I’ve always been interested in solar energy. When I had a house built in 1976 where we were living in Michigan, I had the south-facing roof pitched at 55 degrees—the ideal slope for gathering solar energy. I built two very simple 4′ x 8′ panels with black copper tubes in them to help preheat our water before it went into the gas-fired hot water heater. It didn’t replace our dependence on fossil fuels, but it was a first step.
At our present house in Brighton, we also have a south-facing roof. In 2009, we had 27 photovoltaic panels installed. These delivered about 5,000 watts when the sun was shining on them. At the time these solar panels produced about 60 to 65 percent of our electricity. The current=generation PV units are much more efficient than the ones we had installed and they are also quite a bit less expensive per watt than what was available when we had these installed. A rough comparison shows that new units covering the same area today would generate about 7,000 watts, compared to the current 5,000-watt generation.
The overall cost for our units was about $37,600, with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority paying the contractor directly about $19,980. Our net cost of about $17,620 was further offset with tax credits from New York (about $4,400) and the federal government (about $5,300). This was, obviously, well before the Inflation Reduction Act; there were incentives to encourage the use solar energy even then.
But I am writing here about more than solar energy. This is a personal account of how we’ve moved from using mostly natural gas for heating and appliances to using electricity for almost everything. And we are hoping that soon all of our electricity (not just what we generate) will come from “green” sources.
For our domestic hot water, we originally had a standard gas-fired hot water heater. Hot water heating accounts for about 30 percent of home energy consumption. In the fall of 2010, we had a solar hot water system installed. The 30 evacuated tubes are a big step up from the homemade rig I built in 1977. They are on a small part of our south-facing roof and tipped up at a steeper angle than the roof. The fluid flowing through an inner tube inside each evacuated tube goes through a heat exchanger, which then sends heated water to a 75-gallon hot water tank. This preheated water then goes through an “on-demand” hot water heater to bring the final temperature up to about 120 degrees for use in the house. At present there are no really good electric on-demand water heaters, so we are still using gas for this, though advances are being made in electric tankless options.
The solar hot water system cost about $9,500. We were able to apply for state (25 percent) and federal (30 percent) tax credits. This system has reduced our use of natural gas for domestic water heating dramatically. There have been many times, especially during a sunny spell in the summer, when water in the evacuated tubes is 130 to 140 degrees and water in the 75-gallon tank is 115 to 120 degrees. At such times, obviously, the on-demand gas-fired water heater is barely used.
The big saver of our use of natural gas, however, came from having a geothermal heat pump system installed in the fall of 2020. The system consists of five approximately 100-foot-deep wells in our backyard. The system takes advantage of the difference in the subsurface temperature and the above-ground air to either heat or cool the house. The so-called “water furnace” in our basement replaced two gas-fired furnaces we had been using to heat two zones in our house. (See a description of geothermal technology from the Environmental Protection Agency here.)
The upfront overall cost for this geothermal system was $38,000—a scary figure! But a state Clean Heat rebate of $6,450 reduced that somewhat, and we also got a 26 percent federal tax credit, bringing our final cost to about $23,300. That’s still a lot, but it should pay for itself in utility savings while we are still in the house and it might be a real incentive for a potential home buyer when we’re ready to sell. Eligible homeowners will get even more help from the IRA incentives. You can get an estimate here.
To complete our move away from natural gas, we substituted an electric induction stove for our gas stove and an electric clothes dryer for our gas-fired dryer. At the time, there were no incentives for the induction stove, but the IRA offers an $840 rebate. So, the only thing burning natural gas in our house now is the on-demand hot water heater.
Outside the house, we went to a battery-powered lawn mower, weed whacker, rototiller, and chain saw. We still have a gasoline-powered snowblower but as we are having less and less snow each year, this gets used less and less.
Finally, because the transportation sector emits about 29 percent of all carbon pollution in the U.S., we also bought a Honda plug-in hybrid car in 2018. For most of our driving around town, we are entirely on battery/electric mode.
We’ve been making most of this transition from fossil fuels to electricity for climate reasons, not necessarily to save money. Basically, we want to help save the planet from the worst conditions that may result from a warming climate so our children and grandchildren will have a “reasonable” environment to grow up in.
I understand we will not go back to the climate conditions I grew up with as a child, but it would be nice if we could hold things where they are now and not let them get worse. I realize not everyone is going to be able to make some of the changes we’ve made, but maybe some will get inspired by a story such as ours to try to do some of the things we have done.
Rod Bailey is with Citizens Climate Lobby. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].