Benefits of solar panels

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COLUMBIA - How would you like to pay next to nothing on your electricity bills? That's the case for a group of people in Columbia.

"The expectation is that the number of (solar) panels we have will cover our year's use of electricity," Terra Nova member Claire Garden.

Terra Nova is an intentional community formed in 1995. They have 38 solar panels on two houses that help pay the respective bills. The panels are customized to meet the electrical needs of the two houses. Therefore, if someone moved into the homes after them, the new owners may pay more than the self-proclaimed "frugal" spenders.

But microscopic bills aren't the only reason for having solar panels. "They don't have moving parts, they don't wear out," Garden said. "They don't make any noise, they're not doing anything that is a problem and it's great to have our power for our heat pumps."

Solar panels also mean rebates. Garden and the others in Terra Nova received $4,795 in federal and city rebates for the 28 Sanyo panels they installed in 2008 and 2011. The rebates for the ten Trina panels installed last month have not been recognized yet.

There are tax credits too.

"That's a good one....The tax credit means you whatever you owe at the end, you can take one-third of your cost directly off of that," Garden said. "It's not just reducing the amount that you owe a percentage on. It's that amount of money of your tax bill."

As technology improves, solar panels become cheaper and more efficient. Now is as good a time as ever to buy. The first ten panels Terra Nova bought cost $19,838 after rebates while the last ten cost $12,433.44 before rebates.

And as Terra Nova member Hoyt DeVane explained, the newer ones have micro-inverters that "convert DC to AC and make the energy useable." The inverters also help to maximize output, even if some of the panels are shaded.

Solar panels do have drawbacks though.

"The problem is we use more electricity in the winter than in the summer and we generate more electricity in the summer than we do in the winter," Garden said. "So we need to get pretty far ahead in the summer to carry us through the winter."

In June 2011, one of the two Terra Nova houses produced 701 kilowatts. In December, the panels only managed to produce 148 kilowatts. But right now, Terra Nova is ahead of the game.

"The city has delivered to us 4346 (kilowatts) and what they have received from us is 5210 (kilowatts,) so we are ahead," DeVane said. "In fact the last bill that we got, we've got $100 dollar credit."

For Garden, minimizing pollution and the use of fossil fuels is great, but it's all about return on investment.

"If you put (money) into reducing your electric bill, you get a far better return on investment than you do if you put it in a savings account," she said. "That was my thinking in investing my life long saving into the solar panels."