By Andy Pendl, Vice President, ARE Solar.
When talking about solar, the biggest questions tend to be about upfront cost vs long term payback, overall durability of the product with the weather we experience in Colorado (hail and blizzards are top of mind), and how we store the energy that's being produced. While each of these questions have unique points to consider, the rate at which communities are installing solar panels is a good indicator toward figuring out whether it is going to be beneficial in the long run. Solar panels have made a quick transition from being a luxury feature on a few homes, to a commonality in new builds. Many largescale home builders are including solar panels as a stock part when building new HOA communities, where every home sold includes solar. In today’s world, you're just as likely to get solar panels as you would a master suite and granite countertops.
There are many benefits to installing solar for both the HOAs and individual homeowners. The first, and most obvious, is that the long-term cost of electricity is offset from day one, and the savings is easy to see on the utility bill. This can benefit individual owners if they have panels on their roof, or the HOA if they put solar on their community resource building, pool house, or another neighborhood amenity. By offsetting the electricity rates now, consumers can lock in their price and mitigate against the inevitable rate increases. Typically, we find that consumers will to see a return on their investment in under 10 years, sometimes much earlier. If financing is used, the cost of the monthly payments is likely at or below what the utility would have charged for the same amount of electricity.
Regarding durability, we've found that panels hold up very well against the Colorado weather. Each system is designed with the assistance of a structural engineer to ensure that the wind and snow loads for each specific location are considered. If any special considerations need to be addressed, the engineers will point that out as part of the design and permit process. Snow is only a concern in that the panels are covered, so they can't make electricity; however, it tends to melt off quickly and the calculations used for total output takes into account any estimated snow days. Wind can be a larger concern, as nobody wants to have damage caused by something being ripped off their roof; This is always reviewed during the design process to ensure that even the worst winds will not affect the structural integrity of the panels. Here in Colorado, it's reasonable to worry that the panels could be damaged by hail. It can certainly happen, but in our 10 years in business only one storm has ever been able to break panels. The storm that closed the Colorado Mills mall for almost 6 months damaged some panels at the nearby National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)*. But of the over 3,000 panels on the building, only ONE sustained damage to the point that it needed to be replaced. What is much more likely is that the roof itself will have hail damage and need replacing. In this instance, the panels will have to be removed temporarily while that work is performed.
The last question that inevitably comes up during conversations about solar is how we store the energy. The reality is that in most cases, we don't! The meter on the building is a “net” meter and can run backwards. Because of this, the times when your system is making more electricity than the home is using, the meter goes backwards and credits you with the excess energy. Then, in times that the building is using more electricity than it's making (nighttime, or when the AC and other large appliances are all running at the same time), the meter goes forward. We try to size the system to get as close to 100% of the building’s needs as possible. If it's sized right, in the spring and fall, the system will usually make more than the building needs, and then the energy bank that is stored would be used up in the winter and summer months. There really isn't any need for a battery unless there is a specific requirement, such as keeping medical equipment running in the case of a power outage.
Solar will continue to grow as more individuals and communities realize the financial benefits and understand how the systems work. Solar energy is no longer a new technology, but a proven way to save money and ensure that electricity rates of the future don't break the bank. If you're considering whether your HOA community should go solar, the answer is yes, and the time is now.
Andy Pendl is the Vice President of ARE Solar. ARE has been in business for 10 years serving the front range of Colorado. They have worked on many high-profile projects, including the Greenbox Storage Facility across from Coors Field, and work with the West Metro Housing Authority on affordable housing projects. ARE Solar works in both residential and commercial areas, and an array of property types including apartments, warehouses, and office spaces.