Power Up: A Guide to Clean Power Considerations

By   |   Clean Power Guide

Your neighbor has solar panels. Your office just installed an electric vehicle charger. The heating contractor mentioned that you could replace that old furnace with a high- efficiency heat pump. Over 70,000 New Yorkers live in solar homes, and the electric vehicle market is growing (from a tiny beginning) at 60 percent per year. Just when you are thinking it might be time to consider switching to renewable energy, the phone rings and it’s a solar telemarketer. Ugh, never mind.

The Clean Power Guide is for people who see good reasons for shifting to renewable energy—from calming the climate crisis to increasing your comfort, efficiency, and savings. You just want to be sure you are doing it right, on your own terms.

Here’s what you need to know, and where to learn more.

Solar Considerations

If your building faces even sort of south and isn’t shaded, you should be able to benefit from solar power. Here are the primary choices you will face on the way to going solar at home or work.

Buy or Lease

…or do a power purchase agreement (PPA), are where a supplier essentially rents your roof space for an array and sells you the power? Ownership will save you the most, over the life cycle of your system. But a lease or PPA lets you pay as you go, and will probably be priced less than your current electric bill anyway.

Roof or Ground Panels

PV panels can be placed on your roof or the ground, depending on the best solar exposure and your aesthetics and space limitations.

Conventional or High-Efficiency

 To use conventional or high-efficiency panels like SunPower, which cost more but can generate 60 percent more power in the same space;

Inverter Type

The gadget that converts solar energy into usable electricity, the inverter, comes in several types. It’s usually least pricey to have a single inverter for your entire system. But “string” inverters, each associated with a few panels, make it easier to do repairs without the whole system going down.

Solutions when Onsite Solar is a No-Go

For people whose properties aren’t a good fit, there are more and more options.  Community shared solar is a co-op style alternative, typically serving a few hundred households on a single site.  At a larger scale, clean power is starting to come online through a new mechanism called Community Choice Aggregation.  This program lets a whole municipality select a clean energy supplier for its residents, who can opt out—but why would they?

Even with these straightforward choices, you will not regret asking plenty of questions and negotiating with your contractor. Saugerties solar homeowner Skip Arthur talked at length with half a dozen contractors before settling on his solar array. “I have an unusual roof, with skylights and a big dormer,” says Arthur. “I got a variety of proposals for utilizing that space with solar panels. The first ones made no sense to me, so I pushed back and they improved. I negotiated the best setup of inverters. Even on the day of installation, the technicians found a better way to route the wires and got permission to do it. The communication we established gave me a much better system.”

Will Your Next Car Be Electric?

The electric vehicle market is growing in the numbers and diversity of its offerings, with over 30 models available today, including compacts, SUVs, light trucks, and sporty models. With 16,000 EV owners in the state today, New York is committed to 750,000 by 2025, a goal that’s supported with a Drive Clean Rebate up to $2,000 and an ambitious roll-out of charging infrastructure.

And they’re not all so expensive. Manufacturer’s Standard Retail Prices for electric cars range from $29,990 for the Nissan Leaf, up to $300,000 for the Faraday Future FF 91, which you don’t need, ’cause you’ve never heard of it, right? The Chevy Bolt, Honda Clarity, Ford Fusion, and Kia Soul are other electric cars priced on par with conventional vehicles. Some companies offer hefty discounts, too, like Nissan’s $5,000 off the Leaf. With almost zero maintenance, and average charging costs around $1.00 per gallon equivalent, these cars can make economic sense as well as perform impressively.
All-electric cars can travel 80 to 250 miles on a charge, more than the average person drives in a day. Plug-in hybrids can go even farther using gas backup.

Time to Get Pumped?

Heat pumps are definitely the least sexy clean power technology we’ll talk about. But they’re super-efficient, quiet, and versatile—an electric alternative to fossil fuels for heating, cooling, and dehumidifying your space. A standard home feature in Japan (where many are manufactured), heat pumps have recently been redesigned for colder climates like ours. Are they for you? Read more in our guide to heat pumps.

The Storage Factor

You don’t just need power when the sun is out. Storage such as batteries is the key to accumulating power for when you want to use it. In today’s policy climate, you can “net meter” your solar to sell excess to the grid, and buy from the grid when needed, but some people find storage an attractive option for future security. (And don’t forget that your electric car is a form of energy storage that can make use of excess solar power when your home doesn’t need it!)

The Cheapest Energy

Still, the cheapest energy is what you don’t use. When you’re thinking about renewable energy, it’s the perfect time to ask how you can reduce waste through more conscious use of energy and improve your building’s efficiency. A home or business energy audit is low cost or free, and kind of fun, as technicians actually find and seal air leaks, help you switch to more efficient lighting and appliances, and oh so gently guide you into more energy-conscious behavior.

Joining Forces

These technologies work especially well together. If you charge your EV and your heat pumps using electricity produced by your solar panels, you are taking the greenest possible approach. You are also investing a lot upfront. But you can sequence your purchases so that the savings from one helps you finance the next.

Through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), our state has done tremendous work to take the uncertainty out of clean power choices for consumers. They’ve invested millions to help companies get promising technologies ready for the market. They’ve made consumer incentives and subsidies available to make early purchases more affordable, and funded outreach programs to help people learn about clean power. They’ve set standards of quality and built consumer confidence by creating training and certification programs for the people who sell, install and service clean power technologies. As a result, clean power technologies are ready for the market today.

Why now?

The base price of all these technologies is falling, and designs will keep improving. But right now, the economics are in a sweet spot between government incentives and an improving marketplace. For solar arrays, taxpayers can claim a 30 percent federal credit through 2019 (decreasing a little each year and ending in 2022). New Yorkers who go solar also get a 25 percent state tax credit, a 20 percent property tax abatement, and a 10 percent subsidy up front from NYSERDA through eligible contractors. Similar tax credits are available for electric cars.  State and utility rebates make heat pumps more affordable.

And there is a more compelling reason to switch to clean power. The major international panel of climate scientists says we have around a decade to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half, something they say will require “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented” changes in resource use. Stepping up as consumers is one way that we can all be part of a necessary power surge for the planet.

Resources

Consumer Guide Endorsed by the Solar Energy Industries Association

Energy Audits Start with NYSERDA

EnergySage: A marketplace for pre-screened solar installers and financing, with in-depth articles on topics such as warranties, consumer protection and energy storage

New Yorkers for Clean Power: Where you can get involved in advocating for better energy policies

Passive House Alliance of the Hudson Valley: Network of architects, builders, and enthusiasts for 100 percent renewable building

US Green Building Council: Go-to organization for experts and learners alike

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