Solar life pays off in more than cash

By Diane Carman
Denver Post
10/09/2007

The first thing any right-minded homeowner says when it comes to solar is, "Show me the money."

Saving the Earth is swell, after all, but nothing beats having a power company buy kilowatt hours from you instead of the other way around.

Calculating payoff dates for a roof full of photovoltaic cells is not easy, though.

Some estimate the payoff for an average set at 10 years. Others say it's four years if future rate increases are considered along with all the tax credits, rebates and incentives.

Throw in the costs of future carbon taxes, and things get even more complicated.

No matter what, Ruth and Victor Barnard still think the decision to install solar on their house was a good idea.

And they're very tough customers. Ruth is 79, and Vic is 84.

Then again, they've always been visionaries. Vic, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and Ruth, a retired schoolteacher, were pioneers in one of Colorado's first co-housing experiments, the Nyland development in Lafayette.

"At first, people thought it was just a bunch of hippies out here," said Ruth. "But it's a good place for us to live. We like the diversity. We don't want to be surrounded by a bunch of old codgers."

That's not to say they're wild-eyed revolutionaries.

Quite the contrary, they are serious penny pinchers, and by their calculations, their $4,000 investment (after rebates and tax credits) will easily pay for itself in their lifetimes.

They're also old enough to know that instant gratification is not the only measure of a wise investment.

They started considering solar not for economic reasons but because of a presentation on alternative energy at their church. "We decided we need to find ways to make the air less polluted," Ruth said.

Their neighbors, meanwhile, had caught the solar bug in a big way. Last spring, Vic said, he sat in his living room watching as, one-by-one, all the houses behind him began sporting solar panels on their roofs.

Of the 42 houses at Nyland, 25 have gone solar, said Dan Glick, a writer and neighbor of the Barnards.

The Nyland HOA board offers incentives to help homeowners deal with the high initial cost. Instead of keeping the funds from the HOA maintenance account locked up in low-risk investments, Glick said the community began offering loans to Nyland homeowners to pay for the solar panels. It also has negotiated for a discounted group rate on installation of the systems.

"We're getting systems with a full retail price of $20,000 and most of us are paying $6,000 to $8,000 out of pocket — less after the rebates," Glick said.

All this contributed to a, well, juicier-than-thou attitude around the Nyland open spaces with residents comparing utility bills and competing to see who can score the most money back from Xcel all summer.

Glick said even the neighborhood kids got into it, turning off lights and shutting down computers in the race to see who could sell the most power back.

"It was pretty funny to see everybody running outside to watch their meters run backwards," he said.

Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said approximately 1,106 residential and business customers across the state have received "renewable energy credits" from Xcel in the past 18 months.

Together, they have produced 5.7 megawatts of power, enough to serve about 5,700 homes.

In addition to lowering his utility bills, Vic said, he's confident the solar panels will enhance his property values as more people consider energy efficiency when buying new homes.

Beyond all that, the Barnards said, they decided to go solar for their grandchildren. They figured it was the least they could do.

"I don't think there's any doubt that global warming is happening," said Ruth. "But, honestly, I don't know where to start. This is such a drop in the bucket."

If enough people pitch in, though, maybe it will buy a little time for a solution.

The Barnards say they're heavily invested in that as well.

"One of my grandchildren is a very good student, and his favorite thing is math," said Ruth. "I'm hoping some day, he will save the planet."

Now that's payback.