The sunshine state indeed

When people find out we’ve just installed 2 kilowatts of solar panels on our roof in Marathon, the first question always involves the payback. How long will it be before we save enough on our electricity to pay for the installation?

For us, the payback was immediate. As soon as the system began delivering kilowatts generated by the Florida, sun we reduced our carbon footprint. What’s a carbon footprint? It’s a measure of the impact our activities have on our environment, and in particular on climate change. It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, cooling, and driving our car.

As people who are very concerned about what global warming is doing to the climate — fires in Texas, flooding and enormous snow storms in the Northeast, record-setting heat waves and, of course, stronger hurricanes here — we are committed to using less electricity, water and gasoline.

Installing solar power at our house was another step in that process that began the day we installed our first CFL bulb.

Our new installation has other benefits. The system, designed by local solar consultants Solaria, includes eight batteries that will provide power for three days in case of a power failure. Not long after the system began working we had one of those typical Keys power outages and were delighted when the lights in the kitchen stayed on while the entire neighborhood was dark. If we have a hurricane and lose power we’ll be able to keep our refrigerator, some lights, and a fan running until power is restored.

We’re also much more aware of what we’re consuming and have trimmed our daily usage even more, trying to use less power and sell more back.

And then there was that first electric bill, an exciting day. It was $17. During the hot summer months, the 2 kilowatts aren’t sufficient to power our central air conditioning, but we’re still only using slightly more than half of what our power consumption was prior to installing the panels.

The entire process was a real learning experience. Once the system was operational, it has required very little daily intervention. However, the installation, handled by Key Largo-based Protech E2, had many stages that we had to manage.

It began when Luis Roofing, also in Marathon, mounted the nine panels on the roof. Then Protech camped out at our house for a week, wiring the system together, installing the inverter that converts the DC power from the panels into AC power for use in the house, and tuning the system.

As with any complex installation, there were glitches along the way. But when it was finally up and running, we could forget the difficulties we encountered and enjoy monitoring our daily usage.

We decided, in consultation with Steve Grasely at Solaria, to do what’s called " net metering. " This means that we’re still hooked to the grid and sell the electricity we generate back to Florida Keys Electric Cooperative.

FKEC installed a special meter on the house that measures how much power we get from them, how much we have sold back and what our net usage is. There were days before we turned our air conditioning on when we sold as much back as we’d received. The net, in other words, was zero.

The question of payback is a strange one because people don’t ask that when they buy an Escalade or a 50-inch LCD television or an iPad. While some may want expensive toys, we decided to spend our money on reducing our own impact on society.

Yes, it was expensive to install, but it has been more than worth it.

In the Keys where we get 300 days of sun a year, it seems a shame that we were only the 31st house (other than those on No Name) to tap the power of the sun. We can only hope that more will follow.