The Power of Sunshine

The National Tour of Solar Homes, organized locally by Cornell Cooperative Extension, will be held Saturday, October 6, and will feature homes like this one in Ithaca.

Throughout the Finger Lakes region, more and more residents and businesses are turning to the sun to generate their electricity. Arrays of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have appeared on city homes, rural farms, municipal buildings and businesses ranging from animal shelters to wineries. But for anyone who knows the many varieties of Finger Lakes weather – where sunshine is not always the feature event – the obvious question arises: Is solar worth it?

“We have plenty of sunshine to get the job done,” argues Art Weaver, founder of Renovus Energy, an installer of solar PV systems throughout the Finger Lakes region. A modern solar system generates electricity on anything from a sunny day down to a brightly cloudy day. When the sun really shines, Weaver says, the home’s electric meter will actually turn in the opposite direction, sending electricity back to the grid rather than taking it in.

The real measure of the viability of solar power in upstate New York seems to be in the satisfaction of local home and business owners who have installed systems.

“We think solar is a great thing and would encourage anyone to do it,” say Roy Luft and Nancy Emerson of Ithaca. Two years ago, the couple worked with Performance Systems, a Finger Lakes installer of solar PV, to install a 6.5 KW system mounted in a south-facing field behind their early 20th century home on Trumansburg Road. Solar PV arrays can be either roof-mounted above a house or barn or ground-mounted on a steel frame. Ground-mounted systems have the advantage of easy snow removal, which can improve winter efficiency by about 5 percent.

“All day we’re off at work while the house, rather than consuming electricity, is actually generating it,” Luft says. “We get a thrill from watching the meter spin backwards.  We are currently putting twice as much energy into the grid as we are taking off.”

An incentive for change
In order to actually send energy back to the grid, Luft and Emerson have entered into a “net-metering agreement” with New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG). Under this contract, electricity from their solar panels is tied directly into the home’s existing grid connection – no batteries required – and the utility company agrees to purchase the excess electricity generated by the panels. Such agreements have become common and help to provide the utility company with extra kilowatts of electricity during times of peak-demand while at the same time providing savings for the homeowner.

In the face of steeply rising energy costs, such savings can be expected to pay for the cost of solar PV installation within 10 to 15 years. A healthy New York State incentives program also helps make solar an economically viable option. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) currently offers a $4000/KW rebate on installed systems, the third best in the nation. This incentive typically cuts 50 percent off the up-front cost of installing a PV system for New York businesses and homeowners, and can cover up to 80 percent of the cost on township and municipal buildings.

“We want the incentives program to make people aware of PV and what a good, long-term investment it is,” says Colleen Ryan, assistant director of communications at NYSERDA.  “The state feels it is important to encourage the development and use of renewable energy resources to lessen our dependence on foreign fuels and help preserve the environment. PV is simple to select and purchase, and with the incentives available it’s more affordable than ever.”

Gail Steinhart and Joe McMahon of Ithaca seem to agree. This summer they installed a 2.7 KW system on their home in the city of Ithaca. “We
couldn’t have done this without the incentives,” says Steinhart. “We love our house, we love the area, and we’re committed to staying here. So basically we’ve just bought the next 15 years of electricity up front and the incentives made this possible.”

Worth the wait
However, Steinhart and McMahon warn that the total process – including application for incentives, contracting with an installer, electrical inspection and a net-metering agreement with an energy provider – is a long one. Wait times of up to six months are typical.
“In addition to all the permitting, the worldwide demand for solar panels far outstrips supply,” says Rebekah Carpenter, a local NYSERDA-certified installer and founder of Finger Lakes Renewable Energy. “The rest of the world – Japan and Germany particularly, where there are huge federal incentives to convert to solar power – is moving fast into solar. I often have to wait four to six weeks for supplies. That’s just the nature of things right now.”

Finger Lakes area installers like Carpenter find themselves extremely busy these days and are constantly at some stage of putting a system in. “The NYSERDA incentives are really what is driving the local industry right now. I wouldn’t have a business without them.”
Without businesses like Carpenter’s, local homeowners and businesses would not be able to take advantage of the NYSERDA incentives. “The incentives program applies only to PV systems that are grid-connected and installed by those of us who have been through NYSERDA’s training program,” says Carpenter. “This creates accountability. I have to give a five-year warranty on parts and installation, and if anything goes wrong with a manufacturer’s warranty on parts, I deal with the manufacturer. NYSERDA has created a system of checks and balances so that a PV system has got to perform the way it’s supposed to. Twice yearly performance reporting insures a well-functioning system.

“The perception that solar is something just for the back-to-the-lander is a false one,” continues Carpenter. “PV technology is state-of-the-art, solid and proven. People who are putting off getting into solar because of the computer mentality, where software changes make models obsolete, are missing the boat. There is no guarantee that PV technology is going to get any better than it already is, but you can bet that energy prices are going to rise.”

This argument appealed to Bob Madill, general manager and partner at Sheldrake Point Vineyard in Ovid. Two years ago, the vineyard installed a 15 KW system on its winery building. “We tell other businesses that by installing solar panels, there is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost. We have the ability here in the Finger Lakes area to make solar energy – it’s not like we’re stretching ourselves. With an industry like ours that typically uses enormous energy for both heating and cooling, we feel it’s our obligation to generate this energy in a sustainable way.”

Learn more
By turning to the same sunshine that produces the Finger Lakes’ famous wines, businesses and homeowners alike are finding a more sustainable way to generate local electrical needs. The future of solar in the Finger Lakes is a bright one – NYSERDA’s incentives program is solidly funded and business is booming for local NYSERDA-certified installers.

To find out more about solar in the Finger Lakes, Luft and Emerson recommend the National Tour of Solar Homes. “For us, the whole process was really demystified by going on the tour. We visited many local homes and came to understand the simplicity of PV systems and the sound economy of the incentives program.”

The National Tour of Solar Homes, organized locally by Cornell Cooperative Extension, takes place on October 6. Solar-home owners will be available to explain to the public the technology and the economics of solar installations. For more information, visit the Cornell Cooperative Extension website at www.cce.cornell.edu or
contact Tania Schusler at tms23@cornell.edu. To learn more about NYSERDA’s incentives program visit their website at www.powernaturally.org.


by Jason Townsend
Jason Townsend is a writer and graduate student living in Ithaca.