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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Feds shut down solar marketing scheme

Solar panel on the desert

Stock Photo

via Moak: Hucksters market solar panels, clarionledger.com, 3/16/2016

There’s a lot of interest these days in solar and other alternative energy sources. As consumers have looked for ways to lower their energy bills, solar energy has long been touted as a key component in the nation’s energy future. However, in the decades since solar energy has been part of the discussion of America’s energy future, development has been slow. (I remember writing a paper about solar energy back in high school about 35 years ago.)

The price of solar installations is still beyond the reach of many consumers and often still outweighs the potential cost savings. That fact, coupled with falling energy costs of late, have presented constant challenges to the growth of the solar industry. Still, there is increasing demand and interest in “rooftop” solar systems.

That demand makes consumers vulnerable to hucksters. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an operation that is accused of “bombarding” consumers with millions of recorded calls, which allegedly alarmed consumers by telling them there was “urgent” news about their energy bills, but they were really just a way to generate leads for companies selling solar systems.

According to the agency, defendants Francisco Salvat and his companies illegally made more than 1.3 million pre-recorded calls to consumers with phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, warning them that they needed to act quickly to avoid a coming spike in their electric bills.

“Mr. Salvat’s companies ignored the Do Not Call Registry and made illegal robocalls,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Breaking the law isn’t a great way for a company to introduce itself to potential customers.”

If they answered the robocalls, consumers were given the option to “push one” to lower their energy bills, which then transferred them to a telemarketer who tried to sell them on an expensive solar panel assembly. If they agreed, the telemarketer would schedule an appointment with a private solar company, selling the customer’s information to them in the form of a sales lead. However, the FTC claims that problems arose when consumers’ request to be taken off the call list were ignored.

The FTC is seeking a federal court order permanently barring the defendants from the allegedly illegal conduct, as well as civil penalties for their alleged telemarketing violations. The Department of Justice filed the complaint on behalf of the FTC in a California U.S. District Court against KFJ Marketing, LLC; Sunlight Solar Leads, LLC; Go Green Education; and Francisco J. Salvat, individually and as an officer of each of the three businesses.

The businesses are charged with violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule by calling consumers whose names are in the national Do Not Call registry; continuing to call consumers who had requested no further calls; and making illegal robocalls. The complaint requests civil penalties, relief for consumers, and a court order to bar the activities in the future.

If you’ve had similar issues, you can file a complaint with the FTC here. Legitimate solar energy companies abide by a set of ethics called the SEIA Solar Business Code, which guides how they will sell and market solar systems. For more information and advice on solar systems, check out this column I wrote back in November.

Hood: Before you invest in solar, check it out first

Before investing in solar power, closely check claimsOriginally published on clarionledger.com, 10/30/2015.

PDF: Before investing in solar power, closely check claims

You’d think that, with the abundant sunshine we get here in Mississippi, we’d be a natural for solar power. Although solar energy is much more prevalent in the Western and Southwestern U.S. – where they get a lot more sunlight unimpeded by clouds and haze — we’re starting to see more and more solar panels in the Magnolia state.

Recently, Entergy Mississippi announced a project to create three solar “farms” in the state, and a lot of businesses are forming around getting solar panels on rooftops. In the future, it’s likely that rooftop solar installations will be as common a rooftop site as satellite TV dishes. In some cases, they’ll actually be generating more power than the homeowner needs, which can then be sold back to the utility companies.

Although there are a couple of different solar-panel technologies, the fast-growing Photovoltaic (PV) industry appears to be dominating the market. Simply put, PV converts sunshine to electricity as sunlight falls on solar cells; energy which can be used to power your home or business.

But a troubling warning came recently from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who advises Mississippians to beware of businesses who offer solar energy systems to consumers. It seems that, where there is sunlight, there is also the potential for fraud. Hood warned consumers last week that we need to be careful if approached by people trying to sell or lease costly PV systems.

“To lure customers into a lease, some of these unscrupulous solar companies often claim that consumers can potentially reduce costly electric bills by utilizing various federal, state and local tax credits and rebates,” Hood’s office noted in a news release. “This can be deceptive, however, since the solar company is usually the entity which receives the tax benefits and incentives. In addition, for cash purchases, the price of PV systems can range anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 or more.”

That could leave you on the hook for the price of the unit, which could in turn affect the value of your home if you tried to sell it.

“Before consumers make a significant investment in a solar system, they should research their options to make sure they are in fact getting cost savings and meeting their goals of environmental sustainability,” Hood said. “While there are some exemplary companies, other solar companies are using misleading sale pitches to entice consumers into paying for overpriced PV system agreements or failing to disclose how various subsidies, government programs and rate making practices may affect the future cost of energy for the consumer. These companies’ deceptive practices often result in a higher energy price tag for consumers after installing the system than they had before.”

Hood had some advice for companies looking to sell solar systems as well: become familiar with the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Solar Business Code.  This code lays out best practices and ethical standards for solar companies.

If you’re considering solar, Hood advises the following:

  • Comparison shop with several solar companies to make sure you are getting the best deal. Obtaining a written estimate from at least two companies will allow you to compare the cost and installation of the same size system between two companies. Be sure to request that major components are itemized.
  • Inquire about tax credits. Consult with a tax expert to verify your tax credit eligibility and calculate the correct figures before you enter into a purchase agreement with the solar company. Beware of guarantees that 50% or more of the cost of the solar system is covered by tax credits.  In order to receive tax credits, you must have taxable income.  Often, retirees or young families do not have enough taxable income to fully realize the tax benefits.
  • Be more skeptical of installers that promise no out-of-pocket costs prior to even reviewing your specific situation.
  • Net-metering promises: Beware of promises that your utility company will be issuing you a check every month for the electricity that you provide to the local utility grid. Ask what will happen if the solar company promises a certain percentage of savings from your utility bill and the amount of savings is not achieved.
  • Leasing issues: Solar panel leasing is advertised as a way to obtain a solar system without having to put any money down; yet, the consumer should be aware that he or she is still responsible for the lease costs.

Finally, check with your local government before entering into a contract. Local ordinances, codes and neighborhood association rules may restrict or prohibit your ability to install the system in the first place.

For more information, the Solar Energy Industry Association has resources available at http://bit.ly/1BejJSy or http://bit.ly/1GRghdM. If you believe you’ve been defrauded, contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office at 1-800-281-4418, or file a complaint at http://www.agjimhood.com.

New energy efficiency requirements rolled out in South

Here in the South, there are few things more certain than a hot summer. And we Mississippians have come to rely on having reliable air conditioning. During the warmest months, our AC units kick into high gear, spinning the electric meter faster and faster, increasing our electric bills and, with it, demand on the electrical grid.

According to Entergy, about 55 percent of average Mississippi consumer’s utility bill comes from heating and cooling. But as concerns have grown about the increasing demand on the infrastructure and environmental concerns, government agencies have been paying attention. A few decades ago, the government began to push for new standards designed to increase the efficiency of AC units.

Often unnoticed by homeowners, these steadily-increasing requirements affect us all in the form of higher initial prices for new units, but could be dramatically offset by better energy efficiency (translation: lower energy costs) in the long run.

You probably have heard you’re HVAC tech refer to something called a “SEER” rating. SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) measures air conditioning and heat pump cooling efficiency, which is calculated by taking the cooling output for a typical cooling season, and dividing it by the total amount of electricity required during the same period. In short, a higher SEER rating should equal greater energy efficiency. Theoretically, a more efficient unit should be better at cooling your house quickly, then shutting itself off, while running more efficiently during run times.

On January 1, new rules from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) required that all air conditioning units installed in the Southeast must have at least a 14 SEER rating. For the first time, the country has been divided into three regions, each with different standards. Of course, the 14 number is the minimum allowable SEER number; many units have a much higher energy efficiency rating, which should result in lower bills. If you have an older unit, your SEER rating could be much lower, costing you more in electricity.

“The new guidelines will have a greater effect on the southern states because they have a longer cooling period during the spring and summer,” said Doyle James, president of Aire Serv, which along with other heating and cooling companies has been trying to educate consumers about the new standards. “In a typical summer, the southern states have more cooling degree days, or days where homes and businesses will use the air conditioning systems for longer periods to cool buildings.”

There is some good news for consumers who may be in need of a new unit. Entergy, for example, offers a rebate to consumers (up to $500) for consumers who install a new unit with a more energy-efficient model, and you should also look into possible tax rebates and incentives. To find out more, you can call Entergy at (844) 523-9980.

Here are a few more things to think about, courtesy of Entergy:

  • Replace old equipment while it’s still in working condition, especially if it’s more than 10 years old.
  • Buy ENERGY STAR certified equipment for improved comfort, reduced energy use and energy savings.
  • Replace both the indoor and outdoor units to ensure they are properly matched to last longer and be more dependable.
  • Ask a participating contractor to perform a load calculation to determine the proper equipment size for your home.
  • Make sure your installer is qualified. Improper installation can lower efficiency by up to 30 percent and potentially reduce the life of your equipment.

Of course, if you can stand it to nudge your thermostat up a couple of degrees in the summer, your AC won’t have to work so hard. And taking advantage of programmable thermostats and similar technologies can help keep waste to a minimum.

So before you write that check to replace the noisy monster spinning away outside your bedroom window, taking some time to do your research could have implications well into the future.

Entergy offering free home energy audits

Most of us don’t really have a good handle on just how much energy we are using in our homes. We pay the bills when they come due, and most people hardly give a thought to how that energy is actually used until something changes. But all it takes is a poorly-sealed window or an aging water heater to make your electricity bill skyrocket. And though we’re fortunate in Mississippi to have enough power on the grid to avoid the blackouts which plague some areas of the country, as the population grows, so does the demand on our aging energy grid. So, reducing our energy usage just makes sense.

Now, there is some help available, and it’s free. Entergy Mississippi has announced a new program called READI – the Residential Energy Audit and Direct Install. It’s part of several recent initiatives to help Mississippians understand how to control their energy costs. Entergy customers will get a free home energy audit, as well as components to help save energy such as low-flow shower heads, faucet aerators and compact-fluorescent light bulbs – at no cost.

“The READI Program is designed to be a convenient first step for residential customers who are interested in learning how to make their homes more energy efficient,” said Haley Fisackerly, Entergy Mississippi president and CEO, in a news release this week. “In addition to providing detailed energy reports, our auditors are prepared to install energy-efficient light bulbs, efficient-flow shower heads and faucet aerators that allow customers to start saving immediately on utility bills.”

This program stems from Mississippi Public Service Commission, which asked utilities to create more opportunities for customers to save money on their electric bills through improved energy efficiency. The result was Entergy’s “Quick Start” plan, consisting of five initiatives to help reduce energy usage. Entergy selected Virginia-based ICF International, a major management and consulting firm, to implement the program.

READI begins with a home visit by an energy-efficiency auditor, who’ll spend about an hour performing a detailed visual inspection of your home. They’ll look for issues which cause higher energy usage, such as drafty windows. After completing the inspection, they’ll give you a summary report, which includes a month-by-month graph showing how your electric bill fluctuates throughout the year. It also shows you how much of your usage comes from heating, cooling, appliance use, your water heater and lighting.

Entergy‘s helpful PR staff sent me a mock report to illustrate what a homeowner might see. It includes an evaluation of just how tightly-buttoned your house is (poorly-sealed windows and doors are a big cause of higher heating and cooling bills), whether your insulation is adequate, and several other factors. It also give you at a glance how you might save money on your energy bills by taking some simple steps.

After the audit, the auditor will also offer to install things like compact fluorescent bulbs and efficient shower heads. But perhaps the biggest gift will be information: it will give you a look into a few simple things you can do to reduce your energy usage and hopefully lower your electric bill.  It sounds like a win-win scenario.

You can schedule a READI visit by calling 844-523-9980, or visiting EntergySolutionsMS.com.