Lexington area homes go solar

By Catherine Savoca

For almost a year now, Bill King and Peggy Dyson-Cobb have been generating nearly all of their own electricity with a rooftop solar array.

The Lexington couple’s new energy source will be offsetting approximately 174,535 pounds of carbon emissions over the next 25 years, according to Sigora Solar, the company that did the installation.

To put that in perspective, the average car emits around 12,000 pounds of carbon per year, which means they could be negating almost 15 years of emissions from a single car.

And they are not the only ones on the path to reducing the community’s carbon footprint. Their system was installed with guidance from the Rockbridge Area Solar Cooperative, and they were among more than 100 residents who joined the co-op a year ago. Nonprofit VA SUN guided co-op members through the process, which led to 36 solar installations in the past year.

This graph illustrates the frequency of the system sizes for Rockbridge County Co-op installations. The majority of the household systems generate 3 kilowatts per hour.

Rockbridge Area Solar Co-op coordinators Chris Wise and Bob Biersack spearheaded the group’s formation in Lexington. Both attended a solar co-op informational system session sponsored by VA SUN in Augusta County and thought there was enough interest in Rockbridge to organize a co-op.

The program informs citizens about the process of going solar and also decreases the costs of installation, through bulk buying and reduced costs for permitting fees and other requirements.

“That is huge,” said Dyson-Cobb, who preferred the group effort to  having “one household at a time having to gather all this information.”

Wise said there is a synergy created by the co-op process. “Information was shared, questions were answered, and problems were dealt with as a group,” he said. “This helped everyone feel confident that they were making a good decision.”

Coordinator Biersack agreed, adding,  “Everyone, including VA SUN, was very happy with the results.

“A company representative told us when we started that it’s common to end up with 10 to 20 percent of the people who express interest actually having systems installed,” he said. “Ours was well beyond that. With 36 installations, that was similar to the larger areas where they’ve worked, so we felt really good about it.”

As a result, a second solar co-op, the Mountain and Valley Solar Cooperative, is now forming.

Finding “good roofs”

Wise said about 25 people from Rockbridge and 75 more in Rockingham and Augusta Counties have attended informational meetings. “So far, 30 roofs have been deemed ‘good roofs,’ ” he said – meaning that they have enough solar exposure daily to be worth the cost of installation. He added that a request for proposals (RFP) was to be issued to solar contracting companies on Thursday, so that the bidding process could begin.

Dyson-Cobb said she had been pushing for solar for a long time, but because of its high installation costs, waited to pursue the opportunity.

With the price of solar installations falling over the last five years and the co-op’s choice to use Sigora Solar, she said she and her husband were motivated to make the transition.

According to King, they paid roughly $18,000 for their installation but will receive a 30 percent federal tax credit.

“We are paying for our electricity 12 years in advance,” he said.

With their system, the couple’s electric bill is only $10 a month – the fee charged for being connected to the electrical grid. Their home is located in a prime position relative to the sun’s rays, giving it optimal energy efficiency.

Sunshine powers appliances

Illustration reproduced with permission of VA SUN.

Essentially, the sun’s energy is converted to electricity that meets nearly all of their energy needs. The couple uses that electricity for all of their appliances other than heating and cooking, for which they use natural gas.

On a perfectly sunny day, the panels can generate up to 34 kilowatts, enough to power a refrigerator for a month.

In Virginia, solar arrays have a net metering system, which allows solar users to offset their energy consumption with their energy production.

With net metering, when a solar array is producing power, the home’s energy meter essentially runs backward. The meter runs forward when the homeowners are using more power than their system is generating. The electric bill at the end of the month is the difference between the homeowner’s usage and the total electricity generated by the array.

The couple started with 16 panels, but shortly after, upsized to 24 in order to cover all of their electric appliances. They check a website that tracks their daily production and usage. On days where the bar is low, King said, it is most likely either very cloudy or raining.

Although the couple’s household is almost entirely solar-powered,  co-op coordinator Wise said many installations do not produce  100 percent of their electricity,

Even so, the local clean energy trend continues to rise. The Rockbridge Area Co-op closed when all of the installations were complete; the Mountain and Valley Solar Co-op formed, Wise said, when it became clear there was substantial interest still in Rockbridge County, and in Augusta, Highland and Rockingham counties as well.

King and Dyson-Cobb remain very satisfied with their investment. Last summer, said King, was the first time in 25 years they have used an air conditioner. The solar energy is enough to power their Ductless Mini-Splits, which are placed in individual rooms of the home.

“We don’t mind running the AC anymore,” said King. “It’s useful to run off the grid.”

                                                                                                                                                                                     

Learn about the solar energy and the co-op process at the nonprofit VA SUN‘s website: vasun.org.  For more information or to apply to join the local co-op, go to http://www.vasun.org/mountain-and-valley/

                                                                                                                                                                                     
Sam Mao and Bryn McCarthy contributed to reporting this story. Graphics by Catherine Savoca and courtesy of VA SUN.