We went solar, so can you

Nashua | The world’s most abundant energy resource can be turned into cheap electricity.

I’ll never forget the first thing I learned in Economics 101 – there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the 20 years since that high school class, I have found the law holds true not just when it comes to lunch but also to gas in my car, electricity from the grid, and everything else under the sun.

Except sunlight itself.

That’s because the world’s most abundant source of energy is not only insanely abundant – it can also be turned into electricity, free of charge, for anyone with a sunny patch of roof or land who is willing to make the now-modest investment in solar panels.

Just how abundant is sunlight, you might ask? In the hour it takes you to read the Sunday paper, the planet will receive more power from the sun than the total energy we consume in an entire year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In fact, roughly 40 percent of our nation’s electricity needs could be met through rooftop solar alone – creating millions of good local jobs in the process.

Here in New Hampshire, it would take less than one percent of our land dedicated to solar panels to harvest all 300 trillion BTU of energy we consume in a year, cloudy days and all. Which brings me to my own patch of roof in downtown Nashua.

Worried about high energy bills and the kind of planet we are leaving our newborn twins, my wife and I decided to go solar in 2016. One year later, we’re happily still filling out plates at the solar buffet – and with plenty more sunlight to go around, we wanted to share what we learned with you.

Our journey began unexpectedly when we bumped into a representative of one of New Hampshire’s 68 solar companies at a fair. Curious if solar could work on our old home, we gave the fellow our address and he pulled up a map on the spot. It showed a respectable amount of sun hitting our west-facing roof, in spite of the many tall trees around. So we scheduled a meeting.

A few weeks later, a solar designer stopped by to take pictures of our roof and attic and walk us through the process. It didn’t take long to settle on a plan for seventeen 327-watt photovoltaic panels, designed to fully meet our family’s energy needs when averaged over the year. We signed a project agreement and left the fancy permitting and paperwork to them.

Next, a team of local technicians got to work on our roof installing the aluminum mounts, solar panels, wiring, and inverters, along with a new meter to track the excess electricity we would be sending back to the grid. After two days of installation and a visit by the city inspector, the system was good to go.

Twelve months and several snowstorms later, our system is running without a hitch and we have yet to spend a dime on electricity. Instead, we pay the utility a standard $12 per month for the benefit of accessing power from the grid – our “battery” on cloudy days and when the sun goes down. The excess power we generate in summer covers our needs in full, thanks to net-metering.

While the electricity itself is free, the panels, inverters, meter, labor and 25-year warranty add up. At $12,500 after state and federal rebates, our system will take 8-10 years to pay itself off. Then we can look forward to decades of free power, as the expected lifetime of our SunPower panels is more than 40 years. And in case we need to sell our house along the way, studies show that a solar system boosts property values by an average of $15,000.

What is the net effect for utilities and society at large? Although certain utilities are naturally resistant to change, the increase in energy supplies long-term can save them billions of dollars on power plants and inefficient transmission to meet peak demand – especially on hot summer days when the AC is on and solar power is at its max. As for society, the benefits are undisputed: a recent Citibank study puts the cost of climate change from burning fossil fuels at 44 trillion dollars by 2060, many times greater than the public and private cost of building a clean energy economy.

But what if you don’t own a home or lack the roof or yard space to harness the sun? Fortunately, there’s another “free lunch” to be had in the form of energy conservation. Swapping those old incandescent light bulbs for LEDs could save you hundreds of dollars a year. The same goes for heat pumps, insulation, energy-efficient appliances, and heeding grandma’s advice to turn off the TV and lights when you leave the room. You can even find a neighbor with some extra land and start a solar farm.

I recognize that “free lunches” are be few and far between, but with 5 billion years of sunlight on the horizon this one is here to stay. What better time to say goodbye to high-priced electricity and make it a clean green future?

Dan Weeks serves on the Nashua Environment and Energy Committee, whose purpose is to save taxpayer money and promote responsible stewardship of our local environment. You can contact him directly at dan@danielweeks.com.