entire year.  If we could harness a tiny fraction of the available solar and wind power, we could supply all our energy needs forever—and without adding any carbon to the atmosphere.”

Our job as citizens is to increase that fraction of harnessed solar energy.

We all need to do our part to heal the environment.  Buying local food, especially that which is grown with organic, sustainable, and/or permaculture practices can make a big difference, both to carbon emissions and to support local economies.  Recycling, composting, conserving water, and general thoughtfulness toward environmental impact in daily life can go a long way.  Plant-based diets are more sustainable than meat-based diets.  At the enterprise scale, B-Corporations and other socially conscious businesses are doing their part by putting the needs of stake-holders above those of stock-holders.

We’ve all got our bit to do.  And solar panels turned out to be a surprisingly easy way for me to do something too.


Further resources:

2014 was a great year for discussion of climate change in the media, high profile research, and protest.

  • I highly recommend watching Episode 12 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  The entire series is amazing—brilliant writing, cinematic special effects, and perfectly chosen stories that weave together a larger web of scientific discovery—but that episode in particular deals entirely with climate change and the power of solar energy in a very direct and inspiring way (the whole first season is available on Netflix Instant, if you’re into that sort of thing).
  • Years of Living Dangerously is a great series that sees journalists and celebrities alike exploring the roots of climate change through the stories of people already affected by it.  The first full episode is free on YouTube, and the first season is on Netflix Instant.
  • As part of Years of Living Dangerously, Robert Reich made a fantastic 3-minute video explaining how putting a price on carbon emissions is one of the best things we can do to combat climate change.
  • The National Climate Assessment’s website is a great resource for learning about how the United States specifically is currently affected (with plain-English summaries along with downloads of the full research report).
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been criticized for being too slow in its release of reports as climate change becomes an ever more dire situation, but 2014’s report finally contained very clear descriptions of “irreversible impacts” and strongly recommended new policies to mitigate climate change.
  • World leaders (from Barack Obama to Xi Jinping to François Hollande to Uhuru Kenyatta) have come out in support of aggressive climate policy.
  • 350.org, NextGen Climate, NRDC, and The Sierra Club are all great places to get involved with climate and environmental action at the local and national levels.

Other scientific research cited in the blog post above: