Getting the sun, without it costing the moon

A 6.5-kWh pole-mounted system in Gardiner. (Installation by Conscious Energy, also of Gardiner.)

Too many expectations lead, invariably, to disappointment, and perhaps nothing has suffered so much from overly high expectations than solar energy. Touted all the way back in the ’70s as the nation’s great emancipator from foreign oil, the technology could not live up to the hype; until rather recently, solar was seen — like Jimmy Carter, disco and the mass adoption of the metric system — as one of a series of laughably quixotic misadventures of a far more trusting and idealistic age.

Solar, driven by 30 years of technological progress and 30 years of upward-spiraling energy prices (and our increasingly problematic relationships with the oil-pumping countries) has made a hell of a comeback, with panels popping up on an increasing number of buildings and powering ever more gadgets and devices. Still, though, those who want to harness the rays, harboring fantasies of getting “off the grid” and saving the planet in one fell swoop, can be rudely shaken from their reverie by solar sticker shock — a setup which will crank out the kilowatts a typical non-neo-Luddite or Amish home requires can run multiple tens of thousands, even after rebates and tax credits from the state and federal governments are factored in.

Increasingly, local installers are seeing people scale down their solar dreams, settling for offsetting a portion of their power with photovoltaics, instead of the whole electric enchilada.


Eric Kwak, co-owner of Gardiner-based Conscious Energy, has been installing solar panels since 2005, having learned his trade from a course at Ulster County BOCES and working for a friend in Massachusetts, said in general since the height of the economic boom, installing solar has gotten cheaper, falling from a high point of $8 to $10 a watt to a low of about $6 a watt today. (As a frame of reference, a “typical” home — Kwak does point out that families’ energy usage varies quite widely — uses about seven to eight kilowatts per hour (kWh), though they can cut that down to five or six by being very careful.)

Still, at that price, a full set-up can run quite a bit. Kwak said a set up that could “wipe out” the electric bill of a home with a 5-kWh energy diet would run about $30,000, though that cost would be substantially defrayed by an $8,555 rebate taken off the top from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (a.k.a. NYSERDA) and federal and state tax credits, which vary depending on costs and the applicant’s income level and eligibility.

Eric Kwak, co-owner of Conscious Energy.

By contrast, Kwak said, a 2 kWh system might run around $12,000 — a much more reasonable figure, especially when the rebates and tax credits are figured in. More exciting and flexible, said Kwak, are new modular-type systems which allow those wanting to jump in the solar pool start small, with as little as one panel, and add more panels as the homeowner can afford them. “If you have $2,000, you can start,” Kwak said.

Kwak added that small-scale solar setups are dramatically improving lives in places other than the Hudson Valley. Around the world, in locales less wired than ours, like in Haiti, Africa (and even the more remote parts of the American Southwest), free-standing solar helps power water pumps, communications equipment and other essentials.

Todd Koelmel, president of Woodstock’s Solar Generation, said a big up-front investment can be off-putting, so he stresses looking at the bottom line: the final figure, after the NYSERDA rebate and tax credits. “It’s something like a $20,000 investment and after you recoup your tax credits, it could be $10,000 to $15,000,” Koelmel said, adding that he sees the cost curve going down in the future, due to economy of scale. “The whole idea is of this program is to get it so that this equipment becomes mainstream, so that the equipment becomes affordable without the rebates.”

Unusual applications

Kwak and Koelmel agree that the idea of putting in solar panels to power one specific slice of the electric pie isn’t a common one, as the vast majority of systems are designed to feed into the house’s wiring and the power goes to wherever the switch is turned on. “The power that [the panels] produce gets fed into the service panel of your house, and the electricity goes where it’s needed. We don’t really funnel it to a TV or a washing machine, specifically,” said Koelmel. “That’s the beauty of the system. Anything that needs electricity, it just goes there automatically. Anything that’s in excess, gets sent back to Central Hudson.”

Kwak, however, knows of someone, an engineer, who built a small system to use on his boat. But the boat is a ways from being ready to float, so he hooked it up to his home-entertainment center. “When there’s a power outage, he can still watch TV.”

But be it a large or small up-front investment, Kwak and Koelmel also agree that it’s one well worth making, for several reasons. Fossil fuels are not getting any cheaper and the recent events in Japan have underlined the hazards of nuclear power. “If we’re going to have a green revolution, let’s get it started at home,” Kwak said.

Koelmel doesn’t advocate a wait-and-see approach, either. “It doesn’t make sense to say the equipment may be cheaper in three years, so I’m going to wait,” he said, noting that the average payback point for residential solar users is eight to ten years. “The equipment may be cheaper in three years, but there also may not be a rebate in three years. The actual cost to the customer is going to be similar, but it won’t require incentives.

“When we install these systems, the system is designed to operate for 25 years, or 30. … But if you take the cost of the system and divide it over the energy it will produce for 25 years, it’s cheaper than what we’re paying Central Hudson,” Koelmel added. “And Central Hudson’s rates increase, and will continue to increase. Buying a solar system is pre-paying for electricity for 25 years.”

Kwak, who said he won’t use Chinese-made panels for his installation as he does not trust their quality like he does the American-made one, recommends a thorough process for those considering solar, including getting several bids and making sure the warranties are satisfactory. “They’re a big investment, and you want it to be a quality installment.”

This article originally appeared in the Ulster Publishing Spring Home Improvement special section, published March 24, 2011 and available  at