If you’re thinking of sunshine powering your morning rituals — alarm clock, shower, coffee, toast; cell phone, computer —  you’re in league with a growing cadre of neighbors ruminating about safe, clean alternatives for our electric-centric way of life.

Zach Schalk, Indiana program director, for Solar United Neighbors of Indiana (SUN), pointed to a recent Hoosier Life Survey from the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute, It showed, he said, “nearly 60% of people in the Indianapolis metro region either already have solar or are interested in putting solar on the home.” 

Zach Schalk

Zach Schalk Indiana program director for Solar United Neighbors of Indiana

“And they come from all walks of life,” Schalk said. “We work with people who are motivated to learn about or install solar for any number of reasons. Some people are interested in saving money on their electric bill, some people are trying to reduce their carbon emissions, some people are interested in resilience and energy independence, and some people just think the technology is cool.” 

Schalk thinks there’s room for all in the solar movement. “As the cost of solar continues to come down, we want to make sure that all Hoosiers can benefit,” he said. “We are working to build an energy system that's clean, just and equitable, with rooftop solar as the cornerstone. Rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources allow for a more distributed energy system that puts communities in control and can benefit everyone. ”

When I asked how this fits into what most of us have — an energy source with a monthly bill, Schalk explained, “One of the key issues for rooftop solar in Indiana is net metering. Basically, net metering is an accounting tool that's foundational to solar economics. Most people who install solar are still connected to the electric grid. Net metering allows solar owners to be fairly credited on their electric bill for any power they send back to the grid.”

A few days after I noticed solar panels going up on a neighbor’s east-facing rooftop, a news release came to my in-box: “Nonprofit groups Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and Solarize Indiana announced today the launch of the Indianapolis Solar and EV Charger Co-op to help Indianapolis residents go solar.”

That spurred me to contact Schalk, who connected me with three homeowners who already are sourcing solar energy.

Betty Lynch, a resident of the city of Lawrence, is one of those homeowners.

“I am a volunteer with Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and was a volunteer with Solarize Indy before the two coops combined,” said Lynch. “I learned about rooftop solar about six years ago from a friend who held an info session and I got a quote for solar.”

But she had an initial setback. “When I submitted my request to my Homeowners Association [HOA], it was declined, and after two years of back and forth, they would not approve my request. I also became a climate activist around that time, and rooftop solar was important to me, so I decided to move so I could get solar. I saw it as a way to empower me to be a part of the solution instead of the problem of global warming. 

“Rooftops are perfect places for solar panels and it became an important goal for me,” she affirmed. 

“I got my first set of panels through Solarize and they provided me with the information I needed to get a good price, a good installer, and support,”  explained Lynch. “I got my second set of panels through SUN and received the same from them. I [had] purchased a used electric car and needed more energy to power it. 

“Panels are a big investment and provide good clean energy for many years after they have paid for themselves,” attests Lynch, adding, “I am retired and on a fixed income and work part time as a cashier to supplement my retirement. I see my panels as a home upgrade that is not only a sound financial investment but good for the environment too.  

“I used my savings to purchase these panels and have no regrets. SUN provides info sessions that require no obligation and present all you need to know about rooftop solar. A vendor is selected by the group based on price, warranties, philosophies, and any other criteria the group may deem appropriate. It is a democratic selection. SUN also has a project that puts solar on roofs at no charge to low income home owners. I have contributed to that cause and am proud to be a part of such a great organization.

“I am proud to do my part to slow down global warming and happy with my investment of solar for my future energy needs,” she summarizes. “Thank you, Solarize and SUN, for all the support you have given me and other solar homeowners.”

Replies from homeowners Josh Kikta and Larry Rahn came within the Q&A format I emailed. Here they are:

RITA KOHN: What is the impetus for joining with a solar coop?

JOSH KIKTA: One of my friends suggested checking out the co-op because he felt they helped with the learning side of the process and generally could help me to save money.  I found the learning side to be especially helpful, as there is much to understand with going solar.

LARRY RAHN: Spring 2020 [we] installed Solar PV panels on the roof of our home with the help of the Solar United Neighbors Co-op for Hamilton County. I learned of the co-op program early in 2019 at a local church (part of the Shalom Congregations group in and around Allisonville Road, Indianapolis).  SUN presented the coop program. I was impressed with their approach and the value proposition.  The co-op at the time did not involve Hamilton county (only Marion County) where I live, so I made a mental note as I was interested in Solar. 

Later in 2020 I discovered they offered a coop for Hamilton county and I joined (free and no commitment).  Beyond providing informational discussions and seminars, the coop works with interested parties to define the needs and desired approaches of the group, facilitating a group decision to assign a subgroup to select a supplier/installer that would meet these needs. 

KOHN: What research that you undertook made the best case for joining a solar co-op?   

KIKTA: I talked extensively with my friend who had installed his own system a few years ago, to understand what is involved. As I started to look into solar on my own, I realized that having an organization to help guide me through the process would be valuable.  They made it much easier to trust the info, since they have no monetary gain from a person participating.  I found that some of the companies out there will mislead or leave out key details when trying to sell you their products.

RAHN: When I joined (October 2019) the subgroup had already selected Jefferson Electric LLC as the installer, which (after learning about them through their website) I thought was a great choice.  I signed up for a free quote, and also got quotes from two other installers for comparison.  These additional quotes and some web research on solar installers (and the great site at the DOE NERL Lab, Solar Research | NREL as well as their industry standard tool at PVWatts Calculator (nrel.gov))   convinced me that the SUN co-op and Jefferson Electric were significantly more competent and most efficient as well.  

KOHN: What about your house/building makes for a good solar energy source? 

KIKTA: I have a fairly large roof that faces South/Southeast with a nearly perfect slant, and no trees or other objects obstructing the sun.

RAHN: I used PVWatts to do many simulations to learn significant details about how solar would work for my situation. As you can imagine, a roof oriented with maximum exposure to sunlight is best (so South facing).  But there are many related issues, like what is the best roof angle, would a ground based array work better, will my HOA approve, what can I expect for seasonal variation and best full year efficiency?  All of these (except HOA) can be addressed using this NREL tool.

 

From Google images I learned my roof is oriented about 5 deg East of South, not bad.  From my iPhone level app I learned the same garage roof points (the direction perpendicular to roof surface) about 40 deg off vertical.  It turns out that this is close to optimal for a year around best power generation (easy approximate indicator is the latitude of your location). 

By adding up my electric power bills for the previous year  I found (using PVWatts) that about 7.5 KW (nameplate power...see PVWatts) or about 22 modern panels would cover my power needs (using net metering to fill in valleys with excess power from sunny days).  These (22 panels) fit in two rows on my three-car garage roof.

KOHN:  What's the best energy story since installation?

KIKTA: I have only had the system turned on since the beginning of July and I still haven’t had to pay anything for electricity to Duke Energy outside of the monthly connection fee. I don’t think we will make it all the way through the winter since we didn’t have a full year to book credits, but it should be very close.  Also, I have been really encouraged by the production in the winter months when the sun is out. Even though there is significantly less time the sun is up, on a cloud-free day I have been able to produce almost more than a summer day. The sun being to the south this time of year provides exceptionally good angles.

RAHN: My favorite energy story is when Duke energy showed up to install my new meter (that runs backward when I am producing more power than I use) that allowed us to turn on the solar system.  From all zeros, my meter went to all 9s but the last couple of digits as I powered my neighbors homes (who paid Duke energy for the power).

KOHN: What challenges did you face?

KIKTA: I have a very odd electrical setup as I have two main panels.  This made the installation a bit more difficult, and we still haven’t resolved an issue with being able to install a consumption meter and a revenue grade tracking meter due to design constraints of the system back in June.  The manufacturer thinks they have solved it, but it will still be a few weeks before it can get installed.  

One of the biggest challenges was working with Duke. They changed some rules this year but failed to inform all of the installers in their customers’ area.  This caused a large delay in getting the master solar shutdown breaker installed in the right part of the house.  

Also, Duke makes all aspects very difficult. They are slow to sign-off on approvals, they took over a month to correct an issue with misreading my meter the first month, and there is still not a good way to view solar net-metering credits directly on a bill.  Instead, I have to call in monthly to see if our numbers agree.  It is very inconvenient, and makes no sense because many states already have this feature on their bills.

RAHN: My first big challenge (ok, increasing my knowledge took effort, but it was fun, and the cost was covered by retirement investment savings) was when my HOA turned down my request for approval for a modification to my home.  Max Kennerk, my contact at Jefferson Electric, alerted me to Leslie Webb's experience with HOA issues at the Carmel Green Initiative.  She provided lots of information, including sample HOA solar guidelines (my HOA had none).  The HOA agreed to an in-person second chance for me, which was successful. Lots more details here, but that is the short version

KOHN: Could you comfortably walk someone through your experience?

KIKTA: If you are asking if I could tell the whole story of how we got solar installed to someone, then yes.

RAHN: Sure, I am happy to share my experience.  My focus is a bit more technical than many (e.g., My 1973 PhD thesis was on optical studies of various crystalline silicon samples).  But I can usually find ways to relate to the perspectives of other interested persons.

KOHN: What should someone seriously consider as a ‘smart investment' on a property for now and long term, from your point of view as a homeowner?

KIKTA: I think everyone should be taking a look at solar.  By installing solar, you are essentially locking in your electricity bill at a much lower level for the next 20+ years. Also, the 26% Federal Tax credit will start to phase out over the next couple of years. It won’t make financial sense for everyone, but I think it is good for folks to go understand the prices and long-term savings, so they can make an informed decision. 

RAHN: As I explained to my HOA, I view rooftop solar as a good investment.  First, it pays for itself in about 12.5 years (my case, with help from federal tax credit).  Second, when we sell our home we imagine the prospective buyer(s) driving up with their young family in their electric vehicle.  One of their first questions would be: What are your utility bills? Where do we plug in our car?  With the perfect answers, our full home value will be realized (and another family will be happy with their new home). 

KOHN: What else should a reader know even before signing up for a formal informational meeting?

KIKTA: Going to a meeting or even getting a quote costs you nothing and there is absolutely no obligation.  By putting in a small amount of time, you will better understand this technology, how it can save you money, and how long it will take to break even.

RAHN: Many do not know the value and durability of home solar capabilities. It is good to get familiar with modern solar technology to appreciate what it can provide.  Also, it is good to understand your HOA's stance, and your power company's situation (e.g. regarding net-metering, etc.) Although even older solar technology often is effective for 40 or more years, there is some degradation in efficiency over time due to damage from solar radiation.  However, modern systems are more efficient (less roof space needed) and more durable than ever, even offering long warranties (20 yrs. in my case) on efficiency. (Oh, did I mention withstanding 100 mph wind with hail?). 

KOHN: What about your decision puts a smile on your face every day?

KIKTA: Two things.  First, helping to reduce my family’s impact on the environment. Second, I love not having to pay Duke energy huge bills every month.  I am just that little bit closer to energy independence, and it is a wonderful feeling.

RAHN: I love to read my power meter, and look on my iPhone app at the current and past power generation history.  My spouse, I must admit, only lovingly tolerates such behavior because she knows I am keen on PV technology! (This is not a new experience for her!) 

 

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