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Money and electricity: seeing returns on solar

By Ed Begley, Jr.

I can say just two words and have your immediate attention: money and electricity.

Mostly you see these two words together with another word—'save.'  Money-saving tips always include reducing electricity use. You see these same tips in both business- and home-focused financial advice columns. If followed, you get to keep more of your money. We can all agree that we are interested in having more money!

Electricity has always interested me since I was a child. We have become increasingly reliant upon it for life's functions as we adopt newer, exciting technology. While cutting-edge technology uses it more efficiently, we really can't get along without it, at least not for very long (Just ask my wife!). With our growing needs, electricity costs are rising—because we are still using limited energy sources like coal and oil, meaning the law of supply and demand turns against us.

Sustainable living and business isn't about the warm and fuzzy feeling you have as you suffer extreme temperatures inside because you are afraid of adjusting the thermostat; if you make the right sustainable decisions, money will be put back in your pocket. Of course, these types of choices have to make financial sense before we push "Go."

Solar photovoltaic energy makes financial sense. The concept of harnessing endless, renewable energy from the sun to provide energy to run the lights, refrigerator, and other electronics resonated with me.

I believe that solar is the cleanest form of energy generation, and from my own experience, also one of the most reliable.

I moved away from home at the age of 18, and I was really excited to be on my own…until my utility bills started to come in. I found myself longing for a future home where I could install solar panels and generate my own energy. Now, I know firsthand that solar works—I have been running my house and charging my electric cars with solar power since 1990. In fact, it has been an incredibly good investment for me.

Speaking of investments, there is hope on the horizon for an economic recovery in the United States. One of the most important investments should be in an energy strategy. Energy is a fixed cost dealt with by asking others in the shared space to turn off the lights when not in use or to keep the thermostat at the cusp of being uncomfortable to save money. These are good tactics to save money, but they don't address the root of the issue—where the energy comes from.

You see, companies and people are afraid of their electricity bills, just like I was at 18. Rates are volatile and rising; for example, as I write this in January 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects retail residential electricity prices to grow another 1.9 percent in 2013 and by as much as 2.6 percent in 2014.

These rising rates cut into potential profits and household savings. Having a stable, consistent rate is more helpful to forecast profits and expenses.

But before going solar, there are a few pieces of low-hanging fruit I always advise people to consider to make their investment in solar more effective. Some simple things to do include: using compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, installing energy-saving thermostats, and adding extra insulation. I always remind people that for every $1 you spend on the front-end, you will save $5 on the cost of your solar system.

The next step is choosing a solar panel and installer that will help you accomplish your goals. You don't want too big of a system, or you might just be generating energy that isn't used. Also, there is enough variation in the types of panels available on the market that it can be quite confusing. Looking at your overall energy usage and what would be an acceptable amount of reduction to your monthly bill is a smart strategy.

One panel manufacturer, Panasonic, has some of the world's most efficient solar panels. Highly efficient panels produce the same amount of energy with fewer modules being installed. This means less rooftop space is required, great for residential customers. The company also offers solar solutions for business customers. These customers are often looking for large-scale systems at lower costs. Panasonic offers more than manufacturing; they have their own engineering, procurement, construction, operations, and maintenance teams to guide the process. The teams help evaluate a site, propose a system to meet your energy needs and even possibly make you extra cash, and operate and maintain it to ensure longevity. They even help out with financing packages. As a 100-year-old global company, Panasonic understands the returns and profits that investors and business leaders demand.

While it may not be right for everyone, taking the time to explore energy options like solar that will provide free, unlimited energy for years beyond the breakeven point just makes sense. With the right system, lowering fixed costs is not only easier, but hey, let's be honest, it helps pad that wallet or bottom line with more cash, something we can all agree is a good thing.  

March/April 2013