HELEN DOWNING'S restored townhome on Chippewa Square is one of Savannah’s finest examples of historic preservation.
As of last week, it’s also the pinnacle of energy innovation.
Crews from Hannah Solar installed a dozen solar panels to the roof of the 19th-century mansion, enabling Downing to now power her lights and appliances partly from the sun.
The prominent Savannahian signed on for the energy upgrade through a community program that demystified the process of using solar energy at home and brought costs down through a group buy-in. After an assessment of its sunny rooftop and modern electrical wiring, Downing’s home was accepted into the pilot plan.
The initiative, known as Solarize Tybee but was open to all residents of Chatham County, attracted hundreds of inquiries last spring. Ultimately, 59 local homes were deemed eligible. Atlanta-based Hannah Solar won the exclusive contract and has outfitted about 35 houses so far.
“Savannah is the solar city of the South right now,” said Grant Tallon, business develop manager at Hannah Solar.
“Solarize Tybee is the first program like this in Georgia. It outpaced a similar campaign in Asheville that signed up 51 homes.”
The bulk purchase allowed local homeowners to install the company’s basic 5-kilowatt system at a reduced price, with most installations coming in at around $9000 after subtracting the 30 percent federal tax credit. Though the state tax credit expired in July, the program was still a relative bargain for participants.
“The national average is four dollars a watt,” explains Tallon. “With the discounts, Chatham County is paying two-seventy.”
The dropping costs of small systems are an attractive investment for homeowners seeking to support the alternative energy market.
“I checked into solar five years ago, and it was prohibitive,” says John Rabun, who had 20 panels added to the roof of his four year-old, 6000 square-foot home on Tybee Island this summer.
“I would have paid at least two thirds more than I would have today.”
While a dozen or even 20 solar panels aren’t enough to take the average-sized home completely off the grid, there is a trend towards grid-tied systems that generate a third or even half of residential energy needs. The rest comes from the wires. This has its advantages: The lights still work on a cloudy day, and there is the option to sell excess power back when the photovoltaic cells reach capacity.
In some states, that excess energy is credited to the homeowner through a mechanism called net-metering, and bills reflect the credit/debit in a monthly cycle. Georgia is not a net-metering state, though it has a buyback program that is leveraged against a monthly fee.
Georgia was named the country’s fastest growing solar market in 2014, and the passage of HB 57 earlier this year is expected to push it even further ahead of the pack. The bill, which allows third parties to help finance solar installations, was vociferously opposed by Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Company—until stipulations were added that limited the generation of power to personal use and could not be used to compete with the public utility.
The change of heart comes at a necessary time: The federal government recently announced the Clean Power Plan that requires power plants cut carbon dioxide emissions by 34 percent, and Georgia Power will have to scale way back on its coal usage and replace it with alternatives.
That could be aided by Southern Company’s recent acquisition of Atlanta Gas Light, which will increase access to natural gas resources. But it’s not all sunshine yet: 48 percent of Southern Company electricity still comes from gas and oil, and 16 percent from nuclear power plants like Plant Vogtle in Augusta.
Less than one percent is derived from solar, wind or other alternative sources.
That may change as Georgia Power institutes its own solar sales and installation division, a result of increasing consumer demand for alternative energy.
That’s good news for Hannah Solar, which will be opening a Savannah office this year, as well as local companies like SolarSmith and Coastal Solar. It also bodes well for consumers, as that demand continues to drive down costs.
For Ardsley Park resident Steve Acuff, the long term savings have already begun. Hannah Solar installed 12 panels on his garage through Solarize Tybee earlier this summer, just in time for heavy midday HVAC use.
“We’ve only gotten one bill so far, but it was a third less than the month before, even though we were running the AC,” says Acuff, adding that his usage dropped from 1000 kW to 650 kW.
He uses his iPhone to monitor his system daily, and anticipates the cooler fall weather that could bring a surplus of sun stored in the panels.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing the meter run backwards,” he grins.