Solar United Neighbors has helped more than 530 Maryland homeowners go solar through our co-ops. Over the years, we have shared many of our participants’ success stories, and what follows is one of them. Ken Harkavy is a solar homeowner from Potomac and he’s a member of the Montgomery County Co-op. He has provided an honest success story that shows that there is still a lot of hard work that we need to do together to make going solar a smoother process in our state.
Light edits have been made to his essay for clarity and style.
I considered “going solar” almost a decade ago, when home installations were just beginning. My goal was to reduce carbon emissions, reduce my electricity costs, and become independent of the “grid.” However, based on satellite photos of my home, there were too many trees to make it cost effective. Over the years, trees died (none were or should be removed for the purpose of installing solar panels). As a result, roof exposure improved. I contacted a company about installation, who confirmed that my exposure had improved and offered an estimate. Subsequently, I saw a notice for a meeting of a solar co-op with Solar United Neighbors and attended. Given my lack of knowledge, I felt more comfortable proceeding in a group, several members of which already had experience with solar installations. With the help of Solar United Neighbors, the group met to choose an installer. The group was able to identify preferred equipment, best cost per kWh, and installation history, which included system longevity, customer service, and overall satisfaction.
The system I had installed is rated at 14.4 kW with an estimated annual production of 15.69 MWh. It has 48,300v modules. The estimate was for financial payback in 8.5 years or better, providing a return on investment of 11.8%. In part, this is why I chose to buy, rather than lease, my system. While up-front costs are much less, leasing leaves control of costs with the company. Purchasing also entitled me to credits from both the Maryland and federal governments (these credits are expiring, adding to a sense of urgency). Purchasing implied an easier transfer of ownership should I sell my home. Later, information in the press suggested an automatic increase in home value equal to the net cost of installation. All in all, a win-win situation for me.
Here’s what I learned from my experience going solar:
- Get at least two bids to be comfortable with proceeding. I got one before the co-op, and the co-op received multiple.
- No matter which company you go with, get a complete roof inspection before proceeding, either as part of the contract, or on your own. A second Montgomery County inspector discovered a leak in my roof AFTER all the installation was done. Although it was in an area where the structural engineer, installers, and first Montgomery County inspector had visited many times and never mentioned a leak, the company denied responsibility. They did uninstall and re-install the required seven panels at no additional charge so that I could have the repairs made. Fortunately, the system still produced electricity from the other 41 panels.
- Have the type of equipment listed on the contract. Mine does not, and I don’t know if the panels are what was promised, or even the name of them.
- Clarify how the installation is to be done. For example, the conduit for the wires runs over our exterior brick. All but a few of the masonry screws are in the mortar, but a few are in the brick. The latter is unacceptable to us but cannot be undone. The color of the support frames should also be specified. Be present during installation to identify concerns that you may not have anticipated.
- Be prepared for months to pass from start to system turn-on. It may not have to be that way. My neighbor, after talking to me, went with a different company and was up and running in less than 6 weeks.
- Ask the co-op or installer about Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). I learned of them only when I received an email from Sol Systems inviting me to sell my SRECs. Choosing an SREC broker should be part of the decision-making process. I found that each installer appears to refer to a different broker.
- Because of our relatively high energy consumption, PEPCO had us on time-of-use metering. While we discussed with the installer changing to flat rate, nothing happened. What I discovered later, after multiple phone calls to PEPCO, that the change must take place at the meter, meaning it is hardware, not software, driven. As a result, I was credited with excess production during the day and charged for all the supply after dark. PEPCO charges retail for supply and pays wholesale for credited production at the end of the year. A second meter change at no additional charge resulted in flat rate billing, which should apply daytime production to all usage, and any excess will be bought at the end of the year. I have yet to receive my first bill at flat rate, but at my current production, I may not have any credits.
My original hope was to get off the grid completely and provide electricity, at least during the daytime, in the event PEPCO is down. However, that is not possible without battery storage. For safety reasons, Montgomery County does not allow the equipment that would provide a limited supply of electricity to my house when the grid is down. At this time, though, batteries are expensive and do need periodic replacing. I have access to natural gas and installing a gas generator would be less expensive than batteries.
What no one could have predicted is that 2018 would be the wettest year on record. As a result, our production may not be as predicted. During my best month, October, I produced 1.04 MWh. During August, which covered only the 16 days after system initiation, the system produced 740 kWh, suggesting close to 1.5 MWh under optimal conditions. Who knows how climate change will affect my return on investment, but my summer electric bills did drop over 50%. As of this writing, I have only 2.5 months of production and two electric bills.
I still encourage installation of solar panels, although the financials will be different as credits are phased out, hours of sunlight change due to weather, tariffs are imposed or rescinded, and equipment improves. In 2.5 months, I have reduced carbon my emissions by 2,543 kg, the equivalent of planting 141 trees.
Learn about solar in your community
Throughout the solar co-op process, the Solar United Neighbors of Maryland team is in contact with the installer. When we meet with the installer, we discuss any issues or challenges that any participants may have. During one such meeting, we were made aware of Harkavy’s roofing issue. The installer informed us that they were repairing the roof even though they did not believe their installation caused the leak. Conversations like these help us keep track of any issues that come up and inform us of any way we can be helpful in the process.
If you’re interested in following Harkavy’s lead and joining a solar co-op in Maryland, use the button below to find an active co-op near you. And to learn more about the issues affecting solar energy in our state, we’ve got you covered with our comprehensive online guide.