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

, Senior energy analyst | January 15, 2015, 5:41 pm EDT
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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.


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  • bcomnes

    Ashland Oregon offers great incentives, the first when you install it (we got a $7500 local rebate) and then with net metering which buys excess production at a retail rates, the net net on this is my 3.2K 16 panel system yields a net surplus on kWhs sold over kWhrs purchased and the carryover surplus at year end is cashed out which covers my $10 a month “base” rate fee for the meter – in other words my electricity costs zero, The house is a 2200 sq footer with dual air and gas heating systems, gas water heater, very high insulation and tight construction, all lights are CFL or LED and we are aggressive about turning things off when not in use.

    • ucsjrogers

      That’s great information, bcomnes, and great math. The numbers are similar in many parts of Massachusetts, where the combination of dramatically lower solar prices, community bulk purchasing (via Solarize efforts, for example), net-metering, and state and federal support can mean less-than-four-year paybacks. That’s really impressive.

      Congrats on your system, and congrats on seizing hold of the opportunity where you live. Kudos to Ashland for helping make it all happen.

      Thanks for sharing.

      – John

  • Terri Engels

    Waouh this is amazing! After reading a very dark article about the government helping shady companies taking advantage of people who want to go green, I feel really excited to read this great success story. I’m a solar panel user, but sadly mine are not big enough to bring my bills all the way down to zero 🙂 But I’m quite pleased so far, I’m expecting to save up to $1164 this year, if you want to know how much you could be saving check this map If you are a solar panel user be careful with the articles you read online because I have the impression that there’s a counter-movement, some people out there who want to put us off and make us give up our convictions of leading an eco-friendly life. Yes we can do it, we can preserve our planet.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for weighing in, Terri. There is a lot to feel good about in solar these days.

      And definitely don’t feel bad about not going all the way to zero. Most people size their systems to cover less than 100%, and find plenty of happiness (and bill savings) in those levels of solarization. It’s all good.

      – John