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Solar: It's much cheaper than you think

Luis Roofing installs a solar module on the author's roof.
Luis Roofing installs a solar module on the author's roof.

Fewer than 100 homes of the approximately 15,000 in the Keys get their daily electricity from the power of the sun. One reason is that people perceive solar panels to be an expensive option.

While the up-front cost of buying the solar modules and having the array installed by a professional company may seem high, these systems are actually a bargain in the long run.

Cost is down

The price of photovoltaic systems (PV) that generate electricity has plummeted in recent years. Something that was considered a luxury even 10 years ago now costs about 5 cents per kilowatt installed. Once the system is in place and working, the electricity you use from your installation is free.

But electric rates will rise

The cost of electricity from the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative (Seven Mile Bridge north to the Miami-Dade County line) averages about 9.9 cents per kilowatt depending upon how much power you use. Keys Energy Services (Seven Mile Bridge south) charges about the same.

While that has been stable, Florida Power and Light on the mainland recently applied to raise its rates by 11.5 percent. It's likely, therefore, that the price of electricity will increase over the years, including in our island chain.

But once you make your initial solar investment, the cost of electricity from solar panels never goes up. The array you put on your roof will be pumping out power in the sunny Florida Keys for years at no cost to you. Consider it your hedge against inflation.

Amortized expenditure is low

The lifespan of most solar systems is about 25 years and often much more, so the initial expense is amortized over many years. For example, if the outlay for installing a complete PV system on your rooftop is $40,000, then the cost per year would be $1,600 based upon a 25-year lifespan.

At the rate the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative charges, you'd be paying $145.50 a month for 1,500 kilowatt hours, or $1,746 per year. That translates into $43,650 as compared to the $40,000 for the solar panels if electric prices remain stable over 25 years, something that is quite unlikely since fuel costs will increase. Check your bill to see your monthly usage.

Tax credits are still on tap



Now is a great time to think about solar because the government still offers a 30 percent tax credit for people who install this clean energy source. That tax credit will be reduced each year until 2022, when it will disappear. That's a tax credit, by the way, and not a tax deduction. When tax time comes around, you can knock 30 percent of the cost of your system off what you owe the government. As a result, a $40,000 PV installation ends up costing only $28,000.

You get cash back

Most people remain connected to the electric grid when they install solar panels at their home. This is called net metering. If their panels don't generate enough power to run everything in the house, they can be assured of getting what they need from the Electric Co-op or Keys Energy.

When the solar panels are cranking and there isn't much home use, owners sell the excess power back to the electric company and get paid by the electric company for doing so. In the winter in the Keys when people aren't running their whole house air conditioners, the solar power they generate will put a serious dent in the monthly bill. In the summer, because AC units use so much power and run around the clock, that advantage is diminished. 

Solar is an investment with a guaranteed return

The money you earn from selling power and the savings that you will realize from electric prices that don't increase means you'll get a guaranteed return on your initial solar investment every year. Not many other financial vehicles can promise that.

Of course, the best reason to put solar panels on your roof isn't the money you save but knowing you are doing your part to reduce the country's energy consumption and the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere. However, it's nice to know that you can do that and save money, too.

For information about contacting professional, local solar installers, check the website of the Solar Education Association of the Florida Keys (www.seaflkeys.com) for names and contact details.

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