Hijacking StarTribune’s Solar Comments in a Good Way

As anyone who’s attempted to read comments on the StarTribune.com knows, things can get pretty ridiculous there. While they do seem to have improved a bit over the past year, something about the anonymity, lax moderation, or lack of quality filtering seems to bring out the worst in people there. Or, maybe it just discourages quality commenters from sharing sane opinions?

Regardless, it can be fun to attempt to steer a conversation toward sanity. For example, the Strib ran a profile earlier this week about Mt. Iron, MN based photovoltaic power panel company, Silicon Energy MN. The article mentions that company has received government subsidies to get rolling, and a subsidy will be available to people purchasing their panels. This, of course, led to pretty standard responses against any form of government subsidy.

But, things got stranger when people started claiming that solar panels don’t work. If one comment really tied it all together, it’s this one by ironranger6 (closed circuit to the Strib: it would be cool if we could link to specific comments), where the commenter manages to attack the politics of the project and physics of solar energy:

Once again you just can’t fix Stupid….people that claim solar energy is free are so far in la la land that its a waste of time to talk to them….its all about feeeeeeelings which of course are IRRATIONAL…………………. I guarantee that the Solar company will pull out of the iron range as soon as the tax credits that WE all pay for runs out…..SOLAR power is in NO WAY cheap or competitive………..anyone that claims it is is either getting paid to claim that or are just plain stupid………and probably voted for Obama…..

One thing ironranger6’s comment lacked was support for any of his/her claims. For example, a few numbers showing the differences in cost could help ironranger6’s arguments.

Thankfully, a commenter named SirRuslyn showed up that actually provided some numbers:

The only problem with solar power is the cost, we’re decades away from solar power being cost effective enough for home installation. It just honestly does not make sense. It costs between $50-$60k to install solar panels on your roof, and you’ll only get use of them for about 8 months of the year up here, since when they’re covered with snow and ice, they do not conduct electricity. For them to pay for themselves after 15 years, at $50k for installation, your monthly electric bills would need to be over $400/month. My bill averages about $175, it would take me over 35 years to break even. I’m not even sure I’ll be alive that long, let alone in the same house. Solar power may be the future, but the costs need to come down drastically, comparable to the price of a used car, where folks can finance it over a 5 year period and make it cost effective and practical.

I thought SirRuslyn’s numbers seemed high, but at least we now had something concrete to debate. I responded with this comment:

@SirRuslyn, thanks for providing some numbers in your comment. That gives something to debate, which is far better than the political nonsense that came before you in the comments. I recently had estimates done on my home for solar water and photo voltaic. My out of pocket costs for either were way below the numbers you post. The more expensive of the two was solar PV, which came to around $18k with an approximate 14 year break even. Perhaps one difference is due to the size of our homes. My energy bills are significantly less than yours. In fact, I don’t come near $175 with the central air running at this time of year.

We had a chance to exchange a few comments and seemed to have learned a few things from each other about our different housing scenarios and the cost to cool them.

Then a person with real world experience in St. Paul, esandeen, hopped in to share what he’s learned from having panels on his home for a year:

@SirRuslyn, @edkohler – I put solar PV on my home 1 year ago. Total cost was about $17k before any rebates, for a 2.5 kilowatt system (11 PV panels). Prices are likely lower now, as they have been dropping considerably. Today you would get ($2.25 x 2500W) = $5625 from Xcel to install such an array, and a 30% tax credit after that. If you could get that array for $15k today, you’d be at about $6500 out of pocket. (Xcel has plenty of good reasons to invest in this way. Last week when they hit a new peak for demand, solar output was also peaking, reducing that peak load for which they pay dearly.) My 2.5kW array produced 3.1 megawatt-hours of energy in the first year, 260kWh/month on average. It’s worked flawlessly. Thanks to an attempt to conserve as well, it produced 70% of our electricity last year. We had 3 bills where our energy charge was (ever so slightly) negative.

So, now we have some real world data based on a local installation. Energy consumed. Cost of installation. And performance. Looks pretty good to me. But rational arguments like that can’t slow down all StarTribune commenters. For example, mnmaggiemn followed up with this take on esandeen’s real world solar experience:

No one idea will work for every one. If it is working for you yay! I would not mind looking into a system like this but I do fear the weather and how much it would work. Every house is different and in a different location. Everyone has different expecations. Obviously someone on here has been able to run more than a fridge and is extremely happy, why try to make an argument out of that!

How strange is that? Is it just me, or does it seem like mnmaggiemn is fighting against physics when she suggests that “no one idea will works for every one”? This isn’t a game of chance. A solar appraisal should be able to provide a fairly accurate estimate of the amount of energy solar panels will absorb based on their geographic location and direction they are mounted. The commenter, esandeen is Eric Sandeen, who attempted to explain to other commenters that the sun does indeed shine in St Paul and provide 70% of his home’s energy needs. In fact, he linked to a site where you can see exactly how much energy each of the panels on his roof generate in real time and historically.

Overall, I’d consider this to be an above-average exchange by StarTribune comment standards. People set in their ways remained that way. People incapable of understanding some pretty basic facts remained in the dark. And people interested in learning from each other did so. And Hitler wasn’t mentioned even once.

Eric seems to have gotten a kick out of this comment exchange as well, and has written about it on his blog. He also just celebrated his first year of solar with a recap of how his solar installation has performed.

The gross cost before subsidies of Eric’s system was $17k. If we assumed that his system’s performance held steady for 30 years, it looks like his electricity costs would be locked in at just under 18 cents per KWH (assuming the panels generate 94,920 KWH of energy over 30 years, which may be a bit generous but is probably in the ballpark). Current rates from Xcel run closer to 10-11 cents depending on whether you opt-in to WindSource or not. But, as Eric points out on his blog, electricity costs will surely rise over time. For example, if the cost of energy went up by 3% per year, the cost per KWH would be 24 cents in 30 years, so Eric’s solar system would be making a nice return on his investment at that point. In fact, at 3% energy cost growth, energy costs would hit Eric’s fixed costs in year 20.

But, Eric took advantage of the rebates available for his installation. Because of that, his out of pocket costs were $5k, bringing his average cost per KWH down to 5.2 cents. Seems like a pretty sound investment.

Put another way, I think we can count on the wind blowing and the sun shining at relatively constant rates into the future, so relying upon those sources for energy seems like a good investment compared to the economic, eco, and health costs of coal (and, um, clean coal).

3 thoughts on “Hijacking StarTribune’s Solar Comments in a Good Way”

  1. That up front investment for solar is too rich for my blood. If I had the $17K sitting around, I’d do my last phase of window installation, new furnace, central air cond. Solar panels would be like, 20th on my list of improvements if at all. And it seems like you’ve taken on a part time job to get payback.

    In re: Strib comments, I don’t like them for exactly the opposite reason. Too much moderation. So scared of offending one group or another. And no discussion can really happen if you have to wait 20 minutes for your comment to pass muster with, someone they have deemed qualified for muster passing. The Pioneer Press now requires Facebook registration and that seems to have severely affected participation. I don’t know what the answer is for a good newspaper comment section, but neither of the city’s dailies have it, that’s for sure.

  2. As for Strib comments, the PiPress got this one right…make them own up to their rant. Me, I read that Mt Iron story and the first handful of comments before shaking my head and walking away. I applaud you for steering some sense into the discussion there…I did not have the strength that day.

    Regarding home improvements putting solar out of reach, I believe people look at alt energy backward…if they did that project and got down to 5 cents per KWH, they could easily afford weatherstripping with the $$$/month they would save on electric bills.

    In fact, most of these alt energy systems come with better household monitors, so they would receive real realtime feedback of the implications of their usage, which almost always results in people reducing their usage since they now have a real chance of spinning that meter backwards and making a few dollars.

  3. @Rat – the $17k was up front, it’s true, but that was much, much more than my final out of pocket cost.

    I certainly didn’t have $17k handy to pony up… I put the up-front payments on my home equity, and floated that for a month or two until the rebates came in. I understand that not everybody has that option…

    This is one of the reason I like programs like Ontario’s FIT – rather than a big upfront payment they pay (well) for production. You could get a loan, and make loan payments with the FIT payments. I think it’d be a little more within reach for more people. Of course you’d have to qualify for a loan, too…

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