Rooftop Solar Panels Can Produce All the Electricity You Need. Just Ask This Family.

January 15, 2015 | 5:41 pm
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Solar panels on the roof can do more than just cut your net electricity use; they can bring it all the way down to zero. Here’s one family’s story about that process, and what it all means.

As described here, Ben and Stephanie Caron’s journey largely started with a book dear to my heart:

When his 10-year-old son, Joey, brought home the UCS book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living from his school library, [Ben] Caron said, “I devoured it, and then we talked about what we could do.”

Getting to zero w solar - Caron house

Forget “nuclear family.” Think solar. (Credit: Ben Caron)

The Carons’ son has been a schoolmate and friend of my kids for several years, so I’ve gotten to watch some of these developments, and live vicariously through their progress and successes. I’m not sure getting to zero net electricity (what they consume minus what their solar produces) was their target when they started down this path. They were just looking to be a part of the answer to climate change.

But at some point along the way, the “what we could do” thinking led to them calling some solar companies.

How their solar works

The first step in the design process for their rooftop solar system was to figure out not just what their budget could manage, but also their roof space. (Ben, a whiz at computer-aided design, actually helped the solar company see how more panels were possible.)

They also paved the way for the 100% push with lots of energy efficiency: new windows, a lot more insulation, and efficient (and high quality) appliances, for example. Anything that changes the denominator—cuts the overall electricity use—makes it that much easier for the solar panels to cover their power needs.

Technically, the solar piece is really straightforward: The Carons use electricity as they normally would, and feed excess solar into the electricity grid—their meter runs backwards. Then, when night, clouds, or power needs demand, they draw power back. (Things don’t go dark in the Caron home when the sun goes down. Really.)

From the outside-the-Caron-home perspective—the system or societal view—customers like them present both benefits and challenges, as we talk about here. The upshot, though, is that we should want a lot more people embracing solar the way the Carons have, and we want to figure out how to make that as easy as possible for the households and the utilities serving them.

Further up and further in

The results have been everything they hoped for. I got an excited text from Ben that said that their year-end figures had just come in, and they were below zero for the year. That is, they had produced more electricity than they had used.

Solar vs neighbors - Caron electricity use 2 smileys

And their “neighbor efficiency rank”—how the Carons stack up against their average and most efficient neighbors in terms of electricity use—is a marvel to behold. They’re #1—solidly in two-smiley-faces territory.

Caron neighborhood efficiency rank #1

Ben and Stephanie aren’t done, though. Last week he told me, “I’m still making changes!”—more LEDs, more energy-saving devices like timers on the bathroom fans.

They’ve also inspired a neighbor to switch from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, and four colleagues to install their own solar panels. In Cooler Smarter, that’s what we call being low-carbon leaders.

And they’re laying the groundwork for much grander things through the next generation. As Ben says:

“My son is as excited as I am, if not more so, about saving energy… We’ve made it a game to see how little electricity we can use. When he walks into a room, he asks, ‘Do we really need all these lights on?’”

You don’t need to get your net electricity use to zero to seriously cut your carbon emissions. But it’s nice to know it’s possible with rooftop solar.


About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.