Meet ‘Mr. Solar’

  • Brooke Fisher<br>Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:36am

When asked about the benefits of having a solar electric system, Mike Nelson does more than answer. He points to his roof.

Nelson, 61, installed solar modules on the roof of his cottage home three years ago. He lives at Greenwood Avenue Cottages with his wife, Christine. The couple moved to the city after living on a barge between the Fremont and Ballard bridges for 14 years.

In July, under Nelson’s guidance, two of his neighbors opted to purchase solar modules for their roof. A commons building, which all cottage owners share, also has solar modules on the roof. As a result, the commons building basically doesn’t have an electric bill, he said.

“By 2015 it (solar modules) will be the electrical choice of preference for most consumers,” said Nelson, who is director of The Northwest Solar Center, a Washington State University energy program founded with the objective of encouraging market transformation.

Nelson has the task of trying to move niche technology into wider mainstream marketability.

A south-sloping roof is ideal for installing modules, Nelson said. Due to the placement of his home, Nelson installed both east- and west-facing systems on his roof. While his neighbors each have 2-kilowatt systems that face south, Nelson’s roof boasts a slightly larger system — 2.5 kilowatts — due to the absence of a south-facing orientation.

All the solar modules at the cottage development were installed by Nelson, who said it can be done “in a couple of weekends.”

Solar modules work very efficiently in Seattle, even better than in Southern California, Nelson said. The cooler climate makes the modules more efficient. The solar electric systems respond to the full spectrum of light, including beam radiation that comes through clouds, he said.

“Our eyeballs can’t pick up those spectrums of light,” Nelson said, “but you will notice a pocket calculator works even on a cloudy day.”

Conservation is key

Conservation and appliance choice “are the key” to using less electricity and making solar modules efficient, Nelson said. He and his wife use electricity to power their compact fluorescent light bulbs, run their energy-efficient refrigerator, laptops and 32-inch flat screen TV. The couple heat water, cook and dry their clothes with natural gas.

Nelson, who owns a Honda Insight hybrid electric car, is very careful about turning on lights. One light per person “makes sense,” he said.

“One of the reasons we chose these cottages is because the designer was so good at day lighting,” Nelson said. “Even on a cloudy, gloomy day there is no good reason to turn on lights.”

Nelson and his wife receive an electricity bill each month, but the cost is minimal. For the month of July, they only paid for having a meter on the side of their house, not for using any electricity.

The extra energy that is credited in the summer can then be used in the winter, he said. Net metering allows solar energy users to put any excess electricity back into the electric grid and retrieve it later, free of charge.

The two-person Nelson household uses about 4 kilowatt hours of electricity a day, which is “pretty phenomenal conservation,” he said. The average household in the United States uses about 30 kilowatt hours a day, he said.

“It has become a way of life,” said Christine Nelson about conserving electricity. She and her husband have always had the necessary appliances “to make life comfortable,” she said, although she makes conscious decisions about which appliances to purchase. The couple has one grown daughter.

“I would never get a slow cooker,” Christine Nelson said, “or other small appliances that take up a lot of electricity.”

Purchase price

A typical solar system ranges from $7,000 to $10,000 per kilowatt, said Nelson, who added that more consumers will begin to utilize solar electricity as it makes economic sense for them. Some people are waiting to make a purchase until prices become more affordable, he said.

“Some people are early adopters and some are a little more cautious,” Nelson said.

The primary disadvantage of solar modules, Nelson admits, is that the up-front costs are high. To finance a system, he often suggests that people take out a second mortgage or a homeowner’s loan in order to get lower rates.

It is possible, however, to get good deals on modules by doing some “predatory shopping,” said Nelson, who obtained his modules for free because they were slightly discolored and were slated to be thrown away as a factory reject model.

“This is a consumer society,” Nelson said. “Everything has to be perfect when you buy it.”

And although not free, the modules recently installed on Nelson’s neighbors’ roofs were purchased used out of California. Each of his neighbors paid $5,000 apiece for their 2-kilowatt system, or $2,500 per kilowatt.

Nelson learned about the used modules from contacts in California and drove down to haul them back in his pickup truck. The modules come with a 20-25 year warranty, he said, and at the end of 20 years they will still be producing 80 percent of the power they did when they were brand new.

“Buying used modules is really a pretty good deal,” Nelson said.

A little incentive

Incentive programs for solar energy users vary from state to state, but all users are entitled to a federal income tax credit of $2,000, or 30 percent of the cost of the solar electric system. In Washington state, an incentive program pays solar electricity users 15 cents per kilowatt produced, on top of the 8 cents saved from purchasing power from Seattle City Light. The incentive program runs nine years long for each user, but after the nine years are up, the user still continues to save 8 cents per kilowatt produced, Nelson said.

With the incentive program, the return on investment is better than 30 percent the first year and the return for the next eight years is about 7 percent, Nelson said, after which the modules have basically paid for themselves and produce free electricity. The modules also add value to a person’s home, he said.

“If you are just buying electricity from the utility company, at the end of 20 years you have a drawer full of receipts,” Nelson said. “If you buy a solar electric system, you have a paid-off investment that generates power for another 20 years.”

The incentive program, which was passed in the legislature two years ago, will hopefully allow Washington state to gain a market position on manufacturing solar modules, Nelson said.

The legislation indicates that if an inverter is built in Washington and used in the state, customers can save 26 cents per kilowatt-hour; if solar modules are manufactured in the state and used in the state, a customer could save 44 cents per kilowatt-hour. A system with both an inverter and modules produced in the state would save 62 cents.

There are currently no modules manufactured in the state, however.

“When some entrepreneur steps forward and starts doing that, Washington state will change,” Nelson said.

In the past six months, 130 solar electric systems have been installed in Washington state, Nelson said.

“Those people have conventional electricity and have chosen to add solar electricity to their homes,” Nelson said.

A little help

Darlene Feikema, one of Nelson’s neighbors who recently had modules installed on her roof, said she has been interested in solar modules for the past decade. She always thought it would be too expensive, she said, until Nelson offered to help her find some used modules.

“Mike told us he would tell us when the right time came along,” said Feikema, 49, who calls Nelson “Mr. Solar.”

The installation of the modules went “pretty smoothly,” Feikema said, after Nelson coordinated some volunteer help from family and friends, who helped carry the heavy modules up to the roof, while Nelson installed them. Feikema lives in her cottage home with her 18-year-old son, who she said is “cool” with the solar modules.

“He has been the educational right arm here,” Feikema said about Nelson. “I knew the general gist, but not all the details.”

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