Solar power house by house

Buffalo Solar installs residential solar panels for households that want to eliminate their electric bill and at the same time help the environment. (Contributed image)

While a lot of attention has been given to utility-scale solar projects in Western New York — they're promoted as a way to help generate 70% of New York’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 — there is far less focus on what the average household can do to reduce its carbon footprint, as well as save money.

Federal and New York State tax credits are available to homeowners who have solar panels placed on their roofs. In addition, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority's Sun Program can absorb part of the installation tab.

“NYSERDA ... (has) a clean energy fund that is a bank of money that’s sitting and waiting,” said Colin O’Keefe, solar coordinator for Solar by CIR in Grand Island. “They pay 35 cents a watt which is generally 12% of the cost. The homeowner is never responsible for that.”

According to O'Keefe, there's a federal tax credit that covers 26% of the gross cost of a home solar system, as well as a state credit of 25% or $5,000, whichever is lower.

Lockport city homeowner Jim Shultz had panels installed on his roof a couple of years ago and he tracks the return on his investment regularly through the Solar Liberty app on his phone.

“Today we are generating six times our use,” Shultz said, pointing to the screen. “You can see how much we’re using, that’s the blue line, then you see the green (the amount generated).”

The green line was far over the blue line this past Monday, but Shultz said that was an atypical day. If you think of it like a bank, he said, with the solar panels depositing electricity and the house withdrawing electricity, the sunniest days with the least use of electricity generate revenue, while increased use of electrical appliances during winter removes funds.

His app showed that once spring hit, more electricity was produced than in the preceding winter months, and in July 2020 more was again being used to keep the air conditioner on. Shultz said the most productive months appear to be in spring and fall.

Marketing coordinator Nate Verhague said Solar Liberty, established in 2003, has 100 employees and has installed solar systems all over New York state, as well as Vermont and Pennsylvania.

“(One of our lenders) has a program where it’s one year of no interest and no payments, so if someone wants to put part or all of the costs on this same as cash loan, they wouldn't owe anyone anything for one year,” Verhague said. “So, that’s really handy to give folks time to get their tax credit in the spring.”

Verhague noted that not only has his company fitted panels to residential roofs, it has constructed them for schools.

“We’ve done over a hundred schools across New York state. It’s really nice, because ... the state Education Department will actually fund some of the program. The school would also get the NYSERDA grant,” he said. “Schools have saved quite a bit of money.”

Bob Timkey, owner of Go Solar WNY, was based in San Diego when the state of California was giving incentives to people opting to use renewable energy, especially solar energy.

“I was in advertising and I had clients in the solar industry, so I was able to see everything from the business side,” Timkey said. “Flash forward, I move back to Lockport and lived here and about seven years ago I noticed friends and families being interested in solar.”

Timkey said when New York State started offering the NYSERDA Sun Program, he realized there was opportunity here.

According to Timkey, the average family of four uses 10,000 kilowatt hours per year. He said Go Solar WNY's thrust is to try to eliminate a customer's electric bill.

“Our goal is to produce what each family needs,” he said. “Part of my job is to find a way to show (customers) a valuable proposal and, if I can’t, it might not be valuable for you.”

Timkey's assessment of any property considers possible obstacles, such as the direction in which a roof is oriented and shading from trees. South-facing solar panels will get sun all day, he said, while east- and west-facing panels would produce less electricity. North-facing roofs are not advised in the northern hemisphere.

“If you think about a 100-watt lightbulb, if you run it for one hour, it’s going to use 100-watt hours. At 10 hours, it’ll use a kilowatt hour,” Timkey noted. “The amount of kilowatts your panel can make, that’s like the horsepower in your car. Kilowatt hours is the gallon of gas you’re burning. If the family needs 10,000 kilowatt hours a year, I have to build a system that makes enough kilowatts so that it accumulates enough kilowatt hours a year.”

Another development in the residential solar field is the use of storage batteries, and Tyler Uebelhoer, founder of Buffalo Solar, says one in every five residential installations done by his company is using one. The primary benefit is a supply of backup power, he said, and there are other benefits.

“There’s a program for some of our customers in New York City (in which) you can actually sell your power back to the utility to cheat the peak demand to push their power back," Uebelhoer said.

In addition, "you can pull power off of utility at night to fill up your battery up with cheaper power if it’s getting too expensive to pay. You can fill up the battery and use it when the price is three times higher.”

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