Homeowners soak up the sun’s rays to save money
SolarCity’s Waldorf office installs 200 solar systems monthly
After seeing family members saving money on their electric bills, Jerome Spears of Charlotte Hall decided to take the plunge and get solar panels installed on his garage.
“I waited. My uncle, which is the house further up the road, he had it done first,” Spears said, pointing around the neighborhood of mostly family members who have built homes on the land once farmed by his grandfather. “Then my cousin over there, she had it done; then my cousin, here (he points across the road), he had it done.
“My cousin’s house over there is gigantic and it’s totally electric. He said that, during the summer months, his electric bill from just air conditioning runs around $1,200 to $1,400 a month. This year, his electric bill was like $190 for one month.”
His cousin’s home is quite a bit larger than his one-story rancher and supports a larger solar array. Spears is getting a 10 kilowatt system put on the unattached garage next to the house and hopes to save on his electric heating bill this winter.
“In the winter months, we have a horrendous power bill,” he said. “It’s terrible — everything’s electric. It was just a no-brainer — anything to cut that power bill. We have an $800 to $900 pow- er bill a month. That’s the wintertime months, and it doesn’t usually get better until about June.
“I expect to save a few hundred dollars,” he added. “I’ve got a 17-year-old son who’s getting ready to go to college, this is his last year in high school, so every nickel that we can save we’re going to need.”
Spears isn’t alone. The Waldorf regional office of SolarCity — just one of the solar system installers in the region — has been installing 200 systems a month in Southern Mary- land, which for them includes a portion of Prince George’s County. In the three Southern Maryland counties — Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s — SolarCity currently has over 1,500 customers and has installed more than 15,000 kilowatts.
“Every month has been our biggest month, pretty much for 10 years now,” said Ryan Silvernale, the regional operations manager who runs the Waldorf office. “There’s been rapid growth [in solar installations] throughout the country, especially in Maryland.”
He has between seven and 10 crews out working each day, depending on the day of the week, and has a little over 100 employees.
He said the average system size installed by SolarCity in Maryland is 10 kilowatts, but East Coast-wide it’s around seven kilowatts. The com- pany, which was founded in 2006, is headquartered in San Mateo, Calif., and has residential solar system installations in 19 states, though it also installs larger, megawatt commercial systems.
“We’re the largest solar company in pretty much ever y sector of solar in the countr y,” said Lee Keshishian, vice president of East Coast operations. He said the company recently installed a 15-megawatt system in Wye Mills in Queen Anne’s County for Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. The project is expected to offset about 18 percent of the total energy Johns Hopkins facilities use.
On the residential side, the company offers different packages to suit individual homeowners, such as outright cash purchase and a relatively new zero-down loan setup. In both, the homeowner owns the system, gets direct savings from a reduced electric bill — with the possibility of selling excess power into the electricity grid — and can take advantage of tax credits. The system is warrantied by SolarCity. Keshishian said in a phone inter view that a 10 kilowatt system costs $30,000 to $35,000, and a seven kilowatt system runs in the neighborhood of $24,000.
“We’ve got a new product that’s going to be really, really good for a lot of homeowners,” Silvernale said of the loan plan. “It’s called ‘solar loan,’ instead of lease. It gives all the same benefits of zero money down — you save money from day one — but now you also, because it’s a loan and you own the system, you get to receive the tax incentives as well at the end of the year. You can get up to a couple thousand dollars back on your tax return.”
The other options are a “power purchase agreement” and the lease plan Silvernale mentioned. With both choices, SolarCity remains the owner of the system and is responsible for repairs. With the PPA, a homeowner pays for the power produced, per kilowatt, usually at or below the rate charged by the local power company. With the leasing option, the homeowner pays a fixed monthly cost over 20 years based on how much power the sys- tem produces in a year, Keshishian said in phone interview.
“The goal here is to get [the system] to cost next to nothing,” Keshishian said. “Any payment you have is less than the cost of the power you save [from the electric company].” He said most people choose the lease option but those with higher incomes who are able to take advantage of the tax credits may find the loan option more valuable.
“They both get you to a place that you get the system installed for free,” he said.
No matter the package, SolarCity designs and installs the system, including lining up outside contractors as necessar y and handling permits and fees.
“Every step that they do, they’re constantly emailing me, letting me know what process they’re going through,” Spears said. “Even if it doesn’t involve me to do anything, they keep me enlightened to whatever is going on.”
He said he decided on SolarCity after reading a lot of reviews online and hasn’t been disappointed, so far. “It seems to be a pretty good company,” he added.
“These guys started this morning at 7:30 a.m.,” Silvernale said while watching his crew add solar panels to the garage roof. “A system like this, a 10 kW system on a low [roof] pitch — the lower the pitch, the easier the guys can move around — it’ll take them about a half a day. They’ll be pulling out of here by 1 or 2 o’clock.”
With the temperatures dropping through the fall, Spears said he’s looking for ward to saving some money on heating soon.
“We’re really looking for some savings,” he said. “The [SolarCity] guys were good and really worked with me.
“The house is paid for, now,” the car buff added. “I hope that I can retire and sit and clean up all my cars all day long — and just enjoy life.”
Dave Strandell, left, of Hollywood, Md., and Deyonta Gross of Lexington Park install a 10 kilowatt solar system on a garage roof Oct. 19 in Charlotte Hall.
Ryan Silvernale is the regional operations manager for SolarCity’s Waldorf office. He and his teams install 200 solar systems a month.