The Easy Cash in Solar Energy

In years past, solar photovoltaic panels seemed to be either a deep-green status symbol for well-heeled environmental zealots or an off-the-grid must for survivalists. Now, solar is simply for anyone who wants to save money. Jesse Fuller of Fullers Energy is blunt about the financial upside: “If everybody knew how good an investment solar is, many more people would do it....It’s not just about going green.”

A little over a year ago, Jesse and his brother, Robert Fuller Jr., began Fullers Energy, based in Oak Bluffs and New Jersey, to focus exclusively on solar. “We consider ourselves solar geeks,” says Jesse. “I see Martha’s Vineyard as a very progressive community....We already have a natural inclination to think about solar here.” Fullers Energy is one of several firms on the Vineyard that sell solar products and is a full-service “solar integrator,” taking care of everything from permitting to installation.

The first step to solar is finding out if your roof has enough sun. Fullers uses a variety of measures, including a gizmo called a Solmetric SunEye, to determine if your “solar access” is adequate. Considerations such as trees, what direction your roof faces, and the pitch of your roof all affect solar efficiency. “I’d love to sell everybody solar,” says Jesse, “but I’m not going to sell you solar if you’re not going to get a good-enough return on your investment.”

If your roof isn’t suitable, panels can also be installed on the ground in about 300 to 500 square feet; in that case, direction and pitch are optimized, and maintenance is easy (“like cleaning windows”).

When the system is up and running, usually in about two months, Fullers offers free lifetime online monitoring. “Someone can have a house on the Vineyard, live in New York, and check their system in real time,” says Jesse. If something is amiss, whether you’re at home or away, the monitoring generates a “trouble call” e-mail, which Jesse says is important because “if something stops working, that’s money you’re losing.”

Three factors combine for a terrific return on an investment in solar photovoltaics (solar hot water systems can also be cost-effective): (1) savings versus the high cost of conventional energy, (2) state and federal rebates that encourage alternative energy, and (3) perhaps most significantly, Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). Basically, Massachusetts and some other states require utilities to purchase a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources; by generating renewable electricity, a homeowner with a solar array gets credits (SRECs) that sell for between $300 and $550 each, and a five-kilowatt system with no shade generates about six and a half of them a year. Jesse says, “Just SRECs alone will pay off the majority of your system.”

The bottom line, according to Jesse, is that a typical residential solar array that costs between $30,000 and $50,000 returns 9 to 11 percent annually. For comparison, the five-year return for the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 2.45 percent (as reported by Morningstar on September 5, 2012), and Island banks are offering 0.2 percent on money-market accounts and six-month CDs. Jesse says his clients’ total payoff time (without financing) is about four-and-a-half to five years.

Incidentally, if you’re uncomfortable with government largesse for the renewables industry, rest assured that the conventional energy industry (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear) also receives substantial state and federal taxpayer charity; however, those subsidies go to the industry, not directly to the consumer.

Of course, cleaner, locally produced energy is also a benefit. “The more money my company makes,” Jesse says, “the more we help the world – it feels pretty good.”

Q: What if you don’t have $30,000-plus to spend on a solar system, and you can’t get a loan?

A: West Tisbury’s South Mountain Company, which has installed about half of all the solar systems on the Island, has been the largest purveyor of solar as a part of its design/build mission. As another full-service solar integrator, it offers a variety of leasing as well as buying agreements. South Mountain’s Energy Services Manager Rob Meyers says with so many options out there, it’s critical for customers to compare terms and really know the details, including equipment.

Fullers Energy also highlights “zero-down” options that involve putting panels on your roof and selling you the energy at a discount in what is called a “power purchase agreement.” Jesse says, “We basically become your electric supplier.” Savings can be 25 percent, or 75 percent with pre-payment. Jesse notes that buying a system is generally a better investment for the homeowner, even if you have to finance your system, and Fullers has worked with Island banks to help consumers obtain financing, usually via a home-equity loan.