Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Solar Energy in Lakeport

Interview with James Pan

Many of you have no doubt noticed the solar array on the roof of 1983 Lakeport Way (and perhaps also the Tesla vehicles in the driveway). Because of the owners’ obvious commitment to reducing their carbon footprint, the Editor sat down with James Pan (who is also the chair of Lakeport’s Disaster Preparedness Committee) to chat about what is involved in “going solar.”

James (who studied engineering at Virginia Tech
after graduating from McLean High School, where he grew up) began by offering the following analogy for his use of solar energy: “You know how good it feels when you grow your own tomatoes in your own garden and you hold up that perfect tomato? Then it hits you that it cost at least $30.00 in terms of time and expense to get that great tomato.” His point was that, though he does not regret his switch to solar, from a good return-on-dollar point of view, it’s not ready for most Virginia residents yet. The solar industry is a dynamic market with new (i.e., better) technology constantly appearing, meaning his system will be “old technology” in just a few years. And unlike a number of states, Virginia so far has not provided subsidies to homeowners who go solar. Return on investments are much better in D.C. and Maryland because of higher rates for electricity and more subsidies. He does think it likely, however, that after the recent statewide election the situation will change, with a slight rise in electric rates to cover the increased subsidies. So over time the return on investment will continue to improve. That said, the federal tax credits are declining starting next year, raising that unknown of if, when, and at what level those credits will be over time. 

James was inspired by his studies of alternative and solar energy in college. He believes in conservation and self-sufficiency and takes pride in using as little carbon as possible. As important, he wanted to do his part in not sending more oil money overseas, motivating his family to drive electric vehicles.     

Of the negative surprises so far, he cited a mysterious “stand-by fee” he is charged to be connected to the power grid. After searching the internet and multiple calls to Dominion, it is still not clear when or how the fee is calculated. Dominion manually computes the bill and does not show the calculations. When asked if he has thought about “going off the grid”—opting out of commercially supplied electricity altogether—he replied with a chuckle, “I can’t realistically do that . . . at least my wife wouldn’t like the minimalist experience! Let’s just say it would be very rustic living with no HVAC, bicycles as the main form of transportation, and lots of manual laundry.” 

But why worry about not having power for the HVAC, car charging, or washing machine when you have a solar energy system? James has had the system working only since August 1 of this past year, and he suspects that on some days in May and June, when the sun is out a long time and HVAC needs are low, he could produce enough power to have a zero bill for the day. On the other hand, after the fall equinox, he experienced a “big drop in productivity caused by the sun’s lower angle in the sky,” and it’s probably worse in the winter (and, needless to say, during cloudy periods the solar panels produce almost no electricity at all).

James feels that at the present time, despite what some marketers may have said, taking the route he has will not “pay for itself” in savings on his electric bill in any realistic timeframe. On some days in August he produced $7.00-8.00 of energy, but these were long, very sunny days. In October and November, even on sunny days, he might produce $2.00 of energy. In fact, he calculates that if he is lucky, it will probably take 15 to 20 years to get a payback.

His higher priority is self-sufficiency in case of an emergency, citing for example Hurricane Isabel that hit the area in 2003 and caused widespread blackouts for a few days across Northern Virginia. He does feel we are lucky in Reston because we so seldom suffer power outages, and when we do, they are mercifully short. Just in case, he does have two 14kW (about $3.00 of energy) Tesla storage batteries in his basement in the event of a blackout.

In terms of advice, James suggests that when roof replacement is needed, look into getting solar then. If the federal, state, and local incentives are right at that time, it may make sense to consider going solar, though he suspects that might be four or five years from now at best. But as time goes by, solar should make more sense from a return-on-investment perspective. In theory, having solar energy should also add to the value of the house (as much as 20 times your annual energy savings). He is happy to share more of his experience and other insights if anyone wishes to contact him through the Lakeport Board (board@lakeportcluster.org).

James “loves Lakeport,” having moved here in 2004 and describes himself as “an Instagram husband and an Uber father,” explaining that by that he means he takes lots of pictures of his wife Holly (an Instagram influencer) and is constantly driving sons Henry (12) and E.J. (almost 10) to their many activities! When the boys were younger, James was the “Lakeport Easter Bunny,” organizing the annual Easter Egg Hunt, and he is a strong supporter of the South Lakes High School STEAM Team, which graces the Lake Thoreau spillway with a public art installation each year. He is also an auxiliary police officer with the Fairfax County Police Department and recruited our current Neighborhood Watch chair Chuck Foster into the same role. As Disaster Preparedness Committee chair, James will also be happy to hear from anyone who wants advice in that area; feel free to reach out to him, again through the Board.

Thanks, James, for this helpful information on solar energy and for your other contributions to the Lakeport community!

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