Tim Denoncour of ReVision Energy hoists a solar panel on the north roof of Bonnie Washuk and Rick Zaccaro’s Portland home in March. Technicians carried 22 solar panels to the south roof creating a solar array now providing clean electricity to the home. Bonnie Washuk photo

PORTLAND — The blue and yellow ReVision truck with the logo “Enjoy the sun” pulled into our driveway March 11.

A crew of four got out, introduced themselves and shook our hands. (That was the last time I shook hands with anyone, thanks to the coronavirus.)

After a day and a half of the crew building what I call our “solar system,” by 1 p.m. March 12 we began generating our own electricity with 22 new solar panels on our roof.

The next Central Maine Power bill on March 22 — with 10 days of solar power — was $84, down from $134 the month before and $140 from the same month last year.

Once we build enough credits, projections show our monthly CMP bill should be $12.

I hesitated to write this first-person account of the costs and benefits of getting solar panels because COVID-19 is currently ravaging lives, jobs and everyday life.

But, Earth Day is April 22, reminding us that our planet needs help. Hopefully, normal routines will return with us taking less for granted, doing what we can to help each other and our children’s children, which includes our environment.

Going solar is one way to do that. And this year and next year, a hefty federal tax credit will reduce the cost.

If you get solar panels or geothermal in 2020, there’s a 26 percent tax credit. Our system cost $22,000; the tax credit brought it down to $16,650.

In 2021 that tax credit shrinks to 22 percent. In 2022 the tax credit for homeowners goes away entirely, unless Congress resumes the credit.

For us, saving money wasn’t the big motivation; doing what we could to use clean, renewable energy and cut our carbon footprint was the primary goal, as long as it didn’t cost too much more in the long run.

But what we found out is for our situation with a south-facing roof, our solar panels are expected to pay for themselves in about 16 years. With a lifespan of 30 years, that means 14 years of savings AND helping future generations.

ReVision Energy’s Darren Brown stands and looks over the solar panels installed so far as he and other technicians work to complete the array of 22 panels in March. Bonnie Washuk photo

‘WE’RE TOO OLD.’ BUT ARE WE?

If your goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, any age is a good age to add solar. The electricity created by your solar panels replaces electricity you’re now getting from “the grid,” which often comes from a variety of greenhouse gas-producing processes.

If like most people you have to balance your goals and your finances, the current 16-year payback means young and middle-aged homeowners will see plenty of financial benefit.

If you’re older? Initially we thought at our age (me, 63; husband, 68), we were too old for solar panels to make financial sense.

Plus, we should downsize from our 1,700-square-foot home. Right?

One day while walking the dogs we stopped into a nearby open house of a condo for sale. It was small. “Nope,” I said. “We’d be bumping into each other reaching for the coffee or into the fridge. We’re staying.”

So if we’re staying, let’s continue making our home energy efficient. Energy improvements we made six years ago (heat pump, insulation, hybrid water heater) really paid off.

Then we scheduled a consultation with ReVision Energy of South Portland.

Solar design guy Calen Perkins came to our home, got on the roof, and with some devices measured potential solar energy.

Turns out we’re lucky.

First off our roof is in good shape, we got a new roof a few years ago. You can’t put panels on a bad roof. Secondly we have a south-facing roof with no obstacles blocking sunlight. “There’s room for 22 panels,” Perkins said.

Reviewing our last year of electricity use, his analysis showed 22 panels would provide us with 100 percent, and more, of electricity we need.

We’re not big users. We heat and cool our home with a heat pump, have efficient lighting, an electric stove and dryer. Our monthly CMP bill averages $100 a month, it’s higher in the winter, lower in the summer.

The way it works, Perkins explained, is during long days of sunlight the 22 solar panels will generate more electricity than we’ll use. CMP takes that energy and gives us an electricity credit. In the fall and winter when hours of sunlight are fewer, our solar panels will generate some electricity but probably not enough. Then we’ll use the energy credit we accumulated during the summer.

Year-round our bill will be about $12 a month, which is the charge for being able to feed our extra electricity into the grid and to take back our electricity when needed.

The couple’s Central Maine Power Co. electrical meter now sits next to new equipment that helps tie in their solar panels to the CMP grid. Bonnie Washuk photo

BUT HOW TO PAY FOR IT?

After Perkins left us with his estimate, Rick and I talked for days about what we should do. After all $22,000 is a lot of money.

(I couldn’t help thinking about family members who spent $70,000 for a gas guzzling SUV and a neighbor who spent $25,000 on fancy siding.)

At first we said yes, let’s do it. Then we thought no, our electric bill isn’t really that high.

After more reflection we decided to go ahead.

To pay for it we could take out an energy loan, or take money out of retirement savings.

If we were younger we would have taken the 20-year loan. For our situation, the 4.9 percent loan would have been about $137 a month, about $37 more than our average monthly CMP bill.

We decided instead to reach into savings and skip the loan.

In December we signed the agreement and made a $7,000 down payment.

Three months later, the four technicians spent the first day up on our roof and in the basement.

Wearing safety harnesses, they built a frame on the roof to hold the panels. In the basement they installed the equipment needed to connect the solar panels to our main electric panel.

Writer Bonnie Washuk, and her husband, Rick Zaccaro, stand outside their Portland home, now powered by solar panels. Bonnie Washuk photo

Watching the technicians build the system was kind of magical. Such cool technology! One by one, they carried the panels from their truck. With a ladder, ropes and a pulley, they hoisted each panel to the north roof, then carried them to the south side, attaching them to the frame.

After all panels were in place, the power was turned off for about a half hour as final connections were made. Then, the system was turned on; Revision technician Will Cutshall came in and announced we were solar powered!

We went outside to admire the job. For several minutes I stood there, looking at the panels, grinning.

Cutshall installed a device near our computer so we could monitor how much electricity our panels were making for that day, week, month or billing period.

We installed the “Solar Edge” app on our computer and phones. We’ve become such geeks, frequently checking the app to see how many kilowatts we’re making.

So far daily generation has ranged from 7.4 kilowatts to 46 kilowatts.

How much our “solar system” makes depends on the weather.

On a rainy April 2, we only generated 7.4 kilowatts. On a cool, sunny April 6, we generated 46.8 kilowatts, far more than we use in a day. (Daily use ranges from 10 to 30 kilowatts.)

Just wait until June!

The same app recently told us that from March 12 through April 9, we saved 1,191 pounds of CO2 emission, the equivalent of planting 30.2 trees.

There it is. That’s what it’s all about.

Twenty-two solar panels now provide all the electricity Bonnie Washuk and Rick Zaccaro need for their Portland house. Bonnie Washuk photo

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