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The desire for renewable energy has never been higher, which has made solar power more popular than ever. Yet, while traditional solar panels excel in the Sunbelt, they are less effective in northern climates where the days are shorter. Homeowners might well question whether installing panels in these colder climes can be cost-effective. In a quest to discover whether homeowners the Northeast could benefit enough from solar, or photovoltaic (PV), technology to offset the cost of installation, we caught up with Robert Fuller, the owner of Fullers Energy. His company specializes in renewable energy solutions for homes throughout the Northeast, including Bob Vila’s own New England residence. As Fuller explains, new “tracking” technology increases solar efficiency in regions north of the Sunbelt, making it possible for virtually any homeowner to benefit from a day’s worth of sunshine.
What’s the market like for solar panels in the Northeast?
When Fullers Energy first opened its doors, it was a great time for homeowners to purchase and install solar technology at home because the federal government had announced a 30 percent tax credit on renewable energy upgrades. In the past few years, the demand for solar in this region has only increased, due in part to lower costs and tax breaks, but also because solar technology is improving, specifically through solar panels that track the sun.
I was skeptical when tracking panels first hit the market. It was exciting for technology to be able to follow the sun’s arc and harness maximum power from it at any hour, but I wasn’t convinced that a solar system manufacturer in China—or even in California—could really relate to the specific needs of residents in the Northeast. Then, I discovered All Earth Renewables, a Vermont-based panel manufacturer and—after carefully vetting the company and their product—I was sold. We’ve had excellent results with their panels.
How do tracking panels differ from stationary, or “static,” panels?
The tracking panels we install are extremely unique. They feature dual-access trackers that are capable of following and aligning at a 90-degree angle to the sun’s rays. That results in a faster energy spike in the morning when the sun is lower in the sky and increased energy production later in the day as well. In this part of the country, tracking panels offer customers a 45 percent greater efficiency rate over traditional static panels, which face the same direction at all hours.
How do tracking panels perform in the winter? Are they as effective?
Shorter days in the winter mean less sunshine overall, so there will be some efficiency loss. (Though that shouldn’t dissuade homeowners too much; it’s best to gauge solar energy production on an annual basis if you want to see the system’s overall effectiveness.) But in addition to being designed to make the most of shortened daylight hours, tracking panels do have other distinct advantages over stationary panels. For example, at night when there’s no sun to track, or when the winds reach 30 miles per hour, the panels lay down to protect the structure. Then, after a heavy snow, the panels will actually stand up and turn to dump the snow off.
Storms with hail and flying debris are always a concern, but the structural integrity of today’s panels is much better than it was even a decade ago. The panels we install from All Earth Renewables are designed to withstand 1-inch hail at terminal velocity, and in testing they have even stood up to people walking across them. They’re pretty tough, which makes them a good choice for our area.
Do homeowners prefer solar to other forms of renewable energy?
I’ve found that they do, for a number of reasons. Overall, solar equipment is more stable. Without moving energy-generation parts—as compared to wind turbines, which are subject to constant movement—there’s no need for major maintenance. That’s a long-term cost benefit. Additionally, systems with moving parts tend to make noise, so neighbors are often more accepting of solar panels next door than windmills. The unobtrusiveness of solar tends to be more socially acceptable.
I’ve lived on Martha’s Vineyard my whole life, and while it’s extremely unique in many ways, it retains a homegrown-type feel. Residents here are interested in renewable energy, but they want to retain the beautiful aesthetics that make the island distinctive. We make that a priority here and at customers’ homes all over the Northeast, which is how we’ve installed more than a hundred different types of systems on homes on the island itself, and more on the cape.
Are there ever situations where you advise the homeowner not to install solar panels?
Absolutely. In order to work efficiently, the panels have to be able to access the sun’s rays. We recommend that homeowners create a clear perimeter around the panels by removing overhanging limbs and such, but sometimes an entire tree would have to be removed. Or, if we’re talking about installation on a roof, the roof should be structurally sound. If it’s not, I’d advise the homeowner to make repairs before installing panels.
How can the average homeowner afford the initial cost of installation?
While solar has a significant start-up cost, its long-term payoff is what counts. For example, when I started Fullers Energy, I decided to use my own home to showcase the panels. I was so convinced of the energy payoff that I chose to invest my children’s college fund in the installation! What I saved monthly on utility bills, I used to repay the funds. On average, a 14 percent utility savings translates into the system paying itself off in an average of five years. That’s a pretty good return—better than investing in a long-term CD.
What advice do you have for customers on making the investment more affordable?
A number of cost-saving options are available. The customer should ask the solar installer about the availability of federal, state, and local incentives. Now, these incentives are subject to change, but they offer real savings. Some states permit homeowners to sell the excess energy they generate to the grid, and some homeowners can earn special energy “credits” that they can later sell on the open market. A good solar contractor will be able to tell you what is available in your area and how you can take advantage of it.
Another option available in some areas is the use of a power purchase agreement (PPA) that allows homeowners to lease the solar equipment. We don’t offer PPAs at Fullers Energy because I feel that the equipment can occasionally be a bit dated and therefore less effective, but it’s certainly an option.
Local banks and lending companies are often open to the idea of financing solar installation, so interested homeowners should give their bankers a call to find out what kind of financing terms are available.
What advice do you have for homeowners who would like to install solar panels?
Their first step should be to contact a couple of local solar integrators to come out and perform a free site assessment. Some companies look at the site only by satellite from their computers, but I firmly believe that going out in person is in the best interest of the customer. That’s what we do, and this allows us to discuss the customer’s specific needs and outline different options. A personal touch makes all the difference.