How to Revise the Federal Solar Tax Credit

Electrek has a post up that ranks US cities by households with solar panels. Here’s the list:

The city that stuck out to me was Seattle. Seattle? The Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly known for its sun. And, they also have quite of bit of energy generated by hydro and nuclear, so are those panels displacing carbon-emitting energy sources?

The 2016 official fuel mix statistics by the state of Washington for Seattle City Light show approximately 88% hydroelectric, 5% nuclear, 4% wind, 1% coal, 1% natural gas, 1% biogas.

Seattle – like most cities on this list – is a wealthy town, so there are plenty of people who can afford to drop $10-$20k on panels. Especially when they can tap into a 30% federal tax credit.

But, what if we adjusted the federal tax credit by taking a couple factors into consideration? Here are two to consider:

1. How dirty is the current energy sourcing in a given state? Here’s a ranking of states by how much carbon is emitted by generating electricity:

2. How much sun hits each state? Obviously, this can vary tremendously throughout states, but if we just use a state-wide average of each state we can still improve upon a nationwide average. This chart ranks states by solar irradiance where California is the baseline each state’s number show’s their relative solar irradiance relative to California.

If we combine these values, we can prioritize solar incentives based where they’ll have the largest benefit: States with the dirtiest electricity and the most sun. Here’s what that looks like:

Under this formula, Upper Midwest states would see similar tax credits to what they see today. Minnesota and Wisconsin would drop from 30% to 29%. But, things get interesting at the extremes. Subsidies would be cut in half for states that have relatively clean energy sourcing today, like Pacific Northwest and some New England states. On the other extreme, states with relatively dirty electricity generation and lots of solar energy would receive far higher incentives. The most extreme being Wyoming, where solar incentives would increase 7X. Yes, that’s right. Instead of offering a 30% tax credit or solar in Wyoming, we should be offering a 216% credit.

Someone living in Wyoming that spends $20k on solar panels would have their entire project cost covered, plus a check for $23,200 from Uncle Sam. Now that’s an incentive. Wyoming and North Dakota are the two states where we should pay more than the cost of solar panels for every household. Both states have incredibly dirty electricity today.

The incentives should be revisited on a regular basis to take into account shifting electricity sourcing in each state. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if a significant number of people in Wyoming took action to claim such a lucrative tax credit, which would lead to lower tax credits for late adopters.

Land use of Ethanol vs Solar for Vehicle Fuel

I took a stab at trying to figure out how much land it takes to power an internal combustion engine vehicle with ethanol vs what it takes to power an electric vehicle with solar energy.

The links in the embedded spreadsheet show my data sources. If any of these are inaccurate (or my calculations are wrong) please let me know.

Based on what I’m seeing, it looks like it takes a bit more than an acre of farmland dedicated to growing corn to power a single vehicle. That’s based on the amount of E85 fuel it would take, so it would also take some non-ethanol fuel to make that work.

For the electric car numbers, I used a watts/mile figure found on some Tesla forums and a land use calculation based on typical production of panels in large ground-mount systems. This came to 0.015 acres or 652 sq ft.

It seems like it’s quite a bit more efficient to convert solar energy into electricity, transfer that into car batteries, then use that power to turn an electric engine than it is to convert solar energy into plants, harvest those plants, convert those plants into ethanol, transfer that energy into car tanks, and convert that energy into small explosions to turn an internal combustion engine. If my numbers are correct, it looks like it’s around 70X more efficient from a land needed per vehicle perspective.

While this could be looked at from a “what’s the best use of farmland?” perspective, it’s obviously worth noting that solar panels can be placed on a lot of surfaces other than farmland, including places that don’t consume any land, like rooftops.

Another thing to consider: The cost to power an electric car can be significantly cheaper than what’s shown in the spreadsheet if you take advantage of electric vehicle charging and/or time of day pricing plans. Off-peak electricity rates (when your car is likely sitting in your garage) are far cheaper than standard residential rates.

But, wouldn’t that mean that you wouldn’t be using solar to charge your car? Correct. It looks like the future – at least in Minnesota – will involve powering our homes with solar & wind during the day and charging our vehicles with wind power overnight.

The Cost of Not Using Nukes & Coal for Electricity

David Shaffer has a story in the StarTribune about Xcel’s proposed rate increases. It sounds like Xcel wanted to increase rates by 10.7%, but it’s going to end up somewhere closer to 5%.

But, one thing that stood out to me was a denial of Xcel’s request to bill ratepayers for the increasing costs of dirty power sources:

The judge also concluded that Xcel shouldn’t be allowed to immediately bill ratepayers for some of the escalating costs associated with upgrading Xcel’s 42-year-old Monticello nuclear power plant or its expenses related to a catastrophic 2011 accident at its giant coal-burning plant in Becker, Minn.

If the cost of dirty power is increasing, shouldn’t those who choose to use dirty power feel that pain? In addition to the long term costs to the air we breath, there are real costs to maintaining carbon belching and nuclear waste generating plants.

This reminded me to take a look at my Xcel bill to get a feel for how much I’m currently paying to avoid dirty power by using Xcel’s Windsource program. As of now, the cost is higher, but take a look at how much:

Xcel Windsource Charges

69 cents over a month. After taxes on that net 69, I paid around 77 cents extra to rely upon wind over dirty power. That’s not breaking the bank.

And, you know what would close that gap even further? Letting Xcel charge dirty power users for the costs of maintaining their dirty power plants. Eventually, that WindSource net energy cost could go negative, and that’s when people who don’t care enough about the air we breath to pay an extra 1.6% for power will go green based solely on cost.

The Xcel Energy’s Windsource Program Financial Hedge

The Xcel Energy Windsource program is a deal where you can opt-in to have your home’s energy come from wind power rather than asthma generating, mine shaft collapsing, black lung generating, water polluting sources. While the power sent to your house isn’t coming directly from wind turbines, Xcel is required to source their energy from wind sources in proportion to the number of people who opt-in.

So, please do.

When I first joined the program around 5-6 years ago, the net cost for me was around $7/month. That was affordable, and it felt good to do it. As I’ve managed to reduce my energy consumption, that has dropped to around $5/month.

But, here’s the beauty of this: The true net cost of switching to clean energy is actually much cheaper than $5/month. Take a look at my most recent power bill:

Xcel Energy Windsource Cost vs Dirty Energy Charges

Notice that I paid an extra $4.98 to have my energy sourced from wind turbines.

Now, check out the “Fuel Cost Charge”. This is where non-Windsource users were jacked an extra 2.85 cents per kWh to cover the costs of dirty energy like goal and natural gas. But, they couldn’t jack me because I don’t play that dirty energy game. Instead they kicked that back as a rebate, bringing my net cost for switching to non-asthma generating, mine shaft collapsing, black lung generating, water polluting sources: 96 cents.

Ask yourself: Is 3.2 cents per day too much to pay to avoid using electricity from asthma generating, mine shaft collapsing, black lung generating, water polluting sources? I would hope not.

It’s an easy choice, and only takes a minute: Sign up now.

Lowering My Home’s Energy Consumption

Back in October of 2009, I installed a TED-5000 Powermeter that ties into the Google Powermeter reporting system. This allowed me to get a much better feel for what was chewing up energy in my home and do something about it.

We made a few changes around the home, including installing a few more CFL bulbs. However, the biggest energy improvement came from swapping out our refrigerator for a new model.

So, had it paid off? Here is a look at the first 7 months with the power meter installed vs. years two and three:

Year over Year Energy Bill Comparisions

For those keeping score at home, that’s a 23%+ decrease in energy consumption. It’s also worth noting that the monthly costs include paying for the Xcel Energy Windsource program, where Xcel is required to acquire energy from wind related sources in proportion to the number of people who participate in the program.

I’m not quite off the grid yet, but less than a dollar a day electricity bills aren’t exactly breaking the bank.

The @MNGOP’s Fight Against Clean Solar Energy Incentives

If you have a solar electric system on your house, there may be times when your solar panels generate more energy than your home consumes. This net energy can be uploaded onto the grid for use by other power consuming neighbors or businesses. This is a good deal, because it increases the percentage of clean electricity sources while allowing you to offset some of the costs you invested in your solar system. Put another way, you can literally make the meter run backwards.

At what rate does the meter run backwards? Under current state law, the meter runs backwards at the retail rate. Power companies like Xcel Energy buy the energy you contribute to the grid at the same rate you normally pay them. For example, if you have your thermostat set to turn off your A/C during the day while you’re at work, the intense sun during the day would likely generate net energy that could be used to cool occupied office buildings. This is a time when the meter would run backwards. When you get home, you may use more energy to cool the house, cook, or do laundry, thus using more energy than your panels are likely generating at that hour. Essentially, you could generate clean energy for Xcel Energy during some of their highest peak demands, which is good for everyone. One would think.

Pathetically, the Minnesota GOP thinks this is a BAD IDEA. Instead of making the meter run back and forth to at an even rate, they’d like to change it to a one step forward two steps back model. By that, I mean that they want Xcel to be able to buy your excess electricity to you at wholesale and sell it right back to you at retail rates. That’s right. They want you to only earn wholesale rates on the clean energy you created during the peak demand hours of the day, then pay retail rates to earn it back when the meter runs forward.

You can thank Rep. Michael Beard (R) of District 35A (Shakopee, MN) and Rep. Tom Hackbarth* (R) of District 48A (Cedar, MN) for this proposed dirty energy handout. Not just anyone would propose taking away incentives for investments in home solar energy systems.

Here is the destruction of clean energy sanity in action:

Solar Energy Net Cost Retail Wholesale Amendment

Reps Beard and Hackbarth have the courage to stand in favor of asthma, mine shaft collapses, black lung, natural gas fracking, and water pollution. Or, maybe they’re just standing in support of campaign donations from power companies? Is there a difference?

Here’s a look at a sample of the donors to Rep. Mike Beard’s campaign:

GREAT RIVER ENERGY – Electric Utilities – $500 -09/02/2010
RURAL ELECTRIC PAC – Electric Utilities – $250 – 06/12/2010
XCEL ENERGY EMPLOYEES PAC – Electric Utilities – $250 – 07/02/2010
OTTER TAIL POWER – Electric Utilities – $200 – 09/03/2010
XCEL ENERGY EMPLOYEES PAC – Electric Utilities – $100 – 10/14/2010

That’s $1,300 in campaign contributions from electric utilities. $1,300 may not sound like a lot, but it Rep Beard’s total campaign contributions were $19,733. Of the $19,733, $5,893 was from public election subsidies and $1,200 from self-funding, so the $1,300 accounts for more than 10% of his campaign’s outside money contributions.

Clearly, those utilities would be getting a HUGE return on their investment in Rep. Beard if that amendment passed.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. In spite of the efforts of power companies to buy a horrible change to our state’s energy acquisition, common sense won out. This amendment by Reps Beard and Hackbarth was tossed out.

My Solar Use Case

In case it’s not already clear that Beard and Hackbarth’s utility funded ideas are not good for Minnesota, here’s another perspective: I’ve been considering installing a solar system. As I understand the numbers, the energy potential of five typical panels would cover my home’s gross energy needs. That would not cover peak load, but it would more than cover the base load when no one is home and the A/C is off. Under current state law, this would allow me to get my electric bill down to nearly zero. But, if I’m going to do this, it would make sense to put as many panels on the roof as fit, since they represent only a fraction of an entire solar project’s cost. Why not make the meter run backwards by contributing enough energy to the grid to power a second Minneapolis home? If Reps Beard and Hackbarth had their way, the incentive to do this would be much less since the payout on the investment in clean energy would go up by years. Why take away my incentive to invest in improving the quality of our state’s energy sources? Try putting common sense ahead of campaign dollars and sense, guys.

* Yes, this is the same Rep. Hackbarth that was cruising St. Paul’s Highland Park with a sidearm last fall in search of a woman he had met online.

Feit Compact Fluorescent Recessed Lighting Light Bulbs

One type of compact fluorescent bulb that’s a bit harder than average to find are bulbs for recessed lighting. I have a hallway that uses 60W incandescents or 15W CF bulbs, but exposed regular CFs just weren’t going to cut it.

This bulb from Feit does the trick:

Compact Fluorescent Recessed Lighting Light Bulbs

Like most CF bulbs, they take a bit longer to warm up than comparable incandescent bulbs, so they may not be the best choice in lighting situations where you need something to be at 100% right away. But once warmed up (around a minute) the light quality is great.

Feit makes a dimmable version as well. I haven’t had luck with dimmable CF bulbs to date and haven’t tried this one (it currently receives one star for burning out quickly) so I can’t recommend it.