Of Solar-Powered Raspberries and Organic Electricity
I am not someone who is usually obsessed with my energy consumption. Our house is pretty tight and well-insulated, and we use a relatively modest amount of electricity and fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.
Nonetheless, like a first-time gardener who goes out to his garden several times a day to see if his peas have sprouted or his raspberries have started to ripen, I have over the past month gone out several times a day to check my electric meter – or, rather, meters. I do this not so much to check our electricity consumption, but even more, to watch the energy usage meter run backwards. It seems like magic, but it’s real.
The reason for this is that we are one of 133 homes and businesses in Wellfleet that participated in last year’s round of the state program known as Solarize Massachusetts. Now in its fourth year, the goal of Solarize Massachusetts is to make available and affordable small-scale solar energy systems, using the latest photo-voltaic, or PV panel technology. Each year a small number of towns and cities qualifies to participate in the program, which is organized by local volunteers who publicize the program and hold informational meetings. Each town negotiates with one or more solar panel installers, and the pricing is based on a tier system, so that the more people who sign up to have these systems installed, the less the per kilowatt price for the system. In addition, through a combination of rebates from the Massachusetts Clean Energy and state and federal tax credits, our system’s eventual cost will be about 50% of the original price, with an estimated payback period of five to six years.
Does it work? Ours is a relatively modest system, composed of nine high-efficiency PV panels, designed to produce somewhat more electricity than our average annual consumption. The system was installed on September 28, and over the first month, it has produced over 200 kWh of energy. On the north side of our house are a series meters and displays that register the system’s performance, and this is what I go out to see on an almost daily basis. There’s a graph which shows, on an hourly basis, how much power the system is currently producing, as well as the total daily output. There’s also a system production meter that shows the cumulative output of the system since its installation. But the one that really blows my mind is the NSTAR meter itself. Like ordinary electric meters, it shows the cumulative household consumption that appears on our monthly bill. The difference is that, on most days, with the system running, this meter actually goes backward. Currently our cumulative electricity usage reads minus 28 kWh. That is, our system has produced in one month 28 kWh more than our usage. A modest amount to be sure, but like the United States itself we have suddenly gone from being a long-time energy importer, to an energy exporter, selling energy back to the grid – except that we’re doing it with clean – one might almost say organic - energy.
As I said, it seems like magic to watch the meter run backwards, as magic as the raspberries that are still ripening in our garden in late October – or the way that steam-powered trains must have seemed like magic to those first intrepid rail passengers. But just as the experience of train travel soon became commonplace, the real magic will take place when solar and other forms of clean, renewable energy become so common that they are taken for granted.