Solar Power Experiences & Advancements (first published in the April 2021 Equiery)
By Katherine O. Rizzo & Kimberly K. Egan

It has been five years since we last polled Equiery readers about solar power… and a lot has changed since then. Established companies have bought up start up entities, regulators have loosened restrictions, solar technology has advanced significantly, and new solar products have come on-line. Costs have also dropped.

The three biggest changes in the last five years are:
• Prices have dropped over 45% since 2014;
• Maryland now permits residential solar batteries to store energy for later use;
• Solar power manufacturers have introduced solar roofing tiles to replace more cumbersome solar panels.

We decided that with so many changes in the solar marketplace, it was time to send out a new survey. This time, we asked readers about reliability, costs, energy production, energy storage, and more. We also asked readers who don’t have solar power to tell us why not.

Interestingly, 59.6% of our survey participants do not have solar power on their properties with 40.4% saying they do have solar power.

Solar Placement & Packages
Of the 40.4% survey participants who said they do have solar power, 55% have panels on their homes while 20% have panels on their barns. Ten percent have panels on farm outbuildings, and 5% have them on indoor arenas. Another 5% have stand-alone panels, and 5% clicked “other.”

The majority (80%) of participants with solar power installed the systems themselves while 20% inherited solar power when purchasing their property. Most (56.3%) participants installed their system after our 2016 survey was published with 43.7% installing before 2016. The earliest installation of solar power for our survey participants was 2013.

In terms of types of contracts, 43.8% signed a purchase agreement, which means they purchased the panels outright and are responsible for the maintenance. The next most popular type of contract was a lease agreement, with 31.3%, which means the lessee pays a fixed rent in return for the right to use the solar system and to recoup the savings of any excess energy the system generates.

Six point three percent have a pre-paid power purchase agreement, which means that instead of renting the system or buying the system, the person agrees to buy the power generated by the system and pays an up-front payment to cover estimated energy needs over the term of the agreement. Under this agreement, the person has no monthly obligations except for any energy used in excess of that generated by the system.

And finally, another 6.3% have a non-prepaid power purchase agreement. This means the person agrees to pay for the power it uses from the system each month at a pre-set price. For both of these power purchase agreement models, the homeowner buys future power at today’s rates, which results in substantial savings.

Several participants clicked “other” with one participant saying there was no cost to them with an agreement to maintain the system for 20 years. Another participant stated they did not sign any sort of agreement or contract.

Solar Providers
Our survey participants reported that they have solar power systems installed by the following companies American Solar Company, Aurora Energy, Solar City (now Tesla), Solar Run, Sungevity and Paradise Energy. The majority (78.5%) of participants used Solar City/Tesla.

We should note that there are many more options for solar power than just the companies listed above. Indeed, there are over 90 solar installation companies in Maryland, and 26% of our survey respondents did not tell us which one of those 90+ options they used.

Because there are so many options for installers and so many options for financing, several survey participants recommended that anyone shopping for solar power do plenty of research to find the plan and the provider that works best for them.

Customer Satisfaction
Overall, 78.9% of participants with solar power said they are happy with their system with 55.6% stating they would purchase again with the same vendor and same contract terms. A small percentage (5.6%) stated they would use the same vendor again but with different contract terms.

Aurora Energy, Paradise Energy, Sun Run and Sungevity all had positive reviews with participants saying they were both happy with the vendor and happy with their contract terms.

Solar City/Tesla had mixed reviews, with 60% stating they were happy with the company and 40% stating they were unhappy. Those who said they were unhappy, however, were not unhappy with the system itself, but rather, with customer service or with communication challenges.

In general, 16.7% of participants stated that if they had to do it again, they would install using a different vendor. Twenty-two point two percent stated they would not purchase solar power again.

Generating Power
The purpose of installing solar power is to save money on electrical expenses for the home and/or farm in addition to creating and using an environmentally clean energy source. But does it work? Seventy-seven point eight percent of survey participants say yes!

Under peak solar conditions, most participants said their systems generate more power than they use, which allows them to sell power back to the grid.

Half of the participants with solar said they produce more than their energy needs for their properties, while the other half said they produce close too 100% of their needs. A few participants said they wish they had more panels in order to produce more energy as their current systems can only power lights versus additional items such as stall fans.

Storing Power
One of the more recent changes in Maryland is the State now allows residential solar storage batteries. Storage batteries allow homeowners to store energy in their batteries for later use, whether at night or during a power outage. Many roof-top systems can generate enough power, under peak conditions, to run the house, charge the batteries, and still have power left over to sell back to the grid.

Storage batteries are smaller than many generators and can be designed to take up very little floor space. They must be installed in a place protected from the elements, most often in a basement or a garage. Many companies manufacture solar batteries, one of the most popular, again, being Solar City/Tesla. Batteries can be purchased after the initial system is installed, or they can be designed into the system at the outset.

The majority (75%) of our solar power participants do not currently have storage batteries with 66.7% of those wanting to know more about them. For the 25% who do have storage batteries, all stated they are located inside a home or other building on the property.

Why Not Solar?
A majority of survey participants said they do not currently have solar power on their property, and of those, 60.7% stated they thought it was too expensive. A minority (14.3%) had concerns about reliability, and an additional 10.7% said they did not have enough information to make a decision on installing solar power or not. No survey participants clicked the “lack of space” option. Fourteen percent of the participants who don’t have solar power selected “other” as the reason.

The participants who chose “other” expressed concern about safety generally and possible roof damage specifically. Others felt that solar companies made unrealistic promises.

Two participants said they were concerned about “solar farming” taking over agricultural land and open green space. One participant suggested adding solar systems to buildings within cities and suburbs instead of creating solar farming in agricultural reserves.

Industrial-sized solar power generating facilities, aka “solar farms,” are permitted in Maryland, and Maryland generates about 4% of its energy from solar power. Each county has its own zoning rules about where commercial solar installations can be located and what restrictions apply to their operations.

There has been recent legislative activity in Montgomery and Howard Counties on land use issues for solar farms, and at the State level on net metering, which activities we discuss in more detail in this month’s Government Relations column: https://equiery.com/mhc-government-relations-committee-report-3/

Of those who do not currently have solar power, 64.3% said they would consider adding it to their property while 25% said “possibly” and 10.7% said no.

In general, most participants who do not currently have solar power want clear information and details on the actual cost of the system throughout its life span as well as more information on reliability.

Solar Benefits
The general consensus when it comes to the benefits of solar power is that the saved energy costs in terms of reducing utility bills is worth the installation. Many participants also stated that using solar makes them feel better about their carbon footprint and the benefits to the planet as a whole.

In addition, there are several grant programs here in Maryland that will help with costs of installation as well as tax incentives at the federal level for those who use solar power. For more information on how to finance solar power on your property, go to https://www.energysage.com/solar/financing/

Additional Links
Maryland Energy Administration
https://energy.maryland.gov/Pages/Info/renewable/solar.aspx

The Equiery’s April 2016 Solar Article
http://equiery.com/going-green-solar-power/

Testimonials from Solar Power Users

Brooke Grove Farm
After Brooke Grove Farm (Montgomery Count) lost its indoor during the 2010 “snowmaggedon,” owner Dr. Charles Mess decided that the new indoor would be better than the old. This included “going green” as much as possible, which meant utilizing the massive roof to produce energy for the farm. His 52 panel 10.92 kW system, installed by the now defunct Greenspring Energy Company, was manufactured by Schuco Solar Electric System. The system has provided most of the farm’s entire electrical needs, virtually eliminating monthly electrical bills. In 2010, the system cost $58,000 to install, which was reduced by approximately $30,000 in federal, state and county tax credits and/or grants. Now ten years old, the system has only needed servicing once, and Dr. Mess was able to easily find another company to do so.

Brave Venture Farm
There are 99 solar panels on one side of the 110-foot barn at Brave Venture Farm (Carroll County) that were installed by American Solar Company. “Excellent installation, easily monitored on computer and they service and maintain,” said Jane Sachetti. “We got a 50% tax credit several years ago on the entire purchase price and they have been well worth the investment. BGE actually pays us at the end of each year.” The system on the barn also powers Sachetti’s 6,000 square foot home. “American Solar provides a lifetime guarantee,” she added saying that the one time she needed a repair, the company came out within 24 hours to fix. Sachetti recommends owning the panels outright versus leasing them.

Dressage At Sundown
Installed by Solar City, now Tesla, in June 2014, the panels at Dressage at Sundown (Montgomery County) are located on the house only and produce more energy than the residence needs. “I don’t regret what we did, but I would sure like to expand the system,” said Paul Schopf. “Now, I see that doing so is much more complicated.”

Waredaca
The solar panels at Waredaca (Montgomery County) were installed by Aurora Energy in November of 2019. Robert Butts reported, “we did not see significant savings until spring, but have been very pleased with the performance since then.” Butts purchased the panels by taking advantage of a USDA grant program. “Familiarity with the grant program was one of the reasons we went with Aurora, and they did not disappoint. We are very pleased with the process and the outcome,” Butts added.

Woodvale Farm
Solar was always part of Joe Herzog’s bigger plan to continually upgrade Woodvale Farm (Frederick County) with environmentally friendly and fiscally prudent practices and systems. Working with Paradise Energy Solutions, a 270 panel, 87.75 kW system was installed on the indoor, producing 99,036 kW annually, or 101% of the farms energy needs, which meant linking together the farm’s four separate meters. Being able to link the meters to one solar system was critical for Joe: “The other companies kind of hemmed and hawed a bit and said ‘well we’re not sure that we can do that’ and Paradise, basically from the get-go, said ‘we do this all the time.’” 71% of the installation cost was covered by federal and state tax credits and grants, and Joe expects to break even on the installation costs after six years.