Sunny skies ahead: Solar investments are paying off

Thanks to the sun, Jarrod Markley’s March electricity bill—which tallies energy used to power his four-person household and charge his electric car—was only $10. Photo by Eze Amos Thanks to the sun, Jarrod Markley’s March electricity bill—which tallies energy used to power his four-person household and charge his electric car—was only $10. Photo by Eze Amos

Burnett Commons homeowner Jarrod Markley’s March electricity bill —which tallies energy used in a four-person household and to charge his electric car—was only $10.

He has the sun to thank for that low cost. The $18,000 grid of solar panels installed on his roof last winter supplies 94 percent of his annual electricity use, he estimates, and in seven years, they’re scheduled to pay themselves off. His current monthly payment is about $200—what he was paying for gas before he bought a Tesla.

While solar power is often sought by people living a green lifestyle, industry professionals say it’s becoming more attractive to people from an economic standpoint.

“You’re not talking to an environmentalist here,” says Markley. “From the first time I looked [at buying panels] two years ago until last year, the amount of energy the solar panels produced went up and the cost stayed the same. It became an even better deal.”

After receiving a $5,500 federal tax credit and a $850 property tax credit from the city, the overall cost of the panels—which are estimated to offset 297,500 pounds of coal over 25 years—was about $11,800.

Susan Elliott, the city’s climate protection program coordinator, says it’s a common misconception that solar power is pricey. “The upfront cost of it is, but the systems are paying themselves back within a third of the lifetime of the equipment,” she says. “If you’re going to pay your electric bill for the next 30 years, why not put up some panels so it’ll pay itself back in 10 years and then you’ll get free electricity for 20?”

Charlottesville’s zoning code doesn’t clearly address solar energy systems. On May 1, City Council initiated a process to clarify the code. And on Earth Day, the city announced its national designation of SolSmart Bronze, meaning it’s one of the first 50 communities in the country to adopt programs and practices that make it faster, easier and cheaper to go solar, such as using grant funding to install a small rooftop system of panels on Charlottesville High School. Most recently, the city has started supplementing electricity with solar power at the Public Works maintenance building and warehouse.

Though Charlottesville was the first city in the state to receive such recognition, the vice president of business development at local solar company Sun Tribe Solar says Virginia is still behind nearby states such as Maryland and North Carolina. Devin Welch, who is also a spokesperson for the new Charlottesville Renewable Energy Alliance, says one reason Virginia is behind the curve is because it’s being held back by a lack of qualified partners to design and install solar energy systems. Sun Tribe Solar aims to solve that problem by bringing a technical expertise that exists in larger markets to Virginia.

The company curates solar systems for businesses and big organizations, Welch says, often dealing with multiple facilities and complex electrical interconnections. Governor Terry McAuliffe was in town last month to cut the ribbon for a grid of panels that Sun Tribe Solar installed atop UVA’s Clemons Library.

“We’re working with the Stony Point developer right now on a really cool, innovative carport structure that will also feed some electric vehicle charging stations,” Welch says, adding that his company is also working with Riverbend Development on incorporating solar at Brookhill, a mixed-use development underway between Polo Grounds Road and the Forest Lakes community. “What we’re seeing that’s so exciting is that solar is more and more being incorporated in these designs from the very beginning.

“Charlottesville is well on its way to becoming the renewable energy hub of the Southeast,” he says.

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