Last week, Russ Whitney’s electricity meter in Scott County started running backwards.
The Newtown Pike homeowner completed construction of a solar array that converts sunlight into electric current — enough to power his 2 1/2 -story, 3,190-square-foot home.
“I’ve been using zero watts from KU since we went online, and sometimes the meter shows minus 1,” Whitney said.
That minus-1 reflects the number of watts that Whitney’s 12-panel array is sending back to Kentucky Utilities, power that will be counted as a credit on his electricity bill.
Whitney’s new give-and-take relationship with KU didn’t come cheaply.
“The whole thing cost me $18,000,” the retired airline pilot said. But he’s convinced that over eight to 10 years, it will pay for itself.
“Thirty percent of that ($18,000) I’ll get back in a tax credit from the federal government, so that will reduce the cost by just less than $6,000,” Whitney said. “I’m currently spending $1,700 a year on electricity. If I can eat into that, that’s the return.”
The credits from KU for power that Whitney sends into the grid could provide $200 to $300 a year in additional savings, he said, and that would to the incentive to install the system.
“Right now, we’re generating 3,000 watts,” or three kilowatts, Whitney said. “Those large LED light bulbs use about 10 watts. We can power 300 of them from what the sun’s putting out.”
Whitney wasn’t able to say, yet, how much the solar power system might reduce the cost of running the home’s air-conditioning unit.
The price of solar energy per watt in 1975 was $100. Now it’s 62 cents.… The price has gone steeply down.
Cliff Feltham, spokesman for KU and Louisville Gas & Electric, said 436 customers of those utility companies have installed solar arrays to generate power.
Fifty-seven of those are KU customers in Central Kentucky, and seven are in the Scott County area, Feltham said.
He couldn’t say how many were residential customers and how many are business or industrial.
“Four hundred thirty-six is not too bad of a number. Five to 10 years ago, it wasn’t even a program that people would consider,” he said, referring to KU and LG&E’s green-energy initiative.
He said the drawback was the expense, and Whitney agreed.
“The price of solar energy per watt in 1975 was $100. Now it’s 62 cents. … The price has gone steeply down,” Whitney said. “The ability to buy this and generate electricity has gone from flat to suddenly ramping exponentially.”
The switch to solar power is just part of Whitney’s effort to control heating and cooling costs. When he and his wife, Mary Pat, built the brick house 25 years ago, “I thought we over-insulated,” Whitney said. But last year, the couple asked KU to perform an energy audit to evaluate how efficiently it retained heat and cold air. The result showed that the house was draftier than they had imagined. So the Whitneys brought in a firm to pump more efficient foam insulation into their walls.
Still, Whitney was curious whether more efficiency was possible.
Two months ago, he began research on the internet.
One article cited statistics about the increasing reliance in Europe, particularly Germany, on solar and other alternative energy sources.
“They were saying that Germany has fewer sunny days than the Bluegrass,” Whitney said. “If you go over to Germany, they’ve got these everywhere. If it works over there, it’s got to work over here, you know.”