My switch to Virtual Solar

I’ve enrolled in the new Virtual Solar program offered by my utility in Georgia, Sawnee EMC. For several years, I’ve been enrolled in their Green Power program, which produces electricity from landfill gas. So I was eager to explore this new program announced earlier this year (March 2018).

Virtual Solar is promoted as an alternative for customers who aren’t able to purchase and install their own solar systems — for instance, those who rent homes, have trees shading our property, or for those of us whose neighborhood covenants (currently) prohibit solar. Participating in this program also means that I don’t have to worry about maintenance nor any third-party finance arrangements.

And unlike some community solar programs, I don’t have to purchase the panels up-front, either. Instead, I’m paying a monthly fee for each block of 10 solar panels that help to power my house. At present (April-September), that fee for each block is $21.75/month. In the “off season” (October-March), when the panels produce less, the monthly fee is discounted to $15.50/month.

As the website points out, “[e]nergy output will vary for reasons such as cloud coverage, the sun’s angle and time of year.” But they provide historic output from last year to enable a financial evaluation. For one block of 10 panels, that projected output ranges from a low of 63 kWh in December to a high of 204 kWh in May. The May result would be 10.7 cents/kWh (which represents a savings compared to the range of 11-14 cents/kWh I experienced last year). Unfortunately, that December value would compute to over 24 cents/kWh. But, rather than letting that crude math deter me, I commissioned the annualized impact analysis Sawnee offers. They compared my actual consumption and billing history for the prior year with what it would have been on the Virtual Solar program. And, somewhat to my surprise, I would have SAVED $61 last year with the Virtual Solar program.

Obviously your results may vary (and mine may, too). The analysis shows that a block of 10 panels would have produced 1736 kWh of electricity last year. And with the seasonal monthly fees I explained above, I would have paid $223.50 for them. So the annualized cost per kWh would equate to 12.9 cents/kWh.

In my case, because I had been paying $9.00 per month for the Green Power (landfill gas) rider, that is now eliminated from my bill, as well. So essentially, my savings compare one low-carbon, renewable energy source to another. The analysis would be different if I were transitioning to renewable energy for the first time.

This was enough to get me on board. I wasn’t actually expecting to save money with solar. I’m more interested in helping my utility bring additional solar onto our electrical grid. In SACE’s recently released Solar in the Southeast 2017 Annual Report, Sawnee EMC ranked below the region average for solar watts per customer. Perhaps the Virtual Solar program will enable them to serve more customers with more solar and we’ll see them move up in the rankings next year.

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