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Dr. Lee Wesler   Is solar energy right for you? A homeowner shares the issues and benefits of getting power from the sun. More....
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- by Lee Wesler, a member of the Woodstock Conservation Commission, with editing by Bet Zimmerman.

Part of a three part series - see Part I | Part II | Part III

Once we decided to go solar, step one was deciding which system would suit us best. This involved an assessment of our roof, the lay of our land, our current energy use, and of course the expense. A useful website to calculate your needs and the cost is www.findsolar.com.

Solar barn. Photo by Lee Wesler.
The Wesler's solar set up. (Notice the infamous pony on the right.
One day while the SolarWrights supervisor was on the phone, the pony grabbed
the installation plans and ate them.) Photo by Lee Wesler.

There are basically two types of solar systems. One involves heating liquid to heat hot water. The hot water can used to heat a house and for hot water needs (showers, dishwashers, etc.). The other option uses photovoltaic panels to generate electricity.

It took several visits and about four different proposals to finalize our plan. We chose the solar panels. As luck would have it, our barn not only had a roof facing due south, but also had the exact amount of area needed for the number of panels we required.   This also happened to be the maximum number of panels allowed under the Connecticut rebate program. We also felt we could use the electricity to heat rooms (with space heaters) and water (with tankless heaters), thereby reducing the existing boiler’s consumption of oil.

Next came the paperwork to apply for the State program.  It was actually quite simple, just a lot of signatures and about four week’s time. After that came the actual construction. The trench from our barn to our house was literally finished as the flakes from the first snowstorm landed.

Any problems?  Besides the weather, the panels were stored in the horse barn during construction. One day our rambunctious pony broke in and trashed the place. Fortunately, solar panels do not taste good.  A few days later, the pipes froze and unfroze, creating a small flood that submerged half a dozen panels in water.  Luckily the panels are waterproof.  But after about two weeks, the array was up on the pony-safe roof.  Then came the wiring, followed by inspections by the Town building inspector and CL&P.  Finally after about three months, voila--lights. In just the first two days (one cloudy, one sunny), our system generated 30 kW and avoided the production of 33 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Is solar for everyone?  No.  It is still quite expensive, even with the subsidies from the State program.  With the rising cost of electricity, the return on investment will take 10-15 years, give or take five years.  However, the value of a home equipped with solar power increases within a year or two. The panels have a 25 year warrantee.

There are added financial perks. Mass Energy, a consumer alliance for CT, MA and RI, offers the New England GreenStart program that pays homeowners who produce solar electricity.  GreenStart then sells it to their customers. The rate is nominal (3 cents per kilowatt-hour) but for us, it adds up to $350 per year.  What’s more, if we put in more than we use by the end of the year, CL&P pays us the difference. Not bad.

For those who don’t expect to be in their house long term, but still want green energy, consider enrolling in the CTCleanEnergyOptions program (www.ctcleanenergyoptions.com). But if you are in your home for the long haul and especially if you have the means, solar energy does work.

So why go solar?  It will help stave off climate change.  It saves money.  It keeps our air and water clean.  Maybe you will choose it simply because you believe it’s the right thing to do.  We did it so that when our children (and grandchildren) grow up, we can look them in the eye and tell them we did what we could to hand them a healthier planet.

We did not start a trend in the Quiet Corner.  The Leslie Sweetnam’s and the Jim Stratos’s of the world paved the way in Woodstock.  But we wanted to be a link in the chain.  For more information on clean energy, see www.woodstockconservation.org/cleanenergy.htm.  Keep the grid green. 

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on March 7, 2008

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