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What you really need to install solar: A CPA

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s Note: Scientific American’s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in 60-Second Solar. Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

Pile of solar paperworkWhen people talk about using renewable energy to save both energy and jobs, the jobs they’re usually referring to are engineering and construction. But if my solar experience is anything to go by, the profession that will benefit the most is accounting.

If I’d known how much paperwork it would take to install solar panels on my roof, I’d have hired someone more adept in navigating bureaucracies. It’s been way too much for a mere astrophysicist. I started the process in February and the first of the many required approvals did not come through until the end of April, when the utility, Public Service Electric & Gas, checked off on our application to supply power to the grid. A couple of weeks later, the New Jersey Clean Energy Program okayed its subsidy, and two weeks ago the utility agreed to kick in with its own contribution.

But wait, there’s more. The utility needs to formalize its agreement; the town needs to issue a building permit (not a foregone conclusion, since we live in a historic district); we need to register the system with the state and eventually set up an inspection; and, because the utility will in effect be part-owner of the panels, it will place a lien on our house, which our insurance company and mortgage provider need to sign off on. Solar installations are so uncommon that neither our insurer nor our bank knew quite what to do, which added to the delay.

The folks at the utility and state have been cordial and helpful, and I’m sure there’s good reason for all the forms, signatures, and initialing. They’re providing some oversight of our solar contractor, which I welcome. And the delay has given us time to think over our options for fixing our roof. But I’m struggling to see how solar is ever going to gain traction until the subsidies and paperwork are streamlined. Evidently I’m not the only one to have reached this conclusion.

Some of George’s paperwork

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  1. 1. PsySciGuy 12:06 pm 06/4/2009

    Clearly the program should be federalized so that the paperwork would be reduced. Utilities, city managers, home owner societies, and the home owner could be fined or jailed for interfering with such a federal program. That should increase compliance with soon to be mandated green power.

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  2. 2. luis 12:36 pm 06/4/2009

    Theoretically, it could be simpler if your system is off-grid. That is, you are neither a consumer nor a producer of energy, your meter does not run backwards. Of course, you need to install batteries to store your energy during the day to use it at night. You still have to get your building permits, but the process of getting your tax credits becomes independent of the building process, and the utility has no liens on your house.

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  3. 3. goharris 1:14 pm 06/4/2009

    Absolutly PsySciGuy, lets Federalize Power, Education, Healthcare,. why not science and the media too??

    Check out the Constitution someday.

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  4. 4. smart_alec 2:32 pm 06/4/2009

    At least in San Diego, it’s most economic to stay on-grid, and produce 80% of the energy you need. The power company will never pay you– you can only bring your annual power bill to $0. So it only makes sense to put up enough panels to power 80% of your needs, such that you end up with a tiny bills. Even doing it this way, the payback can take 20 years, not including the "cost of money".

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  5. 5. PsySciGuy 8:37 pm 06/4/2009

    goharris, Science gets most of it’s money from the federal government – it has already BEEN Federalized. Check out big city papers and network TV. Looks like they’re in the tank for Federalizing GM, banks, utilities, etc. No child left behind and federal funding federalizes education.

    BTW, I think you might have missed the sarcasm…

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  6. 6. d5wstat 5:21 pm 06/5/2009

    We had a similar experience in New York. The paper work really gets ridiculous and is quite discouraging . The building inspections are quite funny since most inspectors have never seen a solar system. I had to explain to my building inspector what was the function of each component in my system. In the end it was worth the wait and frustration.

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  7. 7. brerlou 1:13 pm 06/6/2009

    I’m writing from the Caribbean Island of Barbados with year round sunshine, (even when it’s overcast some ambient sunshine still gets through), with a battery of small wind generators to assist using the trade winds. My brother was telling me yesterday that a solar panel installation should cost about $12,000 USD. The average household burns $150.00 worth of electricity monthly. A friend who used the solar panels in his new home reports electric bills under $10.00 per month. Payback for the original outlay comes only after the 7th year, so I don’t know if this is the ideal solution for temperate climates who can expect about half as much sunshine as we get here.

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  8. 8. CSHGreen 3:05 pm 06/14/2009

    George – sounds like you haven’t (yet) run into one more hurdle that we did – installer delays. The only qualified installer in the area was so backlogged with installations that although we had our paperwork cleared in June, he couldn’t complete the install until October (just in time for the National Solar Tour). Meanwhile, they changed the state grant criteria (WI Focus on energy) for solar water heating installations, and our system no longer qualified. (We are out in the country and our back up heat is provided by propane. Only natural gas and electric backup now qualify.) Up goes the system costs by a couple of thousand dollars. I highly recommend reading "The Solar Fraud" for a solid look at the math isn’t making the "green" headlines.

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  9. 9. Dolphy Fan 3:50 pm 06/23/2009

    There is a company on Long Island that sells building integrated photovoltaic standing seam roofing product. I’d give them a look before I tried to patch up an old tin roof and then mount panels on it with a bunch of new perforations. Here in Vermont a standing seam roof is considered the next best thing to slate, which can last 100 years.

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  10. 10. jdirt 6:07 pm 08/8/2012

    I am looking around to find the best price for a couple rheem furnaces for my business. I hear they are a lot better to have instead of regular ones. I am wondering if any of you guys have found them for good prices?

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