Fredericksburg couple switches to solar power for century-old house


55f8e03684c91.imageThe house at the corner of Winchester and Lewis streets in Fredericksburg is a centenarian, but it just got a 21st-century upgrade.

“I think the aesthetic quality is amazing,” Ellen Stokes said as she moved excitedly around the house Wednesday morning with a coffee mug in hand and a camera dangling from her neck.

Crews with Teakwood Enterprises were installing the final solar panels on the roof of the home where Stokes and her husband, Jerry, have lived for 23 years.

“It’s like getting your energy straight from God rather than Dominion Power,” Jerry Stokes said.

Later that afternoon, Trent Taliaferro, co-owner of Teakwood, flipped the switched that converted the Stokeses home to solar power. Their home is one of the first—if not the first—in the city with a system that allows it to be powered entirely by the sun’s rays.

Jeffrey Bragg, a city construction plans reviewer, said that in his 16 years on the job, he remembers only two or three applications for total solar-powered home systems, but isn’t sure if the homeowners actually went through with it. A few city homes, he added, have solar panels as a power backup or to provide part of their electricity.

Installing solar power systems on homes and businesses is just one facet of what Teakwood does, but interest is growing in it and the company is installing more, Taliaferro said.

Part of the reason interest in solar energy is growing is because of campaigns such as Solarize Fredericksburg. The program was sponsored by the Local Energy Alliance Program in partnership with several local entities, including the University of Mary Washington and environmental consulting company Marstel–Day.

LEAP runs similar campaigns throughout Virginia, making it easier for small businesses and homeowners to connect with companies that install solar-powered systems. The program helps people navigate the process and get a better deal on the expensive systems because equipment can be bought in bulk.

The local campaign, which held several workshops, ran from July to Sept. 4.

Marstel–Day Chief Executive Officer Rebecca Rubin said there was “pretty high engagement” in the Solarize Fredericksburg campaign, with 113 people attending the workshops.

“Our real goal is to just bring options to the community,” she said, adding that the hope is to hold the solar campaign annually.

“We think it’s a community effort,” said Andrew Grigsby, interim executive director of LEAP.

He said the Fredericksburg campaign connected 53 homeowners with a contractor. There’s no guarantee all of the homeowners will follow through, but it could at least result in a few dozen new solar-powered homes in Fredericksburg and Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George counties.

Grigsby said a contractor chosen to work with homeowners in the program is making site visits and could start work in about six weeks.

Ellen Stokes said she and her husband “reconnected” with Taliaferro after they all attended one of the Solarize Fredericksburg workshops. The couple had known the contractor for some years and, after the workshop, decided to get in touch with him about installing a solar power system for their home, which was built in 1905.

The couple struck out on their own, doing the project outside of the Fredericksburg Solarize campaign.

Taliaferro said the market for solar power systems is slowly gaining steam, primarily because of technological advances and affordability. His company has installed four home systems, including the Stokeses, so far this year, he said. It did two last year.

While the systems are expensive—Taliaferro said the cost ranges between $23,000 and $33,000 for the systems he has installed—the long-term payoff is worth it, he said.

His company, for example, outfitted its Fredericksburg office with a solar power system and the total energy bill in 2014 was $48.

With the exception of rare “off the grid” solar-power systems, which use batteries to store energy, owners are still on the Dominion Virginia Power grid. That means they aren’t completely free of power bills, because their systems use the utility as a source when the solar panels aren’t generating power.

But any excess solar energy produced can be fed back into the grid. In those cases, home or business owners with solar power get credits on their power bills.

The Stokes’s hope to eventually “zero out,” meaning no payments to Dominion.

The overall savings using solar power, said Taliaferro, help pay for the system.

He said many payment plans for the systems extend for 10 years, and the Teakwood systems are guaranteed for 20 years. All the while, it’s possible that owners will pay nothing or close to nothing to power their homes or businesses.

Taliaferro said the difference between solar power systems and traditional grid systems is comparable to owning a home or renting one.

Another boon to the systems is a federal tax credit that can cover 30 percent of the cost of a solar power system. The credit is available also for small wind-energy systems and geothermal heat pumps. The tax break runs through December 2016.

Jerry and Ellen Stokes like the idea of the long-term savings, but they also feel good about the environmental impact of the solar power system.

“It’s exciting,” she said, “to feel like you’re doing the right thing.”

written by Scott Shenk

Originally published on Fredericksburg.com The Free Lance Star

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