When Doug Nelson first bought his home after moving to Tampa Bay, he knew exactly where he’d put his solar panels.
Now, 20 years later, his 1-acre Valrico estate is powered almost completely by the sun.
“I’m a conservationist,” he said. “I feel like I’m personally responsible for my impact on the environment, and so I was going to do this project. It was just a matter of timing.”
Nelson, 59, installed his panels through Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit partnered with Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa, among others. The program brings together residents looking to convert to solar and gets them a good deal, according to Ben Delman, the nonprofit’s spokesperson.
“We’ve been doing this for about almost 15 years now. We’ve helped more than 2,400 families in Florida,” he said. “So, it’s a really tried-and-true process to help people save money by taking control of where their energy comes from.”
This year marks the seventh project in Hillsborough County, and 88 households have signed up for the 2023 solar co-op so far. Residents have until the end of August to get involved.
While the process allows solar vendors to compete for the lowest bid, Delman said the savings for residents are difficult to measure.
“It’s hard to say because we’ve seen that proposals vary pretty widely from installer to installer,” he said. “The benefit of going solar through the co-op is that members get a quality installation at a good price.”
Delman said this year’s co-op is ramping up at an important time: hurricane season.
“If a storm comes through and knocks the power out, then you can still keep critical infrastructure — your AC, your refrigerator, those kinds of things — running,” he said. “For those reasons, folks are really interested to learn more about that process.”
But for a completely off-the-grid system like the one in Delman’s situation, residents would need batteries that store the extra power that isn’t used during the day. Nelson said buying those batteries would have doubled the cost of his solar installation, so he opted out.
Without batteries, Nelson’s house draws power from the grid at night. But since his panels produce more energy than he needs during the day, Nelson sells that extra electricity back to the utility. He said this is an even trade and he earns a credit on his next month’s power bill, bringing his electric costs down to zero each month.
Most days, Nelson said the power generated by his panels is at a small surplus, despite cloudy or rainy conditions. He asked the installer to add more panels than he needed just to be certain he was never without solar-powered energy in the daytime.
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Last year, Nelson sat in on an educational meeting hosted by the county. Interested attendees asked questions about how solar energy works, but Nelson said he was more intrigued by the workings of the co-op.
“I’ve been a solar nerd for a long time,” he said.
After enough community members jump on board — typically between 25 to 30 — a committee is created to select the best bid from solar providers.
Costs differ for residents as their energy needs vary. All members have to stick with the same solar provider if they decide to stay involved in the project, but they can leave at any time, Delman said. Some residents may choose not to spring for all the bells and whistles offered, and they won’t have to share those costs with residents who select more expensive options.
Last year, it took Nelson and the other committee members two hours to choose between eight solar installers.
“We had all the offers laid out for us,” he said. “It was a pretty easy process.”
Once they picked a provider, Nelson said it took just one day of work to get his system installed.
Nelson’s setup is high tech. Each panel has its own power converter that transforms solar energy into stable voltage, and an app on his phone tells him when a panel is down. He’s also run the numbers: He says his panels sequester the carbon equivalent of planting 157 trees.
Before going solar, Nelson said he couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t make the switch. But now, 24 panels and $24,000 later, he understands the financial burden. But he said it’s worth it if you can afford it.
Nelson works in environmental remediation, where he says he helps clean up hazardous waste sites created through energy production processes — and accidental spills — by oil, natural gas and coal industries.
“I’ve seen the mess they make. I mean, there’s a cost,” he said. “We can be better. And this is an opportunity to be better.”
Nelson is also happy with how the panels look. They are south-facing — an optimal position that catches the most sunlight — and only visible from his backyard.
“In the old days, if you did a solar project, it looked like you put a science experiment on your roof,” he said.
Nelson’s sleek, modern panels reflect vivid sunsets like mirrors on his roof. An unintended side effect of going solar was that he now spends more time looking up at the sky.
“I didn’t appreciate the clouds until I got this installed,” he said. “It’s actually reflecting the sky. It’s beautiful.”