Solar Dreams

via Homeowners, businesses dream of generating power from rooftops or backyards, clarionledger.com

PDF: Solar power on rooftop

The sun drenches the earth with enormous energy potential. It’s often reported that enough solar energy hits the earth every hour to meet all the earth’s power needs for a year. If we could efficiently tap even a tiny fraction of that energy, it could make us truly energy-independent. Since Mississippi is generally a sunny state, getting at least some power from the sun is beginning to become a real possibility.

Technology has improved steadily since the first efforts to convert sunlight into usable power more than 150 years ago. Early efforts used mirrors to focus sunlight, heating a liquid and driving a turbine, and that technology is now in use in places around the globe. But in recent decades, much of the industry is focused on improving photovoltaic (PV) arrays, which turn sunlight directly into electricity.

Mississippi’s electric utilities have been involved in pilot projects to test and demonstrate the feasibility of solar power. Entergy has rolled out three “solar farm” projects in DeSoto, Hinds and Lincoln counties, while Mississippi Power has three solar projects in Gulfport, Hattiesburg and Sumrall. These facilities have large solar panels installed over several acres, collecting energy from the sun and turning it into usable electricity.

But for many owners of homes and businesses, the dream is to generate power on your rooftop or backyard. Thanks to a 2015 “net-metering” rule from the Mississippi Public Service Commission, you can potentially sell your excess power back to the power company. There’s even a way to check your rooftop’s potential for generating electricity by installing solar panels. Google’s “Project Sunroof” allows you to put in your address, and it will show you approximately how much sunlight hits your roof, how much area you have available to install solar panels and rough estimates of how much it would cost.

It all sounds pretty exciting, and it is. However, there’s a big caveat in all of this: Although the efficiency of solar technology is getting better and it’s environmentally friendly, it’s still expensive. In many cases, it won’t make economic sense for the near future. (The Google tool said I’d lose thousands over the long term, assuming current prices.) But that hasn’t stopped companies from marketing and selling solar equipment and services, and understanding how to navigate the process is complicated. That’s why Attorney General Jim Hood’s office recently rolled out a publication called the Consumer’s Guide to Solar Power in Mississippi.

“Renewable energy — including solar power — can be beneficial to the environment while providing a costs savings for the consumer,” Hood said in a news release. “It is critical to determine whether the investment for the renewal energy in a solar system is the right choice for your home or business. This guide offers tips and resources to help make that determination.”

The guide is full of all sorts of advice, including questions to ask, how to check out a business, financial considerations, and description of the various financing options. Generally, owners of homes or businesses can purchase a system outright or lease it, and there are a lot of factors involved in that decision. For example, you should consider how long it will take the equipment to pay for itself. Usually, this takes several years; in some cases, it won’t. And although there are numerous tax incentives and credits for installing solar-power systems, understanding them can be complex.

It’s also important to thoroughly check out the contractor or dealer you’re considering; Hood noted that nearby states have experienced problems with licensing of solar contractors. For example, Solar Industry magazine reports that consumers in Austin, Texas, were solicited last year by door-to-door salesmen selling solar-power systems, using the lure of incentives to get customers to sign up. The local electric utility, Austin Energy, accused the Utah-based company that had hired the salesmen of claiming to represent the utility, when in fact, it didn’t. (For its part, the company denied the allegations.)

In other unrelated cases, consumers reported they’d been approached by salesmen who tried to sell products with predatory financing terms. In any case, if you’re approached by someone trying to sell you a system, get multiple estimates, and carefully consider your options. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into making a decision.

You can download a copy of the guide at http://bit.ly/2rMwrFe.

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