Back from the East Coast on New Years Day, home to zero degree temperatures, two feet of snow, an old, drafty house, and some very cross cats. I figured to hunker down under a comforter, watch some basketball, and put the various space heaters to work, cocooned by the knowledge that the heat was coming from our 13 solar panels, rather than some carbon-exhaling power plant.

solar panels covered
Geoff O’Gara’s passive solar panels became “extremely passive” after a recent snow. (courtesy Geoff O’Gara)
Geoff O’Gara’s passive solar panels became “extremely passive” after a recent snow. (courtesy Geoff O’Gara)

Later in the day I deigned to rise from the couch and visit my office in the backyard shed, on whose pitched-roof those panels are mounted. It hadn’t occurred to me that the panels would be buried under two feet of snow, like everything else. The cats refused to shovel, so I had to do it. As long as I’m at it, maybe I should dig a deeper crawl space under the house, install a furnace, and burn some of that cheap oil and gas that’s out there.

It may be politically correct to have solar panels and wind turbines in the backyard, but is it stupid, too? Fossil fuel prices are plummeting. Perhaps my carbon footprint got a little smaller with the panels, but Las Vegas can erase that in a nano-second if limousines roar around on cheap gas and the casinos turn up their air conditioning.

Are my panels making a difference in something other than my heart rate?

The truth is, most people don’t install solar to be virtuous. They do it to save money, and to spare themselves from the gougings of the grid, the power industry, and the cartels that pull the world’s energy levers. If the glut of cheap fossil fuel drives down energy prices and keeps them down — as the U.S. Energy Information Agency now forecasts — who would be stupid enough to invest in solar panels?

Well, lots of people, apparently. Not just starry-eyed off-the-grid doom-sayers, but the guys who really see the future: Wall Street investors. Robert Rapier, chief analyst for The Energy Strategist, notes that solar stocks have been on a big upswing over the past year, oil glut or not. And it’s not just my office but entire cities that are getting solar juice: Utility- size solar stocks are “a strong buy.”

solar panels
Like others, Geoff O’Gara’s investment in solar panels had more to do with saving money than for the virtue of clean energy. (courtesy Geoff O’Gara)
Like others, Geoff O’Gara’s investment in solar panels had more to do with saving money than for the virtue of clean energy. (courtesy Geoff O’Gara)

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission calculates that one-third of new utility electricity in the first half of 2014 came from solar – and solar capacity in the U.S. increased 418 percent from 2010 to 2014. This predates the surprise climate change agreement reached recently between China and the U.S., which tugs the developing world sharply toward renewables and nuclear.

It’s a trend that – like a big ocean liner turning around in a harbor – doesn’t just kick into reverse when a seal flippers by, or with a glut of fracked oil and gas. The material and manufacturing costs of solar technology have dropped, predictably, as the market has enlarged. The incentive for research and development rises as the investment horizon lengthens, leading to more breakthroughs. Tax incentives matter, and they may get bigger. Even die-hard climate-change-deniers listen when conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer push for big tax hikes on oil consumption, with a grudging acknowledgement that “prudential reductions” in carbon emissions might not be such a bad thing.

For a local, or regional, perspective, I checked in with Scott Kane, who runs Creative Energies out of Lander (full disclosure: Kane’s outfit installed the solar panels on my shed; sadly, he did not offer me a kickback to be quoted in this column). Creative Energies does about half its work on residential solar installations in the Colorado-Utah-Wyoming region; the other half is larger-scale commercial and government work, including a recent installation in Antarctica. When we put the panels on my shed, we calculated that my utility bill savings – not to mention the payback I get when my excess energy feeds back into the grid – would recoup the investment in less than a decade.

Kane’s company installed about 500 kilowatt-hours of solar in 2013, the year my 13 panels went up (I contributed a robust 3 KW-hours of that total). In 2014, Creative Energies installed 2,000 KW-hours. The big operators in populous states like California with pro-renewables policies are going gangbusters, but so are our smaller local wind and solar businesses.

“We keep an eye on coal and natural gas, we think about it a lot,” said Kane. “But what we really compete against is the cost of a KW-hour, and that really hasn’t changed much.” Because unlike the gas pump prices, utility prices for power change slowly, like that ocean liner in the harbor.

So I’ll leave the panels up, and when the next snowstorm hits, I’ll be out shoveling. My heavy breathing may be emit a big dose of CO2 into the atmosphere. But this isn’t about climate change. It’s about saving money.

Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC and serves on WyoFile's board of directors. His column, Weed Draw, is named for a remote...

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  1. Doug Cooper’s comment was correct…until 2010. At that point, solar panels became efficient enough that over their lives they will produce more energy from the sun than were consumed in making and installing them. The change comes from more efficient manufacturing and installation and more efficient solar panels – that is, more kilowatt-hours per unit of surface area. Now, in 2015, solar panels should pay energy debt back to the mining and fossil fuel industry after an estimated four years. Then, for the next 20 years or so, it’s all (energy) gravy. I list a Stanford University source below, but if you Google “How much energy to make solar panels” you will find lots of references.

    Another approach is to ask if all the world’s solar panels will produce enough energy this year to manufacture, transport, install… this year’s crop of solar panels. According to the Stanford researchers, the answer is yes.

    But Doug’s larger point is valid. We depend on each other. If fossil fuels were to disappear today, the solar industry would be severely handicapped. After all, Geoff won’t be happy if all his output is diverted to a solar manufacturing plant. He might go on strike and stop shoveling.

    Ed Marston,President
    Solar Energy Inernational
    Paonia, Colorado

  2. You should also know that solar panels cannot produce more energy than it took to produce the panel in the first place. Photovoltaic are great technology for remote areas and are being used throughout Wyoming to pimp water and other uses. Like electric cars, they are clean where they are used but they still require mining, manufacturing and transportation by fossil powered vehicles to make them work. There isn’t any carbon free lunch, Geoff.

    Doug Cooper
    Casper, Wyoming

    1. Cannot believe the contention that panels cannot produce any more power than it took to produce the panel in the first place. Cannot find anything to back that up. I think that is big energy propaganda.
      We have no problem producing electricity at any scale. What is needed is storage. A breakthrough in battery technology would idle most of Wyoming’s current energy business.
      What is next?

      Keith Benefiel

  3. Here’s the Grand Paradox that few know or understand about Fossil Fuels. All hydrocarbon-based energy sources are actually fossil sunshine. The energy released when carbon fuels are ” burned” is actually energy stored by photosynthesis driven biology. Crude oil, gasoline, diesel, fuel oil , coal , natural gas , and even firewood are just re-releasing energy derived from solar power. Some goes back 350 million years to the globe-girdling megaforests of the Carboniferous era ; the firewood was perhaps laid down in your lifetime by a pine tree. People believe that when a fuel is burned it makes the heat we employ, when in fact that heat is secondary to the oxidation-reduction of molecules being unbonded at the electron-proton level. Remember the axiom that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted ? Carbon fuels are downconverting energy stored by a solar process as a thermal release. It’s inefficient , by the way. If you bought a tank of gasoline last week and drove 400 miles, you released 400 million year old fossil sunshine.

    Very very few of our bulk energy sources are not derived from the solar-powered carbon cycle. It’s a short list that includes nuclear and photovoltaics. Even wind power is solar by way of armospheric convection and fluid thermodynamics driven by the sun. Ditto tidal power in a secondary way. Only when hydrogen fuel cells come on line in a grand way will we be stepping away from the carbon sunlight cycle , with deference of course to nuclear fission . Hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen/Helium-3 fusion are where we need to go from here. That sacred path lies directly away from hydrocarbons ( sorry , Guv Matt ).

    The bridge on that path to the energy Promised Land is tiled with the PV solar cells on O’Gara’s roof . The path eventually takes us back to where we started… the land of Eternal Sunshine. And some snow , in season.

  4. If your solar panels contributed 3 kW-hr in 2013, you were cheated. Hopefully they contributed 3kW for many hours in 2013.

    Photo voltaic panels are currently about 20% efficient, though that number increases a bit every year. Solar thermal plants can generate electricity with a higher efficiency, since they can absorb the energy of more of the spectrum of sunlight. So for large scale plants, it is a better way to go. Photo voltaics may not produce CO2, but their production generate lots of far more dangerous chemicals. Just look at the superfund sites in Silicon Valley if you doubt that. Of course, these days that chemical mess is dumped in China, not California. The chemical impact of solar thermal generators is a lot lower.