The Latest in Residential Renewable Energy

picture1 The Latest in Residential Renewable Energy Whether you are looking to save some money on your electric bill or preparing for a potential nuclear Trumpocalypse, a solar-powered home may be something that interests you. In the past there have been limited options for adapting your home to solar power – namely the unattractive panels bolted onto your roof or basic solar shingles since 2005. That is all set to change with the merger of #SolarCity and #Tesla. Starting around the 4th quarter of 2017, the combined company will start installing their new designer solar roofs. I am here to share with you some of the things I have learned, and maybe make your decision whether to go solar slightly easier.

Cost of a tradition roof and utilities: There are several different materials that you can currently use for your roof: Tuscan style terracotta, traditional asphalt shingles, and the long-lasting but pricey slate. The average home in the United States has a 3,000 square-foot roof, which means the average cost for materials and installation is $16,000, $20,000 and $45,000 respectively. The clay and slate roofing material has a lifespan that the solar roofs cannot begin to compete with now, but its 30-year warranty is on par or better than the common asphalt shingle roof. The warranty for them varies greatly based on the quality of the shingle, the climate you live in, and how many layers are on your home (the fewer the better). Warranties can be as little as five years and up to 30. We’ll be comparing asphalt singles and the solar roof for now, due to the popularity of asphalt.

If you have an asphalt roof that lasts 15 years, that means over 30 years you would purchase an asphalt roof two-to-one compared to the solar roof. That already brings a hypothetical cost up to $40,000. For the total price of the SolarCity roof needed to break even or make money, one must take the cost of utilities into account. In some areas of the country people pay over $1,700 a year just for electricity, reaching nearly $2,500 if you have all-electric appliances. You will want electric appliances in order to get the most out of your new investment. Otherwise, you will continue to pay to use your gas appliances instead of getting the power form the sun. A solar roof that meets all of your daily electrical needs could save you $1,700 a year; over 30 years that would total $51,000. The final cost of choosing asphalt over solar could cost you between $71,000 and $91,000, depending on the quality of materials you choose and how much electricity you use. If SolarCity wants to be truly competitive, they cannot start their pricing above $70,000, or it would be as if you were paying for 30 years’ worth of utilities upfront.

SolarCity Pricing: While they have yet to release the final price point for the new shingles (though we should know by mid-2017), we can make a few estimates for how expensive it might be. They suggest that to get the most use of the solar roof, you should install at least one of their new Powerwall 2.0 systems. Each power wall can store 14kW worth of energy. The average U.S. home uses just under 30kW of energy a day, so you will want at least two of these power packs to run everything in your house. Each Powerwall system will cost $6,500 installed, so before we even get to the roofing materials themselves, we are looking at a cost of $13,000, which is over 50 percent of the cost of a typical asphalt roof. So far this year, installing solar on your house is costing about $3 per Watt. If you want your home to produce enough energy to provide for all of your energy needs, it will be 30,000 Watts times the current cost per Watt or $90,000 (well over the $70,000 range I discussed earlier). This will total over $100,000 when you add in the cost of the Powerwall systems. I also imagine that there will be a different price point for the style of roof you chose. They currently plan to offer four styles. If I had had to venture a guess, the textured glass will be the cheapest and the slate style easily the most expensive. They are using a process called hydrographic printing, which uses ink in a water-based solution to dye each of the tiles in a unique pattern. No two tiles will look alike, so no two roofs will look the same.

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I know that $100,000 can seem like a daunting number. Who has that much money laying around or can take on a loan that size? This is not where the conversation ends, however. Industry experts and SolarCity have said that they expect costs will eventually go down to $1 per Watt (installed price), cutting the current cost by two thirds. So now, we know the goal, and the current estimated price, but we do not know what CEO and Chairman, Elon Musk, will set as his initial price point. He has had a history of competitively pricing products. The Powerwall system, while being pricey, is 30 percent cheaper than its competitors are. I would not be surprised if the SolarCity roofs show the same kind of price disparity. If that is true, at the end of 2017 you could get a new roof and two Powerwalls for between $70,000 and $75,000, which is close to the figure I mentioned earlier. That may not seem worth it, but it isn’t the end of the road because there are some other advantages that will come with going solar sooner rather than later. Benefits to Going Solar:

The first major benefit is being able to claim the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for the cost of your installation. The ITC was signed into law on December 18, 2015. The bill extends the 30 percent Solar Investment Tax Credits for both residential and commercial projects through the end of 2019, and then drops the credit to 26 percent in 2020, and 22 percent in 2021, before dropping permanently to 10 percent for commercial projects and zero percent for residential projects. The way it works is by claiming the money you spent to install your roof. Say it costs $90,000 to install your roof. That means on your taxes you would get a credit for $27,000, on top of all the other money you paid towards taxes, which will increase the size of your return.

If that is not enough incentive, if your roof is producing more energy than you need, you can work with your local utilities in a process called net metering. This is where your electric meter acts as a two way street. It shows how much energy you pull from the grid and how much you put in. If at the end of the month, you have provided more than you use, they apply a credit to the next month and eventually provide a check. California public offices and schools will save an estimated $2.5 billion in electricity costs over the next 30 years using net metering.

One last benefit: If you decide to sell your home after having a solar system installed, it will increase the value of your home by an average of $5,900 per kW. At an installation cost of $3 per Watt, a kW will cost your roughly $3,000, so the value added to your home is nearly double in some cases.

Conclusion: As of now, a large start-up cost will inhibit most homeowners from being able to afford SolarCity’s new product and their vision for the future of a SolarCity roof on every house (and a Tesla in every garage). If it is something you can afford, I would highly suggest looking into it because of what it could provide for you going forward. Personally, I think I will wait a few years and see how things go, how far the price drops, and hope for a second extension of the ITC. I think I would being willing to splurge and live in the future, especially if TNP Studios hits it big and takes me along for the ride.

Which Candidate is Best for Our Students and NASA?

politicalnasa With the 2016 Presidential election quickly approaching, I wanted to look at each candidate and how they plan to support education and science, NASA in particular. Both of these topics are important to me on a personal level: I have a science degree and I married a teacher. This article will be broken down in to two sections, each with three parts. In each section, I will discuss the current state of the given topic and why I believe its support is important. After that, I will share each candidate’s point of view, and what that may mean for the country.

NASA:

President Eisenhower established NASA on July 29, 1958. Of the world’s seven space agencies, NASA is just one of three, with Russia and China, which actually put a person in space. The funding for NASA hit a peak of 4.41% of the country’s GDP in 1966, three years before Apollo 11 made the first moon landing. While they are technically receiving more money than ever, the actual funding has dropped down to an average of 0.5% of the GDP over the last five years. The country benefits from a strong space program. NASA reinvests a large portion of its funding into grants and awards to education institutions and charities to encourage youth to look at careers in the sciences. Support of education is far from the only way the public benefits from the work done at NASA. From 1976-1984, the program was responsible for the creation of 352,000 jobs. The biggest benefit of NASA actually comes from their scientific discoveries. While they try to solve a problem related to space exploration, they will often develop products that can affect the world as a whole. Just look at this list of everyday things for which NASA is responsible and how many billions of dollars it has contributed to the economy:

Memory foam: Originally created for seat cushions in spacecrafts, it has multiple uses in hospitals; it is in NFL helmets and of course in some of the bestselling mattresses for the last 30 years.

Anti-corrosion coatings: Used to protect against the harsh nature of seawater during splash landings. It is now saving the country millions by protecting our bridges, pipelines, oilrigs and even the Statue of Liberty from corrosion.

Arteriovision: Software created to examine video sent back by space probes, is being used to diagnose heart disease in its earliest stages, saving lives and millions on health care costs.

Emulsified zero-valent iron: This chemical compound was designed to clean rocket fuel residue that was dumped onto the runway after a takeoff, and is now being used by chemical manufacturing and oil companies to clean up the toxic environments created by their businesses. Created in 2005, the chemical is so effective that in just 5 years it became the most licensed product ever created by NASA, earning the government millions in profit and protecting our environment at the same time.

Lifeshears: Used by NASA to separate the space shuttle from its booster rockets, and used by search and rescue groups to remove debris and find people trapped during 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and numerous incidents in between and since.

In the first 11 years of its existence, the government gave NASA 25 billion dollars. By 1987, the government had made 181 billion off the products they created. With most of those inventions still being used, and more discoveries being made all the time, there is no doubt that NASA is worthy of increased funding.

Trump on NASA:

Trump has been quoted as saying that he thinks, “Space is terrific.” When he visits Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center, he will lament the loss of jobs created by the decreased funding. However, when he goes anywhere outside of Florida the praise for NASA is reined in. The rest of the earlier quote is something to the effect that space is terrific but not as important as potholes. From my research, I could find no plan that would increase the budget that is provided to NASA but plenty of indicators that he may actually pull some of the funding and divert it to fixing our infrastructure or rebuilding the military. As previously stated NASA receives about 0.5% of the yearly budget while the military gets around 19%, I am not sure you could take an amount away from NASA that would benefit the military and not decimate our space program. We also know that essentially his goal is to privatize the construction and maintenance of our infrastructure, so the best-case scenario under a Trump presidency is that the funding will hold steady at 0.5%. That should allow NASA to continue with the goals it currently has laid out such as a mission to Mars and implementation of the space shuttle’s replacement and end our reliance on Russia for space transportation.

Clinton on NASA:

Clinton has stated that she plans to increase funding, but has not shared specifics on how much of an increase we would see. She has also stated that she plans on doing some restructuring of NASA and other unnamed organizations to improve collaboration and decrease the amount of time it takes the government to see a profit from the organizations efforts. This would be a much-preferred outcome for me personally but I know that there are people who feel space exploration is not that important and the innovations would eventually be made by another group or in the private sector. While that is probably true, it is impossible to tell how long it would delay the discovery of life saving technologies. If the innovation came from the private sector, the government would not benefit directly, only though taxes, costing us millions in revenue that could be reinvested in other areas to benefit us all.

Education:

The story of education in the United States in an interesting one. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental group that works to stimulate economic growth and world trade. The OECD is also responsible for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which tests 15 year olds every three years, the results of the 2015 exam are due out on December 6th. The most recent exam we have results for was conducted back in 2012 when the US ranked 27th in mathematics, well below average. Shanghai-China topped the list in math excellence in 2012 where it was determined that it would take the average US student three additional years of education to reach the same level. We scored close to the average in reading (17th) and science (20th) but even with an improved result in those categories it was determined that 26% of our children did not possess knowledge of the basics, the second worst among high income countries, while 8.8% of our test takers scored at the highest levels. The countries that perform better than us have a centralized education program, like the one the U.S. is trying to establish with Common Core. While that program has its faults and has been executed poorly so far, it is probably the best direction for us as a country if we want to move up in the rankings. You can read several reports about how we should only care about the percentage of kids who score high on the exam or that we should drop off the bottom 20% of performers then compare ourselves to other countries. To me that is a horrible idea because it continues the idea of the 1% versus the 99%, we need to give every child the best chance to succeed, if that means uniforms or the common core or higher taxes there is no choice but to invest in our future.

You may be thinking that these results are a direct result of schools being underfunded the answer is not quite so simple. The U.S. is in the top five of money spent per student, spending $12,000 on each full time K-12 student, it exceeds $15,000 if you include college and vocational training. The government funds 70 cents of every dollar spent on education, 25 cents come from the parents and the remaining 5 cents come from private sources, the average OECD government covers 84 cents of every dollar spent on education. Current funding for education for the most recent fiscal year could top 200 billion, 69.4 billion of that it is in a discretionary fund so it may not be used at all unless a worthy cause is presented. The mandatory budget for this year was 139.7 billion, well over the average 67 billion a year under the Obama administration, as they begin implementing the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which forces states to make accountability goals and to intervene in the bottom 5% of their schools. It is actually a step away from the centralized education plan but if the states continue to set and achieve their goals while improving the lowest performing schools we will see improvements when comparing ourselves to the rest of the developed world. If we were able to get all of our students to reach the baseline that the OECD has set, it would add an estimated $27 trillion to the national economy during their working lives.

Trump on education:

A good place to begin with Donald is that he hates the Common Core, though he will not say why, he wants it to be abolished which highly unlikely because it would take an act of Congress. His goal is to minimize government spending for education by doing his best to privatize it, he will supporting charter schools, and other non or for profit schools. For that reason he is a major supporter of the voucher program, he wants to put 130 billion into a state and federal voucher program. That would give students and their families choices between the regular public schools and all the newly founded privately run schools. My biggest fear is with an influx of privately owned schools that the students who can, will leave the public schools, with a mass exodus the public school funding would be crushed and those students, teachers and administrators left behind will suffer. This is about where his planning ends, he opposes adding STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) schools, he opposes Universal pre-school and opposes increased government funding for college, but other than the voucher program, he has offered little of substance. There is also no indication if that 130 billion is a one-time funding or an annual plan until the private schools take over. Charter schools have a history of many successes, mostly in urban settings, a few dramatic scandals and more than a few failures, nearly 2,500 charter schools closed between 2001 and 2013 and several more that never opened after approval. They are most successful in states with the strictest laws over them. If they are going to become more prevalent maybe there should be a nation board governing how charter schools run so they are all held at the same standard.

Clinton on education:

There is a lot more information to sort through here as she has had a lot more to say about where she wants to take the U.S. and its education system. To start she disagrees with Trump on the voucher program and has no plans to support it. Her biggest plan for our schools is to support the country with a computer science program. Over the next few years, there is an estimated 800,000 computer science jobs to be filled and at our current education standards, we will only be able to fill around half of them. She wants to train an additional 50,000 computer science teachers to prepare kids for the future and those other 400,000 jobs that will be available in the next few years. Some people have knocked her for being so focused on computer science but I think she has spotted a need and a weakness and is working to solve both of those issues.

She also supports the idea of universal pre-school for all kids 4 and older, which will get our kids in school earlier where they can learn, socialize, and be more prepared when they enter the public school system. This will also help families by limiting the number of years they have to pay for day care, it will be interesting if it will be a national program or if the states will be in charge. If the states are in charge there will be wide swings in what is available to families, some states cover a full week and others just 10 hours a week. She wants to help end the school to prison pipeline limiting school suspensions and hiring mediators and councilors to work with the children, their family and the schools. This would be a major improvement for people who live in poverty-stricken areas. After she defeated Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Clinton partially came around to his viewpoint on college, and wants to offer free in state college for most families (~80%) and free community college for all. No longer would people be limited in their ambition by what is in their bank account and no more crushing debt when you finally graduate. This is easily her most controversial education plan, many on either side of the isle and the public will oppose it because college is looked at as a luxury instead of the necessity that it is quickly becoming. The Clinton plan is expected to cost 350 billion over the next ten years, which would cost the average taxpayer nearly $250 extra in taxes per year. The average tuition cost of a public institution is approximately $9,400 a year or $37,600 for the average 4-year degree, so if you send one child off to college it would take 150 years before you paid more in this system then you would have for your son or daughter to attend an in state school.

In conclusion, to me there is a clear winner on both fronts. Nonetheless, no matter who you agree with, I encourage you to get out and vote on November 8, not just in the presidential election, but also in all of your state and local elections. Let them hear your voice and elect the people you believe in and who support the plans you feel will make your city, state and country the best it can be.