Homeowners who invest in solar and geothermal energy systems care about green, as in the environment, and more green—as in their power bills.
Energy-efficient ways to heat water, turn on the lights, and keep us cool in summer and warm in winter are more accessible than ever before. That’s because Uncle Sam wants you to go green.
This year, the federal government has eliminated the $2,000 cap on the tax credit for green systems, contributing 30 percent of the cost. Meanwhile, Delaware, long a leader in renewable energy, is sparking interest with incentives that average an additional 30 percent.
Factor in the rising cost of energy—electric bills have increased an average of 6 percent a year over the past 30 years—and it’s no wonder alternative energy is a hot topic on the home front.
“We’re at the tipping point right now,” says Amanda Gillen, spokeswoman for groSolar in Jessup, Maryland.
Two of the most effective methods of harnessing the earth are solar power and geothermal energy.
Solar electric panels, called photovoltaic, or PV, panels, convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity. The systems are “grid-tied,” meaning that they work in cooperation with your utility provider’s existing grid.
The panels are typically installed on the roof of the property. They’re sited as close to due south as possible to maximize exposure to the sun. Panels can be installed at ground level, but they don’t work as well.
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“If you need to replace your shingles, it’s a good time to think solar,” says John Weaver, president of Natural E in Avondale, Pa. “If you won’t need to replace the roof for another five years, it might be better to wait.”
Though costs vary widely, a typical household should expect to pay $35,000 to $40,000 for a 5-kilowatt system that would reduce its electric bills by about half. Government rewards would reduce the cost to the mid-$20,000s.
Incentives, including the Delaware Green Energy Program, are also slashing the amount of time it takes homeowners to recoup their investment. Currently, a solar electric system will pay for itself in six years. “Without government help, it might be 20 years,” Weaver says.
Even if the house isn’t sited ideally, the system still can capture enough energy to provide about half the household’s electrical needs. But not all sites are solar friendly.
“If you live in a wooded area, you aren’t a candidate,” says John Sergich, vice president of sales and marketing at Green Street Solar in Selbyville. “The good news is that shade trees help to keep a house cool naturally.” One offsets the other.
Net metering enables homeowners to use the electric utility grid to store the power their systems generate when they are not using it. At the end of the billing period, homeowners pay for the amount of electricity they consumed, minus the amount they generated.
Excess power from solar or geothermal systems also can generate cash for homeowners in the form of renewable energy credits, also known as RECs or Green Tags, that can be sold or traded on the open market. Green Street and some other providers will arrange to sell RECs for customers at no charge.
Solar hot water systems can provide enough energy for a family’s washing and bathing needs—“even with teenagers,” Gillen says.
But the technology has not advanced to the point where a solar hot water system also could provide energy for radiant floors or radiators.
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“In the wintertime, there’s less sun,” Gillen says. “In the summer a system might supply 100 percent of the hot water a household needs. In the winter it could be half.”
A typical system for a four-person household would cost $12,000 to $15,000, without rebates or incentives. With help from federal and state government, homeowners will pay $6,500 to $8,000.
Delaware has always had the advantage of no sales tax. Neighbors New Jersey and Maryland have waived sales tax for green energy projects. Buyers in Pennsylvania still must pay the commonwealth’s 6 percent sales tax.
The word geothermal comes from the Greek words geo, meaning earth and therme, or heat. In essence, geothermal energy is steam or hot water from within the earth that can be harnessed to heat buildings or generate electricity.
Geothermal energy is renewable because the water is replenished by rainfall and the heat is produced continuously inside the earth.
Mother Nature provides awesome displays of geothermal power through volcanos, geysers and hot springs. Man has been tapping hot water as an energy since ancient times. The Romans, Chinese and Native Americans used hot mineral springs for bathing, cooking and heating.
Today hot water near the earth’s surface can be piped directly into buildings and industries for heat. A district heating system provides heat for 95 percent of the buildings in Reykjavik, Iceland. More than 90 percent of new homes and commercial buildings built in the United Kingdom are powered by geothermal systems.
A&A Geothermal in Frankford has been installing geothermal systems since 1987, drilling an average of 180 feet beneath Delaware soil, where the temperature remains a steady 55 to 57 degrees.
Until this year, nearly all the systems A&A installed were in new buildings, which are much easier to outfit with pumps that heat and cool the interiors. “With the government incentives, we are seeing a surge in retrofitting existing homes,” says Patrick Gaul, director of sales and marketing.
Jay Fausnaught hired A&A to retrofit his 20-year-old, 1,800-square-foot home in Millsboro with a geothermal system two years ago. After federal and state incentives, he paid $17,500 for a design that links the heat pump to his hot water system. “In the winter, we have free hot water,” he says.
In addition to lower energy bills, Fausnaught says his home is more comfortable. “Every room in the house is the same temperature,” he says. “The humidity is constant and just right.”
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On average, the cost to outfit a 3,000-square-foot home with a geothermal system runs about $30,000. With government incentives, the price tag would be about $18,000.
“We can now come in with prices that are slightly less than a conventional heating and cooling systems,” Gaul says. “When you factor in the energy savings and the comfort level, it’s a no brainer.”
Expect the system to pare the costs of heating and cooling by 40 percent to 45 percent. At that rate, it will pay for itself in six or seven years.
The average lifespan of a geothermal system is 25 years, though A&A is servicing systems that are 29 years old.
So who is warming up to solar and geothermal energy? Essentially, it comes down to tree huggers and those who hold tight to their wallets. Many, like Fausnaught, are environmentally aware homeowners who have meticulously researched alternative sources of energy.
“Our demographic varies a lot,” says groSolar’s Gillen. “We have people who are really sick of high electric bills. Others are concerned about global warming.”
Weaver says he has received a great deal of interest from eco-friendly, middle-age homeowners who are interested in saving money over the long haul.
In the end, the bottom line is the homeowners’ desire to take care of their families and the planet.
“Every person who winds up doing it has a bit of the environmental activist in them,” Sergich says. “It’s a decision that makes people feel good even before they get their electric bill.”