GREENFIELD — People who want to go green and use solar energy for their homes are starting to get incentives to do so.
But whether it could save a little green – cash, that is – in years to come is still uncertain.
The four companies that provide electricity to Hancock County’s homes and businesses are offering programs for customers who invest in solar energy to get a break on their monthly utility bills. While few are taking advantage of it so far, experts say it could just be a matter of time before technology for homes powered by the sun is cost-effective enough to make the leap.
“The technology continues to improve, and there are opportunities there for customers to use solar energy,” said Mike Fruth, director of Greenfield Utilities. “The cost of solar panels has come down recently, particularly in the last couple of years, so it’s been more attractive for homeowners to do something with solar energy.”
Fruth is pitching an ordinance to the Greenfield City Council to allow for net metering, in which credits could be extended for people whose homes are powered by the sun. Indiana’s climate probably wouldn’t allow for a home to go completely off the grid – the batteries to store solar power on dark, cloudy days are too expensive for that – but the ordinance would allow people who want to give solar power a try the opportunity to do so, Fruth said.
Duke Energy, Indianapolis Power & Light and NineStar Connect – all of which supply electricity to Hancock County homes – already have net
metering programs in place.
“If the customer produces more energy than they consume, then the electric meter actually runs backward and restores credits,” said Lew Middleton, Indiana spokesman for Duke Energy, adding that some 260 Hoosier Duke customers have solar panels; most are residential.
Some companies are taking extra steps to explore solar power, especially at a time when Congress is considering regulating emissions from energy produced by coal.
NineStar Connect, which provides energy to rural residents along with homes in Wilkinson, McCordsville and Fortville, is exploring the idea of a solar farm. NineStar customers could buy into a community array and receive discounts on their energy bill based on the solar farm’s production.
It’s an idea close to becoming reality, said CEO Michael Burrow. While the company hasn’t decided yet how much customers would be asked to chip in, it would be a cheaper alternative than putting solar panels on their own homes.
“People who are purchasing the output of this solar farm will share proportionately with the other ones and be able to reduce their power bill that way,” Burrow said.
The idea makes sense not only for the customers who are asking for it, Burrow said, but also from a business standpoint. Solar units are generating the most power on hot, sunny days, when the company’s power grid is stressed. Adding solar to the company’s portfolio – especially as Congress considers regulations on energy produced by coal – makes sense.
“With the pressure on coal, there’s going to be an upward pressure on utility rates,” Burrow said. “It’s really hard to pencil out solar now. Even though it’s come down substantially when you compare it with coal, in two to five years you’re going to see solar might end up being very competitive, if not cheaper than coal.”
How to cut monthly energy expenses was high on Nick Hofmeister’s priority list four years ago. The McCordsville resident and NineStar customer decided to install 24 solar panels on his roof in 2010.
“Our electricity bill had gone from $73 a month to $153 a month in a matter of years, and nothing that we did had changed much as far as appliances and the way we lived or anything else,” Hofmeister said. “Just the rates going up and the user fees going up.”
The panels were installed on the back side of his house, and he worked with NineStar Connect on net metering so he could see his bill go down drastically.
At a net cost of $17,500 (he received some tax credits), Hofmeister figured it would take 11 years to get a return on his investment. But he has no regrets.
“It’s kind of cool. Sometimes I’ll have $106 a month, and that was during a really heavy air conditioning month. The lowest bill I’ll have is $15.”
It was the construction of a new residential home that got Greenfield Power & Light officials to think about net metering. Fruth said a home is being built that will be solar-powered, and the ordinance would allow the home to be credited for its energy. The ordinance also lists wind, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power, but Fruth said solar is the most likely to be seen in the near future.
The ordinance also has a limit, which would prohibit people from creating their own power plants. The ordinance does not supersede city zoning ordinances or homeowners association covenants, Fruth added.
A person who wanted net metering would have to pay for a special meter to be installed on their home.
“It allows energy to flow both directions, so it’s going to credit their energy usage back on their bill,” Fruth said. “It should decrease their total amount of billing for that month.”
Net metering is fairly rare for the 59 communities across the state that are part of the Indiana Municipal Power Agency. Greenfield is an IMPA member, and only about a dozen other communities have an ordinance in place, said Doug Buresh, senior vice president of panning and operations for IMPA.
“It’s pretty rare yet,” he said. “IMPA’s rates and members rates are very low, so it’s very difficult for someone to put in their own solar facility and economically for it to be the best thing.”
Still, Buresh said IMPA has three solar fields throughout the state to generate electricity for members. As Congress considers more regulations on coal and gas, Buresh said, retail prices of energy across the nation could go up. That’s why it’s important for the organization to also have some solar energy as part of its portfolio.
“We’re very interested to see how solar works in Indiana, and that’s why we’re pursuing it ourselves,” Buresh said.