Solar Home

Among the various energy-saving features Tom Anderson has installed in his home over the years, a roof of solar panels is a recent addition.

From the road, Tom Anderson’s house looks like a typical Frederick County home. However, if you walk around to the back and peer up at the south-facing roof, the house tells a different story.

Anderson has spent decades improving his family home to make it more energy efficient. The roof was designed to jut out just far enough to shade the windows from the high summer sun while welcoming in lower winter rays. He installed a geothermal heat pump 30 years ago for heating and cooling the home and then a thermal water-heating system.

However, the roof full of solar panels is a much more recent addition.

“I used to be cheap, but now it’s cool,” said Anderson, who has incrementally decreased his utility bills through renewable energy projects.

After installing the first solar panels through the 2013 Solarize Frederick initiative, Anderson joined the Frederick County Solar Co-op this year. The county launched the co-op in September with MD SUN, a regional program of the Community Power Network, which promotes locally based renewable energy policies and projects.

Solar co-ops have popped up across the country as a way for homeowners to get discounts on systems by offering a contractor more work in centralized area. Frederick County’s homeowners saved approximately 20 percent through bulk purchasing with the co-op.

The co-op was open to homeowners, small businesses and organizations such as churches — though only households accepted contracts, Lisa Orr, county sustainability program coordinator, said in an email on Wednesday.

Approximately 18 percent of the 169 interested households signed contracts with Sustainable Energy Systems — the selected solar installer. The company would have liked more participation, but several factors may have limited the number of homeowners who accepted contracts, including the program’s start near Christmas and the presidential election, said Sales Manager Ryan Nicholson.

The co-op extended the deadline to sign contracts from Feb. 28 to May 31, which doubled the number of homes that ultimately accepted proposals.

The 30 solar arrays produce over 340,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, which is the equivalent average annual usage of 28 Maryland homes. The arrays are also expected to offset 127 tons of coal from being burned and 239 metric tons of greenhouse gases from being released each year, according to the county sustainability office.

While installing solar panels was one of the last items for Anderson to check off his list, it was one of the first for Gene Wilburn.

Wilburn installed approximately 20 solar panels to his roof this spring. The panels saved him $150 on his latest electricity bill, but an energy study of his home by Potomac Edison showed the house uses double the amount of energy that it should, he said.

The culprit is poor insulation, which he plans to address next. The solar panels currently meet 35 percent of his electricity needs, and Wilburn said he hopes that with improved insulation the array can meet 50 percent of his electrical needs.

Solar panels — which have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years — are a way to address electricity costs over the long term.

Robert Walker and Mary Lou Reidy’s decision to go solar through the co-op was mainly financial. The couple anticipates saving 40 percent on their electric bills with the 24 solar panels that were mounted to their garage roof in late March.

Walker and Reidy paid $16,000 upfront, but they expect their net cost to be closer to $10,000 after state and federal tax credits. In the next decade, they will break even on their investment from energy savings, Walker said.

“Where else can you get 9 or 10 percent back on investment?” Walker said.

Solar installation costs have also continued to decline, Anderson said. During the solarize initiative in 2013, he averaged $1,000 a panel before state and federal incentives that reduced the cost to approximately $750 per panel in 2017.

Even with the discounts, though, an overall glut of solar energy supply in Maryland and the subsequent low value of solar renewable energy credits — approximately $7.50 now versus over $150 in years past — may have influenced some people not to go solar during the co-op, Nicholson said.

A few contracts have trickled in since the official close of the Frederick County Solar Co-op, Nicholson said. But, for Nicholson, who grew up in Middletown, the opportunity to be the installer for Frederick County’s co-op is more than numbers.

“As a kid who grew up in Frederick, it was a true blessing to get to do this in my hometown,” Nicholson said.

Frederick County will celebrate the co-op’s achievements from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Gambrill Park Tea Room.

Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.

Samantha Hogan is the state house, environment, agriculture and energy reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

(9) comments

bosco

I put the pencil to the payback for the cost of solar panels and I'll be pushing up daisies long before the break even point. We over-insulated when we built, use CFLs and energy-star appliances and are conservative with electricity. Our electric bill runs around $55 per month. Solar and wind are great for the power companies to generate power, but just not at Bosco Manor.

MD1756

At the end of the year when all is said and done, Potomac Edison sends me a check for the excess electricity I've generated. In the future I hope to use that excess to charge a plug-in hybrid.

DickD

Having looked at solar, back in 2013, I was convinced that solar would be more expensive than just staying with the grid company. At that time it would have the cost $11,700 to put in solar with no additional costs, on a lease basis, but that meant we received none of the tax breaks, it ignored the cost of money and most leases that are free call for a increase of what they term historic costs. At that time it was 4,8% and our cost of electricity from the grid has actually gone down, the last couple of years.

We did have the blower test done and looked at the offer, which would have been about $4,000 with 50% reimbursement from Potomac Edison, up to $4,000. The problem was they wanted to add insulation in the ceiling over the second floor, between that and the roof. As we already had 10" and the rafters were full, I said no; it will just blow around and will not be evenly distributed - the ends were open for venting. They offered to put in a berm, a plywood obstruction - sounded like a Rube Goldberg. I asked how about foam, they said no, it is too expensive.

So, I went to Lancaster Builders and asked them. They offered foam, 7" under the roof, 5" on the sides of the attic, 5" in the cellar, where the floor joists met the cellar walls, foam around all windows and a 4" insulation blanket all around the cellar walls. We did it and have been very happy with it since, it reduced our monthly bill to around $130/mo. with an electric car charging. Since then it has gone down to usage of less than 1,000 kwh.rs per month and we are not much over $100/ mo. in electricity costs.

I did look at geo-thermal and felt that was too expensive also.

MD1756

Because I replaced oil heat and regular AC, Geothermal had less than a seven year payback for me (>10% rate of return) plus i was no longer burning 500+ gallons of oil a year with no emission controls. Geothermal isn't as cost effective compared to natural gas because we don't pay the true costs for using fossil fuels (either on the production side or the combustion side). For me, solar was the least cost effective at a conservative rate of return at 3 1/2% possibly higher (better than a CD rate of return). The decision to use solar and geothermal from the start makes sense for economic and environmental reasons. In my case it made sense economically and environmentally as a retrofit. I sold some stock to pay for my systems thus diversifying my holdings and investing in a long term investment that was save and environmentally friendly. My house now has a HERS score of -11 (I've achieved a result better than carbon neutral). I am doing my part to leave the planet better than I found it. My actions speak louder than my words.

glenkrc

It appears you relied on federal/state subsidies for your geoexchange and solar photovoltaic systems. So much for the "true costs" of energy.

bosco

I have a friend who went for the hype and shelled out for a solar array on his 20 year old roof. When I asked about the cost of removing and reinstalling the solar panels when it's time for a new roof, he hemed and hawed, looked at his shoes, and finally admitted he hadn't thought of that and the salesman never mentioned it either.

You gotta put the pencil to it from every angle.

MD1756

I applaud everyone who have undertaken energy efficient projects for their homes. Solar is one major and visible form, but as the article points out, better insulation and geothermal for heating and cooling are good too, and may provide even better returns on your investment. Personally, I think all new single family homes and town homes in this area should designed and built to maximize geothermal and solar usage. If designed properly and rolled into the cost of the house, better insulation, geothermal and solar can generate a revenue for the homeowner much greater than the interest they pay on their mortgage. Your home can make money for your from starting from the day you move in. Additionally, it provides a great environmental benefit using resources available on your own property. Why pay the energy companies for all your heating cooling and electric need when most of the resources are available on your own property. We will always need some other source of power for when solar isn't producing enough, but we can greatly reduce our need for big energy and more polluting sources of energy. Think globally, act locally and earn money at the same time. What could be better?

DickD

"We will always need some other source of power for when solar isn't producing enough, but we can greatly reduce our need for big energy and more polluting sources of energy."

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MD1756

Not a practical solution to make up for the lack of solar electric generation during the winter months.

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