Residential photo voltaic panels aren’t low-cost. Here is why one College Metropolis retiree determined to go for it
The back half of Bob McMullen’s roof turned out to be the best place for his solar panels. He’s installed six on the roof’s western hip, but there are no fewer than 13 crowding south at the back and swallowing the maximum sun. He shows me this from the grass behind his house in University City. The panels above are asymmetrically connected, so he points out the obstacles that informed such an arrangement: a vent protruding here, a chimney over there that casts an annoying shadow every morning.
“If shadows are a problem,” I ask, “will bird droppings be a problem?” No, he says: the trees they’re sitting in are safely removed, and rain would wash it off anyway. Its installers, StraightUp Solar, thought about it and said, “You are looking very carefully at what’s up there.”
McMullen himself carefully studied solar before diving. He’s a curious guy who’s worked as a school librarian and teacher of math and science (plus other subjects) for fifth graders in the Ferguson-Florissant school district. After retiring in 2013, he became intrigued by Missouri’s native plants. He grew a few in his front yard: serviceberry, chokeberry, red maple. “They bring the birds and the butterflies,” he says. From there he began to think about providing his household with sun. That’s not a crazy idea: According to calculations by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a non-profit organization for solar energy in Milwaukee, St. Louis gets almost 90 percent as much usable sun as Miami.
This is how McMullen found his way to the people with Grow Solar St. Louis, a partnership between MREA, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the local communities. Grow Solar not only organizes information events called “Power Hours”, but also organizes the citizens in customer pools who can buy in large quantities and thus achieve more competitive prices. MREA is running this program in seven other locations in the area, and from 2019-2020, St. Louis (including the city and county, St. Charles County, and Metro East) showed the greatest interest in the number of homes that installed it (233) and the amount they installed (1,936 kW). These numbers were higher than Chicago’s. “There is clearly a huge appetite for solar energy in the St. Louis area,” said Peter Murphy, director of MREA’s solar program.
There can also be obstacles. Despite a 1979 law in Missouri that made solar energy a property right for residential property, some homeowners associations have restricted the installation of panels on a home. Disputes have arisen and ended up in court. However, Stephen Jeffery, a Chesterfield attorney who has represented households with solar installations, says this type of litigation is less common as the technology is more familiar and widespread. For his part, McMullen discovered that the solar-friendly U. City had its own safety regulations regarding the weight of panels on roofs, but he had no problem getting approval for its setup.
The biggest hurdle for most people is the price. McMullen paid about $ 22,000 in hard and soft costs upfront, but thanks to a 26 percent tax credit and other discounts and incentives, he’ll end up spending only $ 15,000. In return, he’ll get lower electricity bills from now on – about $ 30 or $ 40, he estimates, compared to the $ 110 he’d previously paid as a monthly flat rate. These monthly savings are estimated to add up to its investment costs in around 17 years, and its panels are guaranteed for 25 years. “I’ll be ahead in the long run,” he says.
He turns on his iPad. After a few taps of his finger, he shows me his solar dashboard. It turns out that June was the greatest sunshine in 2020, although August is warmer on average. “Moisture has nothing to do with it,” he says. “June is the summer solstice – then the sun is highest over the house.”
Even then, of course, it only captures a small fraction of the sun’s energy. Most of the sunlight is ultraviolet and infrared. The rest is visible light. Visible light is the only kind that panels can absorb, and the average solar home setup only converts 15 to 22 percent of that into usable energy. But that’s enough for McMullen’s purposes – sometimes more than enough. On certain days, he looks at his dashboard and realizes that he is drawing more energy from the sun than he is using (from his devices, lightbulbs and electronics). If by the end of the month he has converted more than he consumed, the electricity company will buy his surplus and put it on the grid for others.
Aside from dollars, McMullen says he also takes his own mortality into account. He’s 64 years old, he says, and has just invested a quarter of a century in his house. “I have – well, I think I have 25 years left,” he jokes. He knows that solar systems could achieve a leap in efficiency in the near future, but he decided to do it anyway: “I thought I had waited long enough. I know technology is getting better, but I don’t want to continue polluting the earth during this time. “One of the main goals of this project was to reduce its carbon footprint.
Then he reveals another reason why he chose solar: he just thinks it’s cool. Right in front of his garage, he shows the new meter that records his solar radiation. “It’s our own strength!” he says. “It’s kind of neat.”