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Suffolk Close Up: A sunny take on solar power

COURTESY PHOTO
Solar panels atop the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Hall.

“Vibrant” is the word used by Dean Hapshe — project manager of Suffolk County-based Harvest Power — last week about the state of the solar power industry. A major reason for this, he said, is that “the price of the panels has come down.”

And although LIPA rebates for installing solar are now gone, the cost of panels “has dropped to a half of what they were 10 years ago,” Mr. Hapshe said. Thus, solar is still a very economical investment. Also, federal and state incentives are still in place.

He is a pioneer in solar energy, starting off in the field in 1980. He teaches solar power installation and design. He installed the system at our house in what as of the new year will be a decade ago. Our house is a classic saltbox, more than 100 years old. Solar for my wife and me has been well worth it.

Even on cloudy days, the LIPA/PSEG meter on the house regularly goes backward, signifying that we’re producing more electricity than we’re using. The excess goes back to the grid. If over a year’s period, the excess is more than what one consumes over the year, you get a check for that extra amount. No longer is there the $200-plus a month we used to spend for electricity.

In addition to the 38 photovoltaic panels on our roof, there are two thermal panels that heat water and send it into the house. Even if it’s cool outside, at play is a dynamic comparable to the heat which builds up inside a car from the sun when you leave a car parked. It might be 50 degrees outside but the thermometer on the hot water tank in our basement shows water at 100 degrees and more.

Although the LIPA rebate no longer exists, the federal incentive of a 30 percent tax credit for the cost of a solar installation is still available. It will reduce to 26 percent in 2020 and move further downward after that.

But, noted Mr. Hapshe, through the years, when this incentive was in trouble, Congress got involved.

Meanwhile, New York State still provides a $5,000 incentive towards the price of a system.

And, at the same time, the cost of solar panels has substantially been reduced, and their efficiency — how much electricity they generate — has gone up. The efficiency rate of solar photovoltaic panels to produce electricity on homes, businesses and other terrestrial settings is now comparable to the efficiency of panels pioneered for use in space.

The cost for an average residential installation today is $30,000 to $35,000, Mr. Hapshe said. Thus the “payback” — the time when the price of installation has met what had been one’s electricity cost — is about seven years, he said. For thermal, the payback in terms of savings on oil or gas to heat water is half that. Mr. Hapshe got into solar because “solar energy is the right thing to do. God has given us this wonderful Earth and we must be stewards. I’m so glad I’ve done this.”

After graduating from Boston University, he went directly into the solar field. “I was sitting in the third-floor library at Boston U.,” he recalled, “thinking of what I would do when I got out of college. Only two things came to mind, one was recycling and the other solar energy. When I got out of college, a friend of mine said her husband worked for a solar energy company and would I be interested? I jumped on that and got hired right away.”

His commitment “comes from years of realizing how beautiful this planet is,” he said, and witnessing the damage being done to the Earth and wanting to make things better. Because of climate change, for example, “I’ll never get to see the glaciers at Glacier National Park.”

“I feel I have to do my little part,” he said. “It’s all anybody can do. If we all do something together, we can have something for our children and our grandchildren.”

Harvest Power, headquartered in Islip Terrace, installs solar systems all over Long Island and elsewhere in New York State and now is also in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. It has 60 employees. It does both residential and commercial installations. It has done 30,000 installations so far.

“Solar is a great thing to do,” Mr. Hapshe said, “and it’s something we have to do.”

A year ago, the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency and PSEG began a program to bring solar-generated electricity to those who might not be able to have panels on their roofs or who live in apartments. Harvest Power is involved in installations and sale of electricity in this undertaking with structures now being utilized in areas in Suffolk including Center Moriches and Shelter Island.