Solar helps empower Charleston couple

From the Charleston Gazette's February 25 edition:

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Mary Beth Mangus hasn't spent any money on gasoline this year.

The local chiropractor drives an all-electric Nissan Leaf to work every day.

While gas prices rose 20 to 30 cents per gallon throughout the state last week, Mangus did not visit a gas station once to refuel.

In December, Mangus and her husband, Ed Weber, had an electric vehicle-charging station installed by Mountain View Solar at their Charleston home. Soon after, solar panels adorned their home's roof.

"We have a commitment to being as kind to the environment as possible to reduce our carbon footprint," said Weber, an architect. "It's a lifestyle choice. To make our own power is important to us."

Mangus said the Leaf is a perfect commuter car, although she can't take it on longer trips. When the car is 100 percent charged, it can travel about 100 miles — but the manufacturers recommend charging the car to 80 percent to travel 80 miles. Hauling the 5-door hatchback up hills also consumes a lot of the car's battery, she said.

Despite being limited in distance traveling, Mangus said driving the bright blue electric car is worth eliminating her visits to the pump. It costs $3.50 to fully charge the Leaf. A gallon of gas cost $3.79 entering the weekend at most gas stations around Charleston.

The couple's vehicle charging station is the first project of its kind for Mountain View Solar. The company, headquartered in Berkeley Springs, recently placed sales representatives in Charleston, Morgantown and Martinsburg, said Lisa Mitchell, Charleston's sales consultant.

The Charleston area has seen more interest from its residents, she said, because the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically in the past couple of years.

During 2011, the price dropped by 50 percent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The U.S. solar energy market grew 140 percent in the third quarter of 2011 over the same quarter last year, according to SEIA, making it one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy.

A few years ago, residential builders, brothers Pete and Mike McKechniv –who also drives a Leaf — started building more energy-efficient homes once the construction industry took a downturn, Mitchell said.

In 2009, the brothers created Mountain View Solar to focus completely on solar. The company installs photovoltaic systems on residential and commercial buildings as well as car charging stations. A company that initially had three staff members now has 25 full-time employees and has completed 100 residential installations in 12 West Virginia counties, Mitchell said.

Mountain View Solar uses SolarWorld American-made panels, which are placed on a person's roof or property. The 39-inches-wide by 65-and-a-half-inches-long panels produce electricity that is tied through electrical wiring directly from his or her electric panel box, or a grid. The electricity feeds into an inverter that converts the DC current the panels generate to an AC current, which the home runs on, Mitchell said.

When the panels produce more electricity than the home consumes, the new net meter — the electric company replaces the meter when a building gets solar panels — will run backward to generate a credit for future use.

"If you're gone on a bright, sunny day and your meter is running backward 10 credits, then when you come home in the evening and switch your light switch on, the first 10 credits that runs forward is free," Mitchell said.

Selling solar renewable energy credits is one advantage a solar panel owner has, Mitchell said. The excess energy a home produces is sold on the open market like a commodity. Power companies then purchase the solar renewable energy credits and the homeowner will get a check in the mail for renewable solar, Mitchell said.

"One of the interesting aspects about solar is it's the kind of energy you can own. When you put solar panels on your roof, you own the product that is producing your electricity," Mitchell said. "When you're getting it through the power lines, you're paying for the use of it. It helps you own your own energy source."

The payback from federal and state tax credits is another advantage to owning solar panels, Weber said.

The federal tax credit for solar panels is 30 percent, Mitchell said. The state tax credit varies case-by-case and while the federal and state tax credits do not pay for the entire expense, they will pay for about 40 percent, she said.

An average system gross cost, before tax credits, is about $30,000 for 18 solar pane

ls and a car charging station, Mitchell said. From that, $9,000 will be paid in federal tax credit. With state tax credits subtracted too, the net cost for the individual will be about $11,000, she said.

"There's not many ways you can spend money on your home that the government is going to pay 40 percent of it," Mitchell said. "Some people don't install solar panels because they have to come up with the remaining 60 percent."

The 12 235-watt solar panels Mountain View Solar installed on Weber's roof will result in a payback in nine years because of tax credits, he said.

"Look at the total price. If you're in your home for the long term, look at the credits available and see if you can get a payback in less than 10 years. If so, it's worth it," Weber said.

Those tax credits won't last forever, said Sarah Halstead, executive director of West Virginia GreenWorks. Solar — and other forms of renewable energy — is an important new concept, she said. Halstead said she does support the use of solar panels, if the home is well insulated and not leaky.

"It's like eye candy. You see solar panels on your neighbor's house you think, 'they're doing it, I can do it too.' It warms people up to the idea of renewable energy but as far as knocking down your power bill, it's harder to do that with an existing bill depending on how leaky their home is," Halstead said. "They should consider solar if their house is insulated and ventilated properly."

The amount of money solar panel users can save depends on a couple factors, Mitchell said. The number of people living in a home, how conservative they are in their energy use and how many panels are installed affect the overall savings, she said.

Weber said the solar panels on his home account for 22 percent of his and Mangus' electric needs — almost a fourth of their total electric demand. And because you can add solar panels on as your budget allows, Mitchell said, it's not all or nothing from the beginning.

"We definitely have more room on the garage [for more solar panels]," Weber said. "Absolutely we'd like to add more."

The homes of the future will incorporate solar and renewable energy building more, Halstead said. Whole neighborhoods will be designed to share power sources, a sustainable building concept she is working on, she said.

"The existing panels that we have are good but as more and more people buy into solar, the pricing is going to come down, the research is going to be better, and soon it'll be a no-brainer and every home will have them," Halstead said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.work…@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.