With the exuberance of a hyperactive 8-year old, Andrew Bangert shows off his toys. But Bangert is not your average 8-year old. First of all, he's 39. Second, his toys aren't powered by double A batteries; they're powered by the sun. But oh, how he loves them.
'You've got to see my meter spin backwards,' exclaims Bangert, pointing to a small gray box with a CD-size disk sticking out of the front.
A certified master electrician and self-described 'solar nerd,' Bangert has a solar-powered golf cart and solar-powered push and riding lawnmowers. He also has a solar hot-water heater and solar panels on his roof and in his yard that generate about half his home's electricity. A meter measures his usage, and at the moment it's spinning forward ' barely.
The sun is behind a cloud, so he's not generating as much power as his house is using. But as the sun re-emerges, the disk starts spinning furiously backwards. This means he's generating more power than he's using, and selling the excess back to the grid, in his case to Alliant Energy.
Though still a rarity, meters powered by photovoltaic solar cells can be found in a growing number of area homes. According to Don Wichert of the nonprofit Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation, 98 Wisconsin homeowners received approval to install solar electric systems during the fiscal year ending June 30, a 59% increase over the previous year. Currently, Madison Gas & Electric has more than 30 customers with solar electric systems; Alliant has more than 20.
'Most people [who install] these systems right now do it because they believe it is right thing to do,' explains Bangert, a solar designer and installer with H&H Electric. 'It's fun to watch your meter run backwards, and it's fun to see your utility bills go down.'
The problem is that solar power still costs more money than it saves, at least in the short term ' which is, for most consumers, a deal breaker. Says Bangert, 'It's unfortunate that it's such an expensive source of electricity.'
In fact, it's very expensive. A photovoltaic solar power system costs between $7.50 and $10 per watt, or up to $10,000 per kilowatt. A 1-kilowatt system will produce around 1,300 kilowatt-hours per year.
MGE says the average Madison residential customer uses 7,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, at a cost of about 12-13 cents per kilowatt-hour. That adds up to an annual cost of about $900. A solar system to cover half this usage ' for $450 in annual savings ' might cost $25,000.
But Bangert says 'the key to solar energy is efficiency.' His house, which has a 2.2-kilowatt solar system, uses all Energy Star appliances, has ceiling fans instead of air conditioners and is heavily insulated. 'For every dollar you spend in energy efficiency,' says Bangert, 'you save three to five dollars off the cost of your system.'
Some of Bangert's clients take this philosophy to heart. Mary Ann Phalen, who had a 1.86-kilowatt solar system installed in March, makes a game out of trying to see how little energy she can use. She rarely runs her air conditioner and dries her clothes on a line during warmer months.
'You can maximize what your system can do by changing your own behavior,' she explains. 'It's a fun challenge to be creative and apply your creativity to conservation.'
Phalen spent about $13,000 on her system, a prohibitively expensive amount for most consumers. But she expects to get nearly half of this back from state and federal programs.
This includes a $4,455 rebate from Focus on Energy, a state-sponsored program administered by the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation. The rebates are funded by fees collected by power companies. In addition, a bill signed by President Bush last year provides up to $2,000 in tax credits to people who install solar panels. (The program will expire in 2007, unless Congress renews it.)
In the 1970s, the Carter administration offered solar users an even greater tax credit, and showed its commitment by putting solar panels on the White House roof. This sparked unprecedented ' and unmatched ' interest in solar power. (In 1980, about 3,000 Wisconsin residents installed solar water heating systems.) But when President Reagan took office, in 1981, he removed the White House panels, cut funding for solar research and let the tax incentives expire.
But it's hard to keep a bright idea down, especially given heightened concerns over dependence on foreign oil and global warming: President Bush has reinstalled White House solar panels and reinstated tax credits.
In 2001, Jean Bahr needed a new roof. Instead of asphalt shingles, the UW-Madison professor of geology and geophysics opted for photovoltaic ones. Now she has a 1.6-kilowatt solar power plant on her roof that actually weathers Madison's hailstorms better than her conventional roof ever did.
Bahr paid for her system before the state rebate and federal tax credits were available. But she doesn't see the need to justify her solar system as an economic investment.
'People always ask, 'When is it going to pay for itself?'' says Bahr. 'But if you were to buy a sailboat, nobody would ask you when it would pay for itself. This is my sailboat.'
Bahr was the first MGE customer to tie her photovoltaic system into the company's electrical grid. Besides getting credit for excess power she generates, she doesn't have to invest in an expensive battery system to store excess power for use at night.
MGE hopes more consumers will choose this option. Dave Toso, the utility's point person on solar energy, notes that photovoltaic systems are most effective just when MGE's energy demands are greatest. Air conditioners are the biggest drain on the utility's power, and solar collectors generate the most power on hot, sunny days. (MGE also operates several Madison-area solar power systems, which are being studied to see which work best.)
Meanwhile, folks like Bangert are just happy that solar lets them be more energy self-sufficient. He sees this as a commitment to the future: 'We [Bangert and his wife Kim] have two kids, 8 and 10, and by the time they get to be my age, solar power is going to be almost mainstream. I'm happy to be ahead of the curve, for their sake.'