Here’s how to buy solar panels in Southern Indiana for cheap

(Published in the News and Tribune Aug. 5, 2017)

SOUTHERN INDIANA — If you’ve ever thought about pitching the utility bill, slashing your carbon emissions and going solar, now is the time, say the leaders of the local volunteer initiative Solarize the Sunny Side.

In light of plunging solar costs and incoming state and federal laws limiting renewable energy incentives, the group is recruiting Clark and Floyd county residents to partner on purchasing solar panels for their homes, thereby reducing the cost of the installation. Think about it as a Sam’s Club for solar, says leader Trisha Tull.

The initiative has a serious time element, though. On Jan. 1, 2018, a new Indiana law goes into effect, which will eventually reduce the amount certain utility companies are required to pay solar users for their excess energy.

The process is called net metering and currently, Indiana’s utility companies are required to pay retail price, or 300 percent more than the wholesale price, for excess solar created by their customers. If a home or business owner installs their panels before the end of this year, they’ll be able to keep that benefit for 30 years. If they install before 2022, they’ll have it for 15 years. If they wait longer, they’ll only have it for 10.

Eventually, everyone will only receive 25 percent more than the wholesale price of electricity for their solar energy.

Duke Energy is one of the utility companies bound by the net metering law, while rural electric membership corporations are not.

The federal government is also phasing out a 30 percent tax credit. Right now, it’s still viable, but after 2019, it will step down to 26 percent before dropping to zero after 2021 for residential properties and to 10 percent for commercial ones.

The new Indiana law, however, is the main reason why Solarize the Sunny Side and its parent movement, the Hoosier Solar Initiative, began this year.

“We’re trying to get basically as many solar panels on as many roofs as possible before the end of the year so we can have folks grandfathered in under this process,” said Rick Lovett, another local leader of the initiative.

Lovett and his fellow volunteers are holding three info sessions about their initiative in the coming weeks, hoping to have attendees sign letters of intent to get a solar installer to assess their properties and come up with a quote. The initiative will preselect the installer, streamlining the process for Solarize members.

If they like what they see, members need to file an interconnection application with their utility company by Oct. 19 to guarantee that they keep the current net metering credit. From there, installations will occur from October to December, with all signed contracts due on Dec. 31.

“We’re really talking talking a very short time period here, but it’s possible,” Tull said. She’s hoping to convince 24 or so residents to join the initiative — mostly from New Albany and Jeffersonville, but nearby homeowners are welcome to attend information sessions, too.

The benefits that await them are worth it, she assures.

Tull’s church, First Presbyterian in Jeffersonville, has been powered by solar panels since 2015. It’s since committed to increasing its renewable energy output, which should help the church financially.

“…We will have about 18,000 kilowatt-hours a year more of power, which is about, I can’t do the math in my head, but several thousand dollars more money that’s going to go toward mission rather than to the utility company,” she said.

First Presbyterian’s panels, however, were bought with donations from congregation members, but Tull predicts that even homeowners will benefit financially from solar panels after several years.

The average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,812 kWh in 2015. A 10,000 kWh solar panel system costs about $14,000 after the federal tax credit, resulting in a 100 percent return on investment in 11.6 years, according to Solarize the Sunny Side. The initiative’s average solar panel cost is off by a few thousand, according to other estimates. EnergySage, a solar equipment supplier, says the average cost is $22,820 after the tax credit and Solar-Estimate, another supplier, says $20,650 to $24,500. If the retail rate of electricity is about 11 cents per kWh, a 10,000 kWh solar panel system costing $24,500 would be paid off in 22.2 years, while a $14,000 one would be paid off in 12.7.

Solarize the Sunny Side suggests other methods for paying for a solar panel system as well. Members could try buying a 5,000 kWh an hour system while reducing their energy consumption rate by 50 percent or they could take out a home equity line of credit.

When it comes to helping the environment, Tull and Lovett believe that a solar panel system is worth the cost. So does Chad Boseker, who attended Solarize the Sunny Side’s first meeting on Monday night.

“…We believe in taking care of God’s creation,” Boseker said. He’s a minister at First Christian Church in Jeffersonville.

Solarize the Sunny Side can’t guarantee that it will get its members the absolute lowest panel price possible, Lovett said, but the group is going to try. Boseker is in regardless — for multiple reasons.

“If we can get a group and get a group discount and all of that — I said I’m going to do it for years so it sounds like now might be the best time,” he said. “And if I’m grandfathered in on something where I can net meter and do get a benefit from it, so be it. That’s an added bonus.”

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