BENNINGTON -- While fossil fuels could conceivably become too expensive to burn within our lifetime, Charles and Linda Putney's supply of electricity should be good for the next five to six billion years.
Courtesy of improvements in technology and federal and state incentives funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the west end couple recently jumped on the solar photovoltaic (PV) bandwagon -- with no regrets and only one minor lamentation.
"It looks like a drive-in theater," said Linda of the 5.6-kilowatt PV array, recently installed in a clear field behind the couple's home. (There are no current plans for a nightly feature.) From the time the panels went live Aug. 9 to this past Saturday afternoon, the Putneys had produced 1,413 kilowatt-hours of energy, which is fed back into the grid offsetting their monthly electricity bill.
With their small-scale array, the Putneys joined a growing number of residences, commercial properties, farms, and municipalities in the area now employing solar. Nationwide in 2011, for the fourth-straight year, solar power proved the fastest-growing source of electricity in the United States according to the Solar Electric Power Association.
What's the draw?
"When Linda brings these projects up, I look at the cost-effectiveness," said Charles. Their PV system is estimated to produce 8,926 kWh annually, supplying the bulk of the Putneys' electricity needs and paying for itself within the span of about 13 years. Installed by Solar Pro of Arlington, the PV array utilizes Williston-based AllEarth Renewables' AllSun Tracker, a system that allows the array to follow the sun's arc through the sky -- boosting efficiency 30 to 40 percent.
Smart system in bad weather
At night or in winds above 90 miles per hour, the panel flattens out horizontally. The tracker system can also "shake off" collected snow. "If we stand here long enough you can see it move," said Charles. The system can also produce energy reports and connect with other installations allowing the user to compare and tweak their settings for maximum power generation.
The Putneys' solar array came on the heels of other "green" improvements including a 2009 geothermal installation, and a solar hot water system at a rental property they own on School Street, which also received a new pellet boiler over the summer. The efficiency upgrades began with the basics: an energy audit prompted air sealing and added insulation in the walls and basement of the Putneys' home, parts of which date back to the 1790s.
The motivation is multifold: in addition to cost savings, the use of local Vermont contractors, and a reduced carbon footprint, "for us it was comfort," said Linda. "I like my creature comforts." The geothermal system saved about $1,500 in annual heating costs while providing a more even, comfortable heat in the winter and adding central air in the summer.
And Charles no longer has to cut, split and stack three cords of wood every season. "It is still expensive to do. ... There's an upfront cost," he acknowledges, but "it's a long-term investment in the home."
While the School Street upgrades were not eligible for federal rebates because it is a rental property, all the improvements otherwise qualified for federal income tax credits funded by the 2009 stimulus, which earmarked $10.8 billion for energy efficient improvements to residences and alternative energy equipment and vehicles.
The state of Vermont itself received $22 million in stimulus funds for renewable energy and energy efficiency through the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, which provides additional state incentives (like a 10 percent rebate for the Putneys' solar array.)
As an added perk under state bill H. 56, the Vermont Energy Act of 2011, customers who produce solar power are credited at a rate six cents above the base residential cost per kWh from the utility. (The legislation was modeled after Green Mountain Power's preexisting SolarGMP net metering program.)
Charles estimated the PV array had produced $295 since going live in August, based upon that incentivized rate small-scale solar producers receive.
So what's next? "An electric car, maybe, but that'll be awhile," said Linda. "I do drive a Prius and I like it."
More immediate than all-electric transportation, perhaps, could be a PV array for Oldcastle Theater Company. President of Oldcastle's board of trustees, Charles said the biggest expense for the relocated theater -- behind personnel, like any business -- would be heating and electricity costs.
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