Sekar Veerappan in front of his home, which was recently outfitted with solar panels. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Glen Allen resident Sekar Veerappan is leading by example.
Veerappan wants more Richmond residents to go solar, and to that end, he’s been instrumental in the creation of the Richmond Community Solar Co-op. The group formed last year and now has 101 members.
The mechanical engineer also has had an array of 33 solar panels installed on his home in the Mountain Spring neighborhood.
Most days, the panels will provide all the electricity to meet his family’s needs in the 3,427-square-foot home. Some days, the panels will run the meter backward, contributing power to the grid that serves the community, says Aaron Sutch, program director for Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods (VA SUN), a nonprofit that seeks to educate Virginians about solar power and expand its use in the commonwealth.
Aaron Sutch speaks during a Richmond Community Solar Co-op information session at Urban Farmhouse in Scott’s Addition. (Photo by Trevor Dickerson)
Cooperative members pool resources to buy solar power equipment through a single competitive bid, saving 10 to 20 percent in the process. Each system is customized to the individual, and each signs an individual contract. Once a cooperative has 20 to 30 members who want to install solar systems, they seek bids. Veerappan’s home was the first in Richmond to have a system installed through the cooperative. The work was done in late March.
Sigora Solar installs solar panels on Sekar Veerappan’s roof. (Photo by Trevor Dickerson)
The house offers an optimal setting to install solar, according to Brady Allen, a project manager with Sigora Solar, a Scott’s Addition business that earned the contract. It has a south-facing back roof with minimal shade from trees and a large, mostly uninterrupted surface (few pipes and no gables or dormers).
It’s a grid system and each of the 33 panels create 270 watts of DC current that’s converted in an inverter box in the garage into AC current that can be used by the house. The power company won’t pay you to produce power, but you can zero out your utility bill if you produce as much or more power than you need with your system.
Solar power could be stored for later use in batteries, but for now the batteries cost too much to make that practical in this area, according to Sutch. Without batteries, if your power goes out, your solar power is out, too. That’s by design to prevent power from your panels feeding into the main lines and protect utility workers from harm if they’re working on a line.
A typical installation takes one or two days, but the process of tailoring a system to your home and then gaining approval from local government can take up to two months. The panels last 30 years. They’re tough, built to withstand wind, hail and snow, though a blanket of snow will hinder electric production until it melts.
A system can cost $8,000 to $40,000, depending on its size and complexity. A typical medium-sized system averages $11,000, according to VA SUN. Expect to recoup your investment in nine to 11 years, although in some cases you may break even after six to eight years. Factors affecting costs include the size of your system, how much energy you use and the cost of the energy consumed, and any credits you may receive for going solar.
It’s generally advisable to pay up front for your system. Currently, you can receive a 30 percent federal tax credit on the cost of your installation, though the credit is set to expire this tax year.
Veerappan says a solar grid installation didn’t make economic sense until recently, since the cost for the equipment has dropped. “I’ve always been interested in solar,” he says.
His home proved to be a natural choice for the solar panels, but that was not a consideration when he bought the property in 2010.
He began researching an installation and found that there were no cooperatives serving Richmond, so he contacted VA SUN, part of the national Community Power Network, and helped set up some meetings here on solar power.
A cooperative approach appeals to Veerappan. VA SUN provides experience and knowledge of the process that helps guide new cooperative members through the process.
Veerappan says he’ll continue working with VA SUN on its solar advisory board and serve as an ambassador and advocate for solar power in Virginia. One of his neighbors in his subdivision has already expressed interest in installing a system, he says.
It’s just part of his lifestyle. Before the installation, Veerappan and his wife, Meenal, already were using as many organic products as possible, and were composting food scraps and using rain barrels to collect runoff water to irrigate the landscape.
Cooperative membership is open to any residence or business. VA SUN helps the cooperatives run. Veerappan is the lead community partner for the Richmond cooperative. Community partners are Boulevard Creative, the Alliance Group and Drive Electric RVA. Learn more at vasun.org.
The Richmond group is one of two active solar co-operatives in Virginia (there’s also a group in Rockbridge County).