The Sunshine City is proving worthy of its moniker as an increasing number of residents and businesses convert to solar energy. In November, nearly 50 participants got an inside look at how locals are using solar energy and energy efficiency to save money and help tackle climate change during the Second Annual 100% St. Pete Solar Tour.
The guided bus tour, co-hosted by Suncoast Sierra Club, St. Pete EcoVillage and the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg, featured a wide variety of Florida-style sustainable living examples with five homes and two commercial applications.
“Our goal was to present an interactive and engaging experience that will inspire people to take action,” said Chris Kenrick, co-director of St. Pete EcoVillage, a non-profit sustainability education center and community garden located in the heart of St. Petersburg’s urban corridor. “Just looking at solar panels on people’s houses would be boring. So we made this more of a storytelling tour that demonstrated very different people and lifestyles.”
For example, the homes ranged in size and age from a 750-square-foot newly built home designed for sustainability to a two-story, 1,800-square-foot house nearly a century old. The commercial examples included the 20,000-square-foot Planet Fitness renovated strip center building and a solar-covered carport at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus.
At each location, tour participants got to hear from the homeowners and businesspeople firsthand and ask questions about costs, return-on-investment (ROI), energy savings and challenges.
Saving money and energy
Commercial pilot Mark Ertel installed his first 20 solar panels on the roof of his 1,600-square-foot stucco home when the local utility (now Duke Energy) was still offering a rebate. With the rebate and federal solar tax credit, Ertel’s out-of-pocket cost was only $2,000. “It was a no-brainer. Since I’m saving roughly $1,000 a year on electricity bills, it was paid back in about two and a half years. During the day my meter runs backwards, which means I’m feeding electricity into the grid.”
In addition, Ertel took several energy-saving steps, including installing Low-E windows, LED lightbulbs and skylights. He also replaced his pool pump with a variable speed pump, which he said is a “huge energy-saver … it will run a full day for about the same amount of energy that powered one hour with the old pump.”
In 2016, Ertel added a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (EV) to the mix, plus six solar panels to the roof of his garage. Even with charging his EV for six months, he still got a $40 credit for the year from Duke Energy.
A commercial pilot, he thrives on the research and technology involved in energy. “It was like a project to see if I could do it,” he said, adding that buyers need to do their own research before purchasing solar.
Converting historic home
When former St. Petersburg City Councilman Karl Nurse bought his 1926 home in Old Southeast 25 years ago he “started at the beginning” by adding attic insulation. Since then he has added Low-E film to the 25 windows, a natural gas tankless water heater, more energy efficient lightbulbs and a programmable smart thermostat. The thermostat, which enables him to save about 15 percent on power, “has a pretty tremendous payback,” said Nurse.
About five years ago, Nurse installed solar panels on the back portion of his roof, preserving the aesthetics of the home’s distinct Florida Craftsman style on the front. Combined with other energy-saving measures, the solar reduces his family’s electricity bill by about 70 percent, he said.
Based on the positive experience at home, Nurse recently installed solar panels on the roof of a new 3,000-square-foot building for his growing manufacturing business, Bay Tech Label, also based in St. Petersburg. He said he saved about 30 percent on the solar installation costs by designing the building and roof for solar from the beginning. He estimates the solar will have a six-year payback in energy cost savings.
Advantages of solar
Throughout the tour, participants peppered the homeowners and tour hosts with questions touching on their biggest concerns about going solar. Some of the key points and lessons included:
No maintenance required: Homeowners reported that their solar installations continued functioning without problems or any special maintenance. At most, they said they rinsed off the panels about once a year.
Zero damage from hurricanes: Despite some high winds brought by Hurricane Irma, hosts said their panels sustained no damage. They explained that in Florida, solar panels are required to stand up to hurricane-force winds.
Simple energy efficiency measures deliver high return: Besides solar, each home and business owner stressed that basic energy-saving steps played a major role in their strategies to cut electricity consumption and costs. Don’t underestimate the value of switching to LED lightbulbs, using Low-E windows or film and other actions.
Thinking about going solar?
Many Florida cities now have solar co-ops set up by Solar United Neighbors of Florida (SUNFL). The co-ops offer both education and savings for homeowners interested in going solar.
Co-ops take advantage of the group’s bulk-purchasing power to get discounted pricing and a quality installation. Volunteer co-op participants choose an installer on behalf of the entire group through an open and competitive bidding process. The selected installer provides co-op participants a personalized proposal for their consideration.
one co-op already up and running in St. Petersburg, SUNFL is organizing several more co-ops. “St. Pete residents are clamoring for solar,” said Julia Herbst, St. Pete coordinator for Solar United Neighborhoods. “The first co-op filled quickly. There is no cost and no obligation to signup when you attend a workshop.”
“This is the Sunshine City,” added Herbst. “The city and residents are committed to moving to solar energy.”
Public SUNFL workshops are scheduled for:
6 pm March 21
West St. Petersburg Library
6700 8th Avenue North
St. Petersburg, FL 33710
6 pm April 17
Sunshine Senior Center
330 5th Street North
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
To learn more about going solar or to RSVP, go to www.solarunitedneighbors.org/STPETE
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