Solar – are we putting the cart before the horse?

Ahhh Solar Power – who can resist the lure of free energy for the taking which happens to also be the golden child of the Clean Tech industry, the government, and numerous other groups? I have been meaning to do an article about this issue for a while, especially after attending the Pickens Plan presentation that was held in Tuscaloosa about a month ago. As many of you know, I am actually a fan of solar & wind energy, but I am not a fan of statements like this one – “A solar power system on your home or business demonstrates your commitment to clean, renewable energy”.

Seriously, do we need another “demonstration” or do we really need actual solutions? Is solar or wind the first item and in some cases the only thing a homeowner should look to, or should it be a part of a solution? While I was contemplating working some more on this article yesterday, I happened to remember a great article by Jamie Kaye of the Elm Energy Group in Hilton Head, South Carolina on this very subject, which he has graciously allowed us to repost. So, without any further ado…

High performance buildings have so much to offer homeowners and occupants. It enables them to live more comfortably and healthier indoors, provides a more durable building, and saves money on lower bills and future costs all the while lessening the burden we are putting on our natural resources. This is something that many in the building performance world talk about daily, but once again, as we are a society who craves instant gratification what I am hearing doesn’t shock me, and is something that should change.

Whenever I am talking with people about their energy or building related issues and informing them of all the good things from above, they quickly jump to renewable energy, mainly solar, then wind. So this is what I will write about first, my opinion and belief of efficiency first and where these renewable sources fit in the picture.

While there is a significant need for renewable energy and they will play a huge role in pushing our nation toward energy independence, they have a place, and I feel it is behind the horse, or inside the cart. Putting up solar PV panels on a house that is energy-inefficient is like putting lipstick on a pig. You will expend lots of energy holding that pig down while you put the lipstick on, but in the end you will still have a pig.

Seeing houses that have PV panels on them, but still have 30% duct leakage, or barely any insulation in the attic or walls, makes me wonder why this is happening? Why are people buying these things without taking the time to look at the low hanging fruit? Why are they willing to spend $35,000 +/- without addressing the things that make our lives better first?

I think it is fair to say that solar is incredibly subsidized, through 30% tax credits (with no cap) from the Federal Government, as well as local and state incentives to boot and that may have something to do with it. It seems that our government (local, state and federal) are more interested in pushing money through the system quickly and this gives them that avenue. It is not as enticing to have an energy audit and road map laid out for everyone so we know where we are going and  how effectively the money is being spent because that takes too long.

Our elected officials want to show that money is coming quickly, so pushing $10K through via a PV panel install, makes them look so much better?! (I don’t agree) That is part of our culture (I guess) and something I believe needs to be noticed and changed. With all of the incentives out there, we are doing good, but we could be doing much better. It may take a little more time than just throwing up PV panels, but in the long run it would be WAY MORE BENEFICIAL FOR EVERYONE!! Using a motto of “efficiency first” is what many in the building performance industry believe, and once that is done, solar, wind or whatever has it’s place, just not in front of the horse!

Take a look at Mike Barcik’s 5 Step Program for Solar Energy via Energy Vanguard’s blog. I was trained by Mike and Allison Bailes for my HERS certification at Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta, GA and feel lucky to have had two great people that shared the same beliefs of energy-efficiency. It is a great 5-step process and we should take one step at a time. If you are still not convinced, then watch this video from the Florida Solar Energy Center and their approach to solar – this drives Mike’s program home!

On a more local level, I live in Hilton Head Island, SC home of great golf, beautiful beaches and rivers, and lots of gated communities. Although many of these communities are fantastic places to live or retire to, they have strict guidelines on colors of paint, types of roofs, styles of windows, and you guessed it, whether you can have solar or not on your house. This surely will change as electricity prices continue to rise and those who live in these communities are smart people that care about the dollar will demand change. Oddly enough though, this restriction could actually be a benefit in the interim. If, or when, the plantation community’s Architectural Review Boards finally change their minds, solar PV will be better and cost less than it does today, and all of those houses (if they followed the 5 step plan) will be ready to size their renewable systems to fit their true needs and not spend any more money than necessary.

For those who don’t want to research energy opportunities and only want to come before the horse, they are asking “What do we do to save electricity if we can’t have solar?” That is easy, you can do is the simplest and smartest thing, improve the energy-efficiency of your home. 

  • Seal all of those Air Leaks!
  • Seal all of those Duct Leaks!
  • Make it more comfortable by maintaining a constant temperature and proper humidity level within the building. 
  • Make it healthier to live in by improving the indoor air quality. (Sealing those air leaks and duct leaks will help greatly to achieve this.)
  • Change out the old inefficient water heater. The new water heaters, especially heat pump water heaters and the like, are far superior and can have a short payback period vs. the old existing tank. Remember solar thermal, before solar PV!
  • Replace older appliances and of course, change out those incandescent lights for CFL’s or LED’s. They have gotten much better and are coming down in price, and are the future of lighting.

We all can do something today whether it is no-cost, low-cost or a something that costs a bit more to make our houses better before just jumping to solar. I look forward to that day solar PV panels go on top of my house, but until then I will pick up the low-hanging fruit and urge you to do the same.

Jamie Kaye & the ELM Eneregy Group offer 3 main services (Energy Assesments, Thermal Imaging, and Energy Retrofits) and serve the Hilton Head, Bluffton, Beaufort, and Savannah areas in South Carolina.  As mentioned in the article above, Jamie & I have many things in common besides the services offered; which includes our BPI & RESNET Training (in fact if memory serves me correctly – we were in the same class at Southface), our RESNET Quality Assurance Provider, and many of the same common sense principles.

If you would like to learn more about this or other facets, you can reach Jamie & the ELM Energy Group here, or in Alabama you can reach us here at Thanks again Jamie for allowing us to repost this article.

  • Sherry Molina

    Everybody wants free energy however we should invest first in installing solar panels in our home and then get free energy from  the sun and save hundred of bucks in our electric bill. Excellent post