Engineer: Use of solar energy increasing in Columbia

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COLUMBIA — Solar energy is on the rise nationwide. According to Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. solar market is projected to grow over 100 percent in 2016, including a gradual increase in the residential sphere.

In Columbia, homeowners and solar engineers are encouraging the move to solar energy.

Fourth Ward council member Ian Thomas, a solar energy homeowner, said energy consumption is an important issue.

“In the next few decades, we have to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. The environmental impacts are going to be very serious even if we were to stop right now,” he said.

Tom O’Connor, a solar engineer for H20’C Engineering, said all energy is solar in one way shape or form.

“To grab that energy immediately and directly seems the most obvious way to do it,” he said.

O’Connor said people can start small with solar and analyze paybacks, costs and benefits at a smaller scale first.

“One of the beauties of solar is that it’s very scalable,” he said.

He said it costs around $10,000 for a standard home solar energy system, but a return on investment can come as early as five years or as late as 20 years depending on factors such as home efficiency and energy consumption habits. O’Connor said, in addition to that return, the property value of the installing solar power is “huge."

“The property value boost is equal to what you spend on it, possibly even greater,” he said. “So if you put in a system for about three dollars per watt, the studies say that’s going to be worth three dollars and eleven cents per watt, so it instantly pays for itself in increased property value.”

Thomas and O’Connor both said Columbia’s participation in SolSmart, a national solar energy program intended to help local communities develop and increase solar energy production and usage, is important to help the city act smart when using solar energy.

Thomas said the general goal with SolSmart is to analyze regulatory policies to help eliminate “soft costs.” These costs include getting a permit to use solar energy, making sure there is sufficient space to install solar panels and other regulations.

O’Connor said he has already designed home solar power systems and the benefits can outweigh the costs. “It’s easy, it’s clean, it’s quiet; it just sits there and does it’s thing and it’s obviously the future.”