Jim and Ramona McKeown are entering their golden years, and decided to add sunshine to their efforts to remain financially afloat during retirement.

They worked out a deal with Green Mountain Energy and SunPro Solar for an energy package so far running about $218 a month. But with credits earned when their system produces more electricity than they use, they are earning cash and had an electric bill one month of only $19.

“We thought it was too good to be true, but it’s not,” Ramona McKeown said.

Monthly payments cover not only electricity use but installments on the system itself. Jim McKeown said they paid no upfront costs and signed on the dotted line only after SunPro Solar analyzed their last 12 monthly electric bills.

They were told they will have their financial commitment paid off in 15 years, while their system is guaranteed to last 25.

Ramona McKeown, 70, a retired Baylor University librarian now employed part-time at McLennan Community College, said the couple has also cashed in twice on receiving $1,000 for a referral that becomes a customer. Their own 17 panels were installed in May, with crews completing the task in a day.

The McKeown’s residence at 3301 Loma Vista Drive was part of a local tour this weekend associated with the 24th annual American Solar Energy Society’s National Solar Tour. Locally, it featured two residences, two businesses and a nonprofit.

Local event organizer Alan Northcutt said affordability in the solar realm continues to improve. In a guest column he wrote for the Tribune-Herald last year, he said Waco enjoys an average of 230 sunny or partly sunny days per year “and is thus an outstanding locale for rooftop solar for residences or businesses.”

Northcutt is a Waco physician, director of the local climate action group Waco Friends of Peace/Climate and a member of the Tribune-Herald’s Board of Contributors.

In addition to declining direct solar panel costs, most people with panels this year qualify for 30% federal tax credits, he said. Solar and electric companies also promote an array of incentives, Northcutt said.

Green Mountain Energy, whose services are available locally through the Oncor delivery system, offers a net metering program allowing customers to receive credits at the retail price of their electricity if their solar panels generate more electricity than they use. It and other similar programs may apply to both residential and commercial users.

“We have seen a thousand dollars and more stored in our account, and we have the option of taking that money and spending it ourselves or leaving it alone and letting it pay for the system,” Jim McKeown said between stops by tour visitors, including one by a local couple hoping to include solar in a home they are building in Tyler.

Jim McKeown, 71, an English professor at McLennan Community College, said he and his wife pulled money from their account to improve landscaping at the home they moved into 15 years ago.

“We have had monthly bills as low as $19,” he said, referencing a perk they enjoy when their personal electricity use falls well short of production.

Ramona McKeown said crews from SunPro arrived at her home about 8:30 in the morning and completed installation that day. Seven solar panels were placed on the roof of their 1,900-square-foot home, while 10 more were installed in their backyard. They lost a few trees in the process.

She said crews also installed energy efficient lightbulbs.

“Green Mountain Energy monitors our usage, and most every day we generate more power than we use,” she said. “They say, ‘We’re sending you money back.’ Everything they have said they would do, they have done.”

Holt Kelly, owner and operator of Holtek Fireplace & Solar Products, 500 Jewell Drive, saw a flood of tour participants throughout Saturday.

“They asked a lot of questions, and two of the couples were really up to snuff on their information, really well informed,” Kelly said. “One of the first questions was about hail damage, and we discussed that. They asked about the size system they would need if their monthly bill typically runs $150.

“They asked if panels have to be installed on the roof. The answer is no. They asked if special wiring is needed in new homes with solar. Again, the answer is no. There have not yet been many questions about payback,” or the time and means of recouping an investment in solar.

The average American household used 10,972 kilowatt hours of electricity last year, or almost 915 kWh per month, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Kelly said he finds himself installing solar systems costing $18,000 to $24,000, at an average of $3 per watt.

“That’s the baseline, before tax credits or company incentives,” he said.

Kelly said solar panels themselves continue to plummet in price.

“I still have the first panel I bought hanging on my wall, a 75-watt module that cost me $325. That was my price,” Kelly said. “For that price today, I could buy a 370-watt module.

“It was $10 to $12 per watt when I started 20 years ago. Today it is more like $3 a watt, and that’s an installed price.”

This pricing trend contributes to a shortened payback period for the upfront investment, he said. He is seeing customers recoup their investment in six to eight years, Kelly said.

According to solarreviews.com, the cost of residential panels has dropped 80% in the past decade but has stabilized somewhat recently, dropping only 2% last year.

Hugh Whitted, who oversees the solar department at Texas State Technical College in Waco and provides solar-related consulting services, said 40 to 60 students there are enrolled in some type of solar program.

“We absolutely consider cost-benefit analysis, and have been running numbers for years. I also have personal experience with customers,” Whitted said. “It is true that solar systems do have a high upfront cost, but they pay for themselves in eight to 10 years, while having a lifespan of 25 years. In a 3,500-square-foot home, we’re probably talking about an investment of $30,000, for the average 2,000-square-foot home, about $20,000.”

Many solar system parts carry a 25-year guarantee, “and most professional installers use quality components,” he said.

“Realistically, you will see changes in our bill almost immediately,” Whitted said. “Every energy bill is going to go down. But by how much it is difficult to say without an in-depth analysis of the past 12 months’ bills.”

At mid-afternoon Saturday, Alan Northcutt sent an email message to the Tribune-Herald expressing his excitement about the turnout for the day’s tours.

“It has been great at my house. We have had about 10 groups of visitors, pretty much constant,” Northcutt wrote. “The visitors have ranged from homemakers to Baylor professors, and I’m very impressed with how informed folks are. I really feel this may stimulate new solar installations.”

Local custom homebuilder Scott Bland said he applauds efforts to conserve energy and respects advocates of solar power generation.

Still, he said customer demand for solar system in new homes is not as brisk as might be expected. He said architectural design and building materials are evolving to meet the demand for conservation, but he is finding it is not always economically advantageous to include solar in home construction.

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