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A Bright Idea

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By NICOLE ZEMA
nzema@thewakullanews.net

Going solar is a step in the bright direction for Eugene and Donna Watkins.
“Everyone talks about working toward energy independence, and this is a good start,” Eugene said, standing in the shade of their 20 ground-mounted solar panels at their 14-acre property in Ivan.
Simpler Solar of Tallahassee installed the panels in October 2016. Their first power bill was about $13.
“The first bill was a little unbelievable to me,” Donna said. “I kept looking at it, thinking they made a mistake.”
The Watkins are Talquin Electric Cooperative customers. While they aren’t exactly “off the grid,” their panels can produce up to 7,100 watts on a bright day – enough to power their house, with leftover energy flowing back to the grid. On dark and rainy days, more electricity will come from the grid.
“People get all excited because they think we’re off the grid,” Donna said, laughing. “But this is not a survivalist, off-the-grid sort of crusade. It’s about doing the right thing, not saying, ‘we don’t need you’ to utility companies. The more people who do this, the cheaper it will become, and the more it will be available to everyone else.”
Solar power has drastically dropped in price over the decades. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the price of one solar watt in 1977 was $76.67. By 2013 it was a fraction of that, at 74 cents per watt.
The Watkins’ solar panel unit stands peacefully in the pasture where Donna’s horses used to graze.
“While we’re standing here, it’s producing 4,800 watts,” Eugene said, pointing to the digital face of Sunny Boy, the system’s inverter. “But you see nothing, and you hear nothing. A generator has so many moving parts, and creates exhaust. This is just amazing to me – there’s nothing moving, just electricity.”
It was a slightly overcast day. Suddenly the sun peeked out behind the clouds. Sunny Boy‘s wattage jumped to 6,000, and then climbed to 6,500 watts a minute later.
“We can be drawing electricity for our dryer, but if we’re making more than our dryer needs, we’re still sending power to the grid,” Donna said.
The Watkins considered solar when they built their house in the 1990s.
“It was expensive, and we always thought in terms of putting it on the roof, and Eugene didn’t like that idea at all,” Donna said. “But in the last year we started seriously considering it.”
“The price has come down in the last 20 years, and I’ve read some estimates it’s expected to come down another 40 percent in the next two years,” Eugene said.
Because the panels are ground-mounted, they can be easily cleaned with a mop and water.
“I didn’t want to worry about penetrations in the roof,” Eugene said.
The open pasture offers direct sunlight to the unit. Eugene said the glass panels are highly durable.
“It’s supposed to be able to withstand small hail,” he said. Eugene grounded the system to prevent lightning damage.
Al Simpler, founder and CEO of Simpler Solar who installed the system, said most residential customers have roof-mounted solar systems. The Watkins’ ground-mounted unit seems to outperform the traditional roof systems.
“We actually saw more power coming out of their solar system than the rated output when we first hooked it up,” he said.
While their panels were rated for a 6,400-watt production, up to 7,100 watts was produced.
“Wow, we have a bonus program here!” Simpler said, adding that a combination of factors makes the Watkins’ system so successful. “It’s a great thing to see a solar system out-produce its rated power.”
Simpler said his company tries to be conservative in their electricity-production forecast for new customers.
“And then you see people jump up and down for joy,” he said. “It’s a very good thing when they are running to go get electric bill instead of hiding from it.”
While the savings show up immediately on utility bills, potential customers might wonder how much it costs to get started.

COST

The Watkins paid Simpler Solar $20,185 for the system, which included installation of the 20 solar panels, inverter, net meter and wooden ground-mount infrastructure. The system qualifies for a 30 percent federal credit at tax time, which equates to a $6,056 rebate.
“We’re guessing we will recoup our money after 10 years, if everything goes well,” Donna said. “We will have paid for this in savings on our utilities. The reason I supported it, it’s not so much about getting our money back, but we believe in clean energy, and it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Either you support it or you don’t. And we have the perfect place for it. Even if we don’t get our money back in 10 years, say it takes 12, it was still the right thing to do.”
The Watkins have always been light with their expenditures. They are both retired. Eugene worked for the U.S. Forest Service and Donna retired from Florida State Parks.
“We’re simple people and we like simple things,” Donna said. “There are ways people can lease the panels. But outright buying the panels was a piece of cake.”
Energy usage on past bills is used to calculate the size a new customer would need.
“We probably use less electricity on average than most people do,” Eugene said. “But typically winter bills are around $80 because we have wood stove. In summer, typical bills are between $140 and $160. If your bills are higher than that, you probably need a bigger system.”
While the Watkins’ first power bill was around $13, their next power bill was closer to $26. It was a cloudier, rainier month.
But what happens if the grid goes down completely?

POWER OUTAGE

The panels do not work like an electric generator during a power outage. While batteries are available for solar systems, the Watkins use a net meter.
“If the grid does go down, the inverter shuts off power to the grid,” Eugene said. “But we still have two receptacles to plug our fridge into during the day. So if the grid’s down, we can still run our refrigerator.”
The Watkins cannot completely rely on solar energy in an outage, “But it does give us a little reassurance, if the sun is shining,” Donna said. “I think the people who advocate for solar will tell you it will never completely replace electricity. It’s just one of many tools in the toolbox. This is one way we can reduce greenhouse gases. It’s not the end-all, be-all answer, but it’s one of many tools we can use to lighten our footprint on the planet.”
Simpler Solar provides another tool to help individuals make smarter energy-consumption choices.

SOFTWARE

While most people check social media and emails throughout the day, the Watkins check on their energy production with Simpler Solar’s user-friendly apps.
Eugene opened his laptop in their brightly lit kitchen. Their homepage opened to graphs showing energy production by the hour, day, week and month.
“This is how much CO2 was avoided, and this is how much energy we saved,” Eugene said, pointing to the blue vertical lines. “In November we did better than average, in December it will a little lower. Hour by hour, you know when it got cloudy – there’s a cloud there, and a cloud there.”
“He probably checks it three or four times a day,” Donna said. “And here’s my smartphone app.”
Her phone displayed a mobile-friendly version of the same data. They can even check energy production while on vacation. By having it in her pocket, Donna said she makes wiser decisions about their own consumption.
“It makes you think twice – do I really need to do a load of laundry or run the dishwasher?”
A personal solar energy report is sent to their email every day after midnight.
But one must ask – does the success of solar give utility companies a shock?

AMENDMENT 1

A utility-supported measure to put restrictions on solar in the state of Florida was defeated in November’s general election. Many saw the amendment as an attempt to deceive voters into thinking they are voting to support solar power initiatives, while it actually was an attempt by several power companies to protect their bottom line from consumers who use solar.
However, Talquin was not one of the utilities backing the amendment. The Watkins said they experienced excellent communication and support from their solar team.
“As soon as our permit was approved by the Wakulla County Building Department, (Talquin) had our meter in the next day,” Eugene said.
Solar generation was featured in the most recent edition of Talquin’s publication The Current.
“Talquin is currently forming and training a team of employees that will be able to provide consultation to our members who are considering residential scale solar installations,” The Current reported. “This team will receive the same certification as most solar installation contractors from the Florida Solar Energy Center. Our team will be able to provide personal design assistance and economic analysis at no charge to our members.”
The cooperative is also evaluating sites for the installation of utility-scale solar installations.
Simpler Solar offers free consultations to potential customers. The Watkins have a 25-year warranty on solar panels, and 10-year warranty on Sunny Boy the inverter.
Al Simpler said he was the first civilian in the U.S. to place an order for photovoltaic technology, and start a solar business. Witnessing evolution of the technology, and benefit to customers, has been a rewarding experience.
“I remember the smile on the customers’ faces – the expression when they see their meter start going backwards,” Simpler said. “We put solar in an old man’s well pump. When water started pouring out of a pipe on the ground, he danced in it in his boots.”
It was, he said, something to see.