Archive for the ‘Solar’ Category
April 22nd, 2009
Despite advances in technology, falling prices for raw materials and an ever-growing number of installations, solar PV panels are still not affordable for most families. Typical setups for even mid-sized homes can come in at well over $20,000 before rebates and incentives.
Fortunately, local, state and federal government agencies are continually adding programs that bring solar PV panels ever closer to affordability. Net metering programs allow you to sell excess electricty back to your utility. Many agencies offer rebates that cut from 30-50% off of the total cost of a system. The Obama Administration recently announced changes to the federal tax code that remove a cap on renewable energy tax credits. And, private companies have stepped into the fray offering a variety of innovative financing and group purchasing programs.
What’s next? Well, CleanTechnica recently published a piece on new loan programs that are springing up (now in California, and hopefully elsewhere soon) that allow you to finance the full price of your solar installation and then pay it back (with interest) via your annual property tax payments.
Several cities are already out of the gate and running:
- Berkeley launched a pilot program in November with funding of $1.5M. The program sold out in NINE minutes, and 39 homeowners signed up. A bit of pent-up demand, perhaps?
- Palm Desert launched its program in August 2008 and has already funded over $7.5M in projects. The Palm Desert program is also open to energy efficiency projects and upgrades.
- San Diego, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Sonoma County, Santa Cruz and many more cities and counties are in the planning phases.
How expensive are these loan programs? Interest rates for the programs launched so far are in the 7% range, which compares favorably with current home equity loan rates (if you can even get one).
The crazy oversubscription rates demonstrated by the Berkeley and Palm Desert programs clearly show that there’s huge demand out there, so we hope that more governments and companies step in to fill this need!
Popularity: 3% [?]
March 18th, 2009
We’re happy to announce that we’ve recently added two new projects to the Low Impact Living Environmental Impact Calculator that show the benefits of air-drying your laundry or installing a solar hot water heater.
First, we’ve added a project that shows how much money, energy and carbon dioxide you can cut by replacing a few dryer loads of laundry a week by air drying. Simply fill in your current number of dryer loads (and your dryer fuel) in the “calculate impacts” section of the calculator, and then go to the “select projects” page. There you’ll find a project titled “Air dry your laundry” (it’s about five or six rows down). Click the “Project Description” link to see all of the details on how much you’ll save. The calculations assume that you air dry 75% of your existing dryer loads. We also show a couple of great drying racks/lines if you’re looking for something a bit better than the standard clothesline.
Second, we’ve added a solar hot water heater option to our list of renewable energy projects. This project takes your estimated hot water use (calculated based on your specific inputs) and the solar resources in your area and estimates how much a solar hot water system would save and cost for your home. Right now it takes into account the recently improved 30% federal tax credit for SHW systems, but not your local or state incentives (we’ll be adding those soon). Our friends at Green Made Simple have an up-to-date listing of renewable energy incentives near you.
This project has also been built so that it is a special “cumulative” project, which means that the project details change as you select other projects on the list. Why is this useful? Because it can help you understand how much LESS you have to spend on a solar hot water system if you make less expensive upgrades such as installing low-flow showerheads or buying an Energy Star clotheswasher first.
As an example, the calculator shows that a solar hot water system would cost about $4,900 (payback period of 16 years) in our home assuming no water fixture improvements - pretty ugly! But if I check off the “low-flow showerheads” and “sink aerators” projects, the cost goes down to $2,500 (payback of 10 years). Our $40 worth of showerheads and $5 worth of sink aerators cut the estimated cost of a system by $2,400 by reducing our system size by one panel and reducing the storage tank size. By the way, the solar PV, graywater and total carbon offset projects work in the same way - they adjust each time you select a project that reduces electricity, wastewater or your carbon footprint respectively.
Last, we’ve made some additional improvements “under the hood.” One that you might notice is that we’ve modified the calculator so that you can’t enter overlapping projects. For example, once you select any one of the water heater insulation, tankless hot water heater, high efficiency hot water heater or solar hot water heater projects, the other three projects will be deactivated. This eliminates the double-counting that was possible by selecting overlapping projects before.
We’ll be making other additions soon (including wind power and using wood as heating fuel), so check back soon!
(Note: Our calculator is meant to be a preliminary planning tool for your green improvements. Before starting any of the more expensive projects, make sure you get a detailed estimate from your local green service providers … which you can easily find using LIL’s green services directory).
Popularity: 5% [?]
March 2nd, 2009
We’ve already written several pieces about the benefits of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan for homeowners looking to go green, but there are some pretty important wrinkles that we haven’t highlighted that could really save you some significant money.
If you’re looking to make a major new green home improvement, here are some items you definitely want to keep in mind:
- Solar Hot Water Heaters. The NEW credit removes a $2,000 limit on the credit you could receive for a new system, so larger solar hot water systems will be eligible for the full 30% tax credit.The previous tax credit cap of $2,000 meant that you wouldn’t get any additional help if your solar hot water system cost more than $6,667, which many do. To qualify, the solar hot water system must provide at least 50% of your home’s hot water, and it can’t be used for heating pools.
- Solar Photovoltaic Systems. As with a solar hot water system, the NEW tax credit removes the previous $2,000 maximum benefit cap. You now get 30% of the cost as a credit regardless of the total amount. Because solar PV systems are so expensive, this is a MAJOR new benefit.
- Geothermal Heat Pumps. We’ve written about geothermal heat pumps before - they’re among the most efficient ways to heat or cool our homes, but they’re very expensive. The new stimulus package gives you a 30% credit with no upper cap for installing one, as long as it is an Energy Star version. As with solar PV systems, this can mean thousands of dollars for you. Previously, the credit was for 30% but was capped at $2,000.
- Cool Roofs. Cool roofs can save major money if you live in a climate where air conditioning bills dominate your utility spending. Now, you can get up to a $1,500 tax credit (30% of the intallation cost) for a cool roof, whereas the previous amounts were only 10% of the cost with a maximum of $300. To count, it needs to be an Energy Star qualified roofing product.
- Residential Wind Energy Systems. Today there are more options for residential wind turbines than ever before. Now, you can get up to 30% of the cost back as a tax credit with no cap on the total amount. This isn’t as much of a benefit as in other categories, for the previous maximum credit amount for small wind systems was $4,000. To get any added benefit, you’ll have to spend at least $13,300, which is a pretty large turbine on your property!
- High Efficiency Hot Water Heaters. The new tax credit is for 30% of the installation cost up to $1,500. However, the new unit must have an energy factor of at least 0.82, which rules out even the new Energy Star storage hot water heaters. All new Energy Star tankless hot water heaters will qualify, as will some very high efficiency storage versions (such as the AO Smith Vertex).
As with anything tax-related, you need to consult with your accountant before assuming any of these credits are “in the bank.” Some important caveats to note:
- The credits are for improvements made in 2009/10, with the exception of geothermal heat pumps, solar HW/PV, and wind turbines (2009 - 2016).
- The cool roof and standard hot water heater credits are NOT standalone - you get up to $1,500 for ALL of your energy efficiency improvements together, which includes windows, insulation and the other more typical upgrades we’ve written about previously. The other credits we’ve discussed above (solar HW/PV, geothermal, wind energy) are standalone credits and do not count towards the $1,500 energy efficiency cap.
- Only the solar HW/PV, geothermal heat pump, and wind energy system credits can be claimed by folks building new homes. There’s another set of incentives for typical energy efficiency measures in new home construction that flows through contractors.
For more information on all of these programs, please visit Energy Star’s great tax credit summary.
Looking to start a project? Check out Low Impact Living’s directories of solar installers, green plumbers, geothermal heat pump installers, wind power installers or energy auditors / green home consultants to get a quote near you.
Popularity: 6% [?]
February 11th, 2009
We’ve always found it a bit strange that one of the most energy-intensive systems in our homes wasn’t covered by the Energy Star program: water heaters. Water heaters are particularly challenging to select. They’re expensive, they employ several different technologies, and unlike many appliances you can’t just judge their merits based on what you see in a store.
Well, Energy Star has finally stepped up and given us some guidance. The standards for hot water heaters were released last year, and as of January 1 many different manufacturers now offer Energy Star models. So what does an Energy Star water heater mean for you? As you might expect, it differs by category, so we’ll run through them and list some good options for you below.
Storage Hot Water Heaters
Storage hot water heaters are the ones most of us have in our homes - a big tank with a burner at the bottom. They’re the least efficient type of hot water heater, for significant energy is lost as the hot water sits in the tank regardless of the insulation level. The new Energy Star standards say that a storage hot water heater must have an Energy Factor of at least 0.62, meaning that 62% of the energy in the fuel burned is converted into heat in hot water. This is about 7% more efficient than the current minimum federal standard for storage hot water heaters. If you’re on a budget, then these models are best.
Some options include:
Tankless Whole-House Hot Water Heaters
The new Energy Star standard for tankless hot water heaters is that they must have an Energy Factor of 0.82. This isn’t that stringent: most quality tankless units already meet or exceed this level. However, the Energy Star certification also specifies that the warranty be at least ten years on the heat exchanger and five years on parts. This is a major upgrade for some manufacturers. Tankless hot water heaters make sense if you don’t have huge hot water demands and if space is at a premium in your home.
Gas Condensing Water Heaters
Gas condensing water heaters are very similar to the traditional storage hot water heaters from the outside. But inside, there’s a major difference: they have very efficient heat exchangers that capture much more of the heat from burning fuel than do traditional models. An Energy Star condensing model must achieve an Energy Factor of at least 0.8, which puts most of these models right up there with tankless versions. That efficient heat exchanger comes at a price, though, so they’ll be more expensive than your typical storage model. Condensing models are great if you have a large family with high hot water demands - the storage gives you a bit more capacity than a comparable tankless unit.
Heat Pump Water Heaters
The previous three hot water heaters all employ gas as a fuel. So what happens if you use electricity? Consider a heat pump hot water heater. Like a normal heat pump or air conditioner, a heat pump water heater uses a refrigerant to “move” heat from outdoors inside to heat your water. Because you’re moving rather than creating heat, the efficiencies are incredibly high: Energy Star heat pump water heaters have Energy Factors of > 2.0. Per unit of energy, though, electricity is often much more expensive than gas or propane, so this higher efficiency might not translate into higher savings.
Solar Hot Water Heaters
Solar hot water heaters convert the sun’s energy into hot water, so why isn’t every solar hot water an Energy Star? The answer is that if they’re too small then they won’t make much of a difference. Therefore, an Energy Star solar hot water heater must have a Solar Fraction of > 0.5, meaning that it provides at least 50% of your total hot water heating needs.
Popularity: 5% [?]
January 29th, 2009
Here at Low Impact Living are big advocates for residential renewable energy. We’d like to see every home in the US being fed by solar, wind and/or geothermal power. (And we hope that President Obama will be driving to make that vision a reality!)
But we also understand that very few of us Americans can afford $20,000+ for an installation of a solar PV system– especially these days! That’s why we’re always on the look out for ways people can save on solar. So when I heard about what 1 Block Off the Grid (1BOG) is trying to do, I was intrigued.
1 Block Off the Grid (1BOG) is based in San Francisco, but they are launching a nationwide effort to create community-based buying clubs for solar power. They claim that, “By aggregating consumers and negotiating on their behalf we take the fear out of buying new green technologies, decrease the purchase price, and increase the adoption rate of these technologies.”
If you’ve ever gotten and compared quotes for a solar installation, you know it can indeed be confusing and intimidating. Having a group discount negotiated by a third party sounds like a great idea to us.
1BOG did one set of installations in San Francisco in 2008, and they are just getting their 2009 group ready for another round. They are working with SolarCity for the new installations there. The 1BOG website says they are launching a group for Los Angeles in February 2009. Sign up quick!
I did some research and it seems that one of the participants in 1BOG’s inaugural program in San Francisco cut 43 percent off list price, according to co-founder Sylvia Ventura. But that is not necessarily a standard savings. For the average participant it would probably be closer to about 20 percent off. For a $25,000 solar system, you could save $5,000 — and you’ll get additional goverment rebates as well. Not too shabby!
We also want to remind everyone to always consider a solar hot water system if a solar electric system is too expensive. Solar hot water systems cost in the $4-6K range and will still save you a TON off of your power bills.
Popularity: 4% [?]