Going Solar

It wasn’t my intention to make California my home when I first came here. Traveling around the country and taking the scenic route whenever possible with the help of my trusted and road-worn atlas, I first set eyes on the Pacific Ocean after crossing the deserts of California and driving the meandering road from Ojai. The mountains seemed rather impressive, especially so close to the ocean. And so much sunshine! Coming from New England, where it rains an average of 151 days a year and the days can be short and gray much of the winter, the sunny days made me fall in love with the area. All these years later, I still love this area in part because of the climate and the landscape.

I’ve written about the wide variety of energy sources available. Some, like coal and nuclear energy, have been phasing out slowly in recent years. Coal mining is resource intensive, and there are health risks associated with coal that have long-lasting impacts on both human and environmental health. With nuclear energy, the closure of power plants and disposing of the excess uranium are the cost-intensive elements. We only use a small fraction of the energy that uranium produces in nuclear energy—the rest is disposed of as hazardous waste.

California is a leader in renewable energy. The state’s goal is to have a 50 percent renewable energy portfolio across all utility providers by 2030. Municipalities, businesses and homeowners will all have to work together to meet this aggressive goal. There is more than one approach to increasing renewable energy sources. In my March 2016 column, I wrote about community choice energy, which is currently being explored for the tri-county area.

Solar energy has been around for a while now, and the technology continues to improve. I remember reading an article years ago about a car powered by the sun and being fascinated by the concept. Seeing solar on homes and businesses is common now, but taking the first step to solar can be intimidating, and each home or business owner must decide if solar is the right choice. While southern California has plenty of sunny days, you might have a heavily shaded roof, or perhaps your roof isn’t south facing. Clay tile roofs also present a challenge for installing solar. The next step is deciding how much energy you want to generate with solar panels.

As with any energy source, there are pros and cons to solar panels (such as keeping them clean so they continue to operate at their full capacity). One of the cons is expense, but the price has dropped significantly over the last decade. Add to that the benefits of reducing electricity bills, reducing your carbon footprint and the associated air quality and health benefits, and the switch becomes more attractive.

One common misconception about solar panels is that once installed, you will have no utility bill and always have energy. This is not necessarily the case. Installing solar panels means that your home or business will generate energy during sunny daylight hours, and any excess you produce goes back to the grid. However, you are not producing electricity when it is dark, and that energy isn’t stored on the utility grid specifically for your use. Buildings with solar panels installed are still using the utility provider’s grid delivery system, and there is a fee for that. While installing solar greatly reduces your energy bill, it does not eliminate it.

If you have a home and are looking for energy reliability—meaning you want to be off the grid entirely and be able to produce and use your own energy—then you will need to take another step and consider battery storage. While battery storage has been around for a while, it is still a fairly new technology and thus not cheap. But if your goal is to produce your own energy, there are several local companies that can provide information about what will fit your needs.

If solar is something that you are considering, I suggest attending one of the workshops for Solarize Santa Barbara, put on by the nonprofit Community Environmental Council. They provide an overview of what to look for, and they also work with local vendors to provide a good price to homeowners. You can visit solarizesb.org for more information, or attend the local workshop on Wednesday, July 26 at 7 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 941 Walnut Ave.

Erin Maker is the Environmental Coordinator for the City of Carpinteria. She studied biology after discovering her love of nature and science while growing up in Vermont.  Always interested in improving water quality and recycling, she currently oversees the City’s Watershed Management and Solid Waste Programs. For more information, contact Erin at erinm@ci.carpinteria.ca.us, (805) 684-5405 x415.

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