Reconsidering solar power

Is solar power practical for New England? Reconsidering the issue during a home renovation.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor
In the renovation of Sheep Dog Hollow, Alexandra Marks is now considering putting solar panels on the roof of the barn.

When we first decided to renovate Sheep Dog Hollow in a green and economically practical manner, we realized we had to make a vital decision early and upfront: solar energy vs. geothermal.

As naive as I was about the state of green building, I did know that each was significantly more expensive than a traditional oil or gas boiler, and we couldn’t afford both. I also knew that once stung by the sudden spike in oil prices in 2008, I never wanted to be beholden to an oil company if I didn’t have to.

On a personal level, that’s because the people at my local oil company were so rude when I tried to talk to them about it. (I’m sure they were under lots of pressure, but still.)On a more principled level, I believe that too much human suffering is caused by the geopolitical machinations over oil.

I knew nothing about geothermal energy and a little bit about solar, including the fact that it needs sunshine to work and that New England is cloudy. I had heard (somewhere) that while solar in New England was great for generating hot water and keeping the lights on, it still wasn’t ready for prime time – heating a whole home particularly during a frigid New England winter when “all out of doors looked darkly in” (apologies to Mr. Frost.)

I confess, I didn’t research solar beyond that and simply plunged into learning about geothermal. I was so charmed by the idea of heating our house from the warmth of the ground beneath my feet and the generous federal and state tax incentives (there’s even a stimulus bill rebate available in some states) that I opted for geothermal.

Then, of course, I had to convince Martin – who first bellowed “absolutely not!” – that the high initial upfront costs were worth it. But that’s another story.

Having succeeded with Martin, I simply put solar out of my mind, figuring that I’d never be able to convince him to invest in both geothermal and solar. That would definitely have broken our budget.

Finally, here’s the point. Months later, with our geothermal wells dug and the system almost finished inside the house, Martin handed me our local monthly paper saying, “You have to read this.” The headline: “BeFree Solar Helps Residents Go Solar.” [pdf] The gist of the article was that a solar lease program was now available, which made it possible to get a complete solar system with no money upfront and pay the same or less than one currently does to the local electric utility.

Several of my neighbors were singing the program's praises, saying they paid not an extra penny out of their own pockets, are now getting 100 percent of their electricity from the panels on their roof, and are also feeding extra watts back into the power grid – and getting paid for that.

I’d heard of such programs out in the sunny West and Southwest, but not in New England. So, I called BeFree Solar to check it out and got an earful about why solar is better than geothermal – even in New England.

That will be the subject of my next post.

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week – usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays – about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. Click here to find all her blog posts and articles.

Alex is currently working on nonfiction book about the green renovation of Sheep Dog Hollow. She is also writing a fictional account. At this point, she’s not sure whichwill have the happy ending. Before this project, she worked for The Christian Science Monitor for most of the past 20 years, covering everything from healthcare to politicians.

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