When the power goes out, solar systems can be an alternative -- but expensive one -- even on the Oregon coast •

When thousands of other Lincoln County residents reached for flashlights and broke out camp stoves during the January ice storm and power outages, Lance and Rebecca Bloch of Yachats were able to run their electric stove, keep the heat on and even watch the NFL playoffs.

All because they essentially went off the grid – while living in the middle of Yachats – four years ago when they went solar. Home Battery Storage Cost

When the power goes out, solar systems can be an alternative -- but expensive one -- even on the Oregon coast •

The Jan. 12-17 county-wide power outage has sparked conversations about self-sufficiency and whether having an alternative power source like solar might be a way to weather such storms.

But equipping a home with solar is an expensive proposition, so investing in it solely for the purpose of having a backup system during blackouts is not prudent for everyone. But for those who can afford it there is no doubt it provides several dividends – including keeping the lights and internet on during power outages.

Two local residents with very different solar setups agreed to share how their systems operate and how they fared during the outage.

Searose Hood and her family live off-grid in a 1,200 square-foot house up Tenmile Creek south of Yachats. All their power comes from rooftop solar panels connected to 12 recreational vehicle batteries backed by a gasoline generator that charges the batteries when sunlight is scarce.

The six-person Hood household has been relying on solar since 2000. They recently added two solar panels to the four they already had. Each panel is approximately two-feet-by-four-feet and connect to a charging controller which is in turn connected to an invertor that supplies power to the house.

“I’m not super techy with how it all works, but it’s all wired together — the generator charges the batteries and the inverter converts our battery bank into AC power,” said Hood, who with her husband, owns Searose Yard & Home in Yachats. “It probably took us three days to get it all set up, laid out and wired up.”

She estimates the initial cost 24 years ago with four panels was about $5,000. But added that prices have obviously increased. They have had to replace the batteries once — to the tune of $2,000 — and the inverter once, which cost $1,800.

Monitoring power usage, especially in winter, is par for the course, as is making sure the batteries do not get damaged by running too low.

“We have to monitor our power all the time,” Hood said. “If we want to do a load of wash then we have to make sure that the batteries are charged up. We have a regular electric refrigerator and a regular washer. But we can only do wash when the sun is shining really bright in the summer or if the generator is on basically. So we are limited.”

To fully recharge the batteries takes two hours of generator time which means two gallons of fuel. They run the generator twice a day on overcast days when everyone is at school and work – once in morning and once in the evening. That jumps to three times a day when everyone is home and the kids are using their TVs and other devices.

In summer when the sky is clear the energy flows more freely but output still depends on whether the panels are getting direct or partial sunlight. One of Hood’s neighbors mounted her panels on a pole she can manually redirect to follow the sun.

“You don’t want to have the wash going and toaster and try to run a power tool or something,” Hood said. “You definitely have to be very conscious of how much power we’re using all at one time.”

The Hoods rely on a Honda generator powered by non-ethanol gasoline but may switch to a larger diesel one or perhaps a propane generator. Some generators will automatically turn on when voltage is low but “we are not that sophisticated so ours is not set up that way,” Hood quipped.

Because they live off-grid they cannot sell excess electricity back to the power company. Hood also estimates that with the distance they live from gas stations they probably end up spending more for power than if they were on the grid.

But while those on the grid went dark during the outage – the Hoods had power as usual – which included staying connected to the internet.

“We were completely unaffected by the power outage,” Hood said. “We have DSL through Pioneer Connect for our internet. It’s not fast, but it was sufficient and we didn’t lose it the entire time even with all the power outages.”

Despite its limitations, Hood recommends solar, adding even on overcast days the panels pull in some energy. Her only caution is that with so many gray days on the coast, some assume the panels provide more energy than they actually do.

Lance and Rebecca Bloch added solar panels to their 1,600 square-foot Yachats home four years ago. After getting an estimate from Cascade Coast Solar of Newport, the couple weighed the cost and benefits – which include state rebates and a federal tax credit – and decided to go with 24 panels to increase capacity instead of the 16 they had originally considered.

Cascade installed the Bloch’s system with its 2½- by 5-foot panels, converter and lithium battery, which after fully charging sends energy back to the grid and is paid through credits that are deducted from whatever electricity they do get from Central Lincoln People’s Utility District.

It is important to note that in order to receive state rebates, federal tax credits or federal green energy grants, solar installations must be done by a state-approved contractor. Cascade Coast is the only approved installer in Lincoln County but others outside the area also do local work.

Bloch also employed an electrician in order to “split the fuse box” between things they wanted to continue running during an outage, like the refrigerator, lights, heat pump and wall outlets, and the “electricity hogs” like the dryer, main furnace and the electric car charger which is “the biggest hog of all.”

The price tag for a solar installation varies, Lance Bloch said, but it can start at about $15,000.

“And that’s too high for a lot of people,” he said. “When I went up to 24 panels that increased the price. “And the battery was $8,000 all by itself. If you just use 12-volt batteries you can get by much cheaper.”

The Blochs’ system provides for all their electrical needs more than half the year.

“Not only that, but it builds up a surplus and I sell the surplus to CLPUD,” he said. “During about seven months out of the year, we garner a surplus and CLPUD doesn’t give me any money for it, they just mark it down on my bill that I have this backup amount. And then during the winter months, they start working into that.”

The Blochs maintained power and an internet connection throughout most of the recent outages.

“I was still getting some solar energy,” Bloch said, despite the cloudy weather. “In fact, on Sunday after we had all the power outages on Saturday, it was charging the battery up and it got the battery backup to about 88 percent. So even the little bit you get during the wintertime will get the battery charged up.”

It was after the fourth and final outage in the middle of the night that their power finally went down.

“I knew we were close to the edge because when we went to bed the battery was down to about 10 percent and so I figured if we have any more power outages it’s gonna go,” Bloch said.

How long the fully charged lithium battery holds a charge depends on use but it can drain to empty without causing damage.

“If you suspect the power is going to stay off for a while, then you might start turning off some extra lights,” he said. “The refrigerator is gonna stay on and you know there’s at least going to be one light on.  Under those conditions, it can go probably a day. And again, it depends on how much electricity you’re using, and whether you’re getting any charging from the sun.”

If not for the electric car charger, the Blochs’ solar system would power everything in the house year-round, save for long-lasting power outages, Bloch said. The couple estimates they save $100 to $150 a month in electric bills depending on the season.

“So it’s a long time paying back the original investment,” Bloch said. “I calculated based on our current electric rates here that it would take about 25 years to pay itself off.”

His advice for people considering solar is to first get a complete estimate from an installer and then figure out the payback period to see whether it is worth it or not.

“I know some people, if they’re elderly like myself, may think ‘Well, I’m not going to be around for 25 years, so I’m not going to get something that’s a 25-year investment.’ But I wanted to have the backup and I wanted to have power during power outages, so it’s worth it to me. And I figure I’ll get some of the investment back in resale value of the house.”

The state of Oregon’s Solar + Storage rebate program issues rebates for solar electric systems and paired solar and storage systems for residential customers and low-income service providers. Rebates are issued to approved contractors, who pass the savings on to their customers.​​​ Oregon homeowners can receive a rebate of up to $5,000 for a solar electric system and up to $2,500 for an energy-storage system, according to information on the program’s website.

Rebates are paid to Oregon Department of Energy-approved contractors who install the systems.  Contractors also help identify other potential savings such as a federal tax credit or an Energy Trust of Oregon incentive. The rebate amount paid to contractors is passed on to the customer. The savings is subtracted from the total cost of the system when it is installed.

ODE’s program is designed to expand access to renewable solar to Oregonians with lower incomes. Households considered low- or moderate-income, can receive a rebate worth up to 60 percent of the cost of the system.

Aside from freeing households from the grid and shaving money off the electric bill, solar and other renewable energy sources come with rebates and tax credits because it lowers the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

The average solar system will offset 178 tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years, according to Cascade Coast Solar’s website, which is “like avoiding 390,300 miles driven, planting 10 football fields full of trees or eliminating 174,907 pounds of burned coal.”

Cascade owner Rio Davidson said he has not had an uptick in people inquiring about solar since the recent outages, but can barely keep up with all the work coming in over the last year.

“I’m trying to get people situated so that the first three or four days (of an outage) they can limp along and have enough power to help their neighbors and keep the lights on,” Davidson said. “Maybe not the fridge, but some lights and power and tools.”

In addition to the state rebate and federal tax credit – which pays 30 percent of the cost of installing a solar system – CLPUD extends a $2,000 incentive for solar projects. Central Lincoln provides service to about half of Lincoln County and has 41,000 customers in portions of four counties. It has approximately 180 customers with solar.

Pacific Power, which provides power to the rest of the county does not offer an incentive but its customers can find incentives through a different avenue.

“If you’re in Pacific Power territory you can go through the Energy Trust of Oregon (a nonprofit that helps people go solar) and they have a link to a bunch of contractors,” Davidson said.

Because Pacific Power charges more per kilowatt-hour than CLPUD the payback realized through selling excess energy to the grid does come faster, Davidson said.

“But I wouldn’t make any sort of assumptions about how fast the payback is,” he said. “There are just too many factors there to be accurate.”

It is also important to check with the installer about state incentives because it can vary depending on the size of the system and get complicated because it is site specific, Davidson said.

Having solar to provide backup power is not “very affordable,” he said, but his sales pitch is “you are buying electricity anyway so why not own your own power? At some point the system is going to pay for itself and you’re going to be getting free power.”

It is an investment, but the idea is you are raising your property value and its marketability and there are a lot of incentives that help make it more affordable, he said. It also creates community resiliency. Davidson would like to see both the county and local communities invest in green power.

“America spends like one trillion dollars on power a year and most of that money goes somewhere else,” he said “So if we could create our own energy here in Lincoln County, that would both save the county a lot of money but also keep that money local.”

One of the funding obstacles for municipalities, the county and non-profits in setting up an independent solar grid is they are not eligible for the 30 percent federal tax credit. Businesses however, can reap incredible savings.

“They not only get the 30 percent tax credit, they also get accelerated depreciation which can cover another 30 percent of the cost of the system. So businesses are really the people who can benefit by going solar.”

Another funding option is the Rural Energy for America Program. The program provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements. Agricultural producers may also apply for new energy efficient equipment and new system loans for agricultural production and processing.

Getting a REAP grant had been very competitive but with the passage in 2022 of the Inflation Reduction Act more than $480 billion was earmarked for green energy.

“I think there’s $48 billion just for heat pumps,” Davidson said. “That’s the main driver of solar right now. That extended all the tax credits.”

Filed Under: Featured Tagged With: solar systems

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When the power goes out, solar systems can be an alternative -- but expensive one -- even on the Oregon coast •

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