Solar Power Energy
Resident Picks the Solar Route
By JEFF KEELING
Press Business Editor
Halfway up the south side of Buffalo Mountain, at the end of Buchanan Road, Andy Davenport likes to walk out to his solar panels on a sunny day and watch his electric meter spin backward.
A bear of a man with a hearty laugh he deploys frequently, Davenport is one of a few local participants in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s “Generation Partners” program. Johnson City Power Board pays Davenport about 20.5 cents more per kilowatt hour his 3 kilowatt solar array produces — 12 cents above the rate him pays for the juice he consumes, and enough to have given he and wife Margaret a $4 credit on their latest bill.
“We’re sort of into self-sufficiency, and that’s just one of the steps along the way,” Davenport, a retired building trades teacher, said of the roughly $20,000 investment in solar panels, battery backup, and related equipment that allows his generation to be transmitted to the electricity grid.
(Actually, a 30 percent tax credit and a $1,000 TVA reimbursement brought his costs down some.)
“We raise most of our own food, and we have our own gravity-fed spring water, and we don’t have a sewer bill, so the only other bill to attack was the power board’s.”
In about 18 months, Davenport’s system has produced more than 4,300 kilowatts of electricity — enough to power the Davenports’ own large but efficient house for about 5 months. He’s in a 10-year contract with TVA and the Power Board during which he’ll continue earning 12 cents per kwh above retail prices.
“They’ll cut you a check after 12 months if you’re ahead,” he said. “I don’t expect to be ahead, but I do plan to expand one of these days — they’re gonna end up writing me checks before it’s over,” he said before a prolonged laugh.
Davenport’s interest in alternative energy goes back more than two decades, about the time the Davenports sold their home off Cherokee Road and built a highly efficient one on the mountain.
“I just assumed energy was going to get more expensive in the future,” he said.
He installed his own system, which is of the “grid-tied, battery backup” variety. This means the power is sold back onto the grid, but he does have a battery that keeps about 12 kwh in it for emergencies. Other options are simply being grid-tied, which eliminates the cost of a battery, or going completely “off-grid” and using one’s own power on-site.
Davenport’s return on investment is some years away, but that doesn’t bother him.
“Back in the ’80s when I first got interested in alternative energy, they kept saying, ‘oh, 50 cents a watt’s just around the corner.’ Well, 50 cents a watt never got here.”
A couple of years ago, Davenport said, he got tired of waiting for the price of solar panels and equipment to drop and took the plunge after learning TVA had begun its Generation Partners program.
Since completing his first array in late 2008 (he’s since added some capacity), Davenport has seen prices drop some, though he said they remain around $3 a watt.
That makes going solar anything but a cheap proposition, which is one reason Lightwave Solar’s Paul Sutton said government incentives are important for the time being.
“The technology’s moving fast,” said Sutton, who is leading Nashville-based Lightwave’s move into the Tri-Cities market.
“The trick is how they can bring those to full production at the low cost to match customers’ price point.”
In the meantime, he said, homeowners like Davenport will become pretty important to utilities, even with the incremental gains in renewable energy those customers bring.
“By 2015 a lot of utilities are going to have to have a 30 percent renewable portfolio (produce 30 percent of their power from renewable resources),” Sutton said.
Even though Davenport’s contribution is small, multiply it by 1,000 and you have what Sutton called a “distributed energy model, where within each community there are multiple small power producers.”
For his part, Davenport isn’t convinced many Americans will take the solar plunge even with incentives available — though he wishes more people would.
“Most people are short-term thinkers, and this does require you to be willing to spend now for a benefit later.”
If people’s thinking changed and solar panel arrays started popping out on residential roofs like mushrooms after a rain, Davenport said that could make a big dent in the need for use of fossil-based electricity. He said an urban dweller could probably get a 3 kilowatt array installed for maybe $14,000, decrease that to about $9,000 with tax credits and other incentives, and earn several hundred dollars a year selling the power.
“In 10 years a new car will be in a junk pile. In 10 years, my solar system will still be doing what it’s doing today and probably have paid for itself. This throwaway society, we’ve gotta get over that.”
Davenport doesn’t hold his breath waiting, preferring to putter around his property, “tweaking” his energy system, learning more about the inverters, batteries and other pieces of technology that help convert the sun’s energy into something that can power a dishwasher or a lightbulb.
A final thought about his investment brings another belly laugh from Davenport: “It’s like I tell my wife — she says, ‘we spent a lot of money on this.’ I say ‘well honey, I coulda bought a bass boat. Then where would we be?’”