FROM READERS: Columbia couple harnesses the power of the sun

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
John and Joni O'Connor hold their $735 rebate check from Columbia Water and Light. The rebate is based on a rate of 50 cents per installed watt. The O'Connors also receive a federal tax credit.

Even prior to profiting from the sun, John and Joni O’Connor have been enjoying life in Columbia’s sunshine since 1975. They thank their fellow Columbians for encouraging the development of alternative energy sources.

Long ago, it occurred to us that the world’s energy future is uncertain. Energy is becoming increasingly costly, and ultimately, our current dependencies will be unsustainable. Globally, we know that fossil fuels are being consumed at a furious rate. It is no secret there will be less fossil fuel in the world tomorrow than there is today and still less every day thereafter.

Most people have come to recognize that the promise of replacing fossil fuel though the use of nuclear energy presents seemingly intractable hazards to health and property. Nuclear fission can generate radioactive residues that have the potential to contaminate ever increasing areas of the earth for, what is to humans, unimaginable periods of time. Except among the most optimistic, complacent or uncaring, only the length of time before serious energy shortages threaten everyone’s lifestyle, whether comfortable or already tenuous, is really a matter of serious debate.

Still, even today, many of us have ready access to one safe and truly reliable source of energy — the sun. Some of the world’s greatest monuments have been built to track its travels. Its annual recession, followed by its return to bring warmth and give rebirth to life in each hemisphere, has been celebrated throughout the ages of mankind.

Over the years, humans have learned how to benefit from the gifts (light, heat, food) conferred by the sun. Today’s technology has made it simple, cheap and easy for modern homeowners to gather the sun’s heat to warm water for bathing and to heat their homes. Even more remarkably, those property owners who have sunlit roofs and open areas can now utilize solar insolation to generate electricity whenever there is light. There is no charge for these solar-generated electrons. If you don’t use the ration you have access to, they are simply lost to you.

We had solar panels designed and installed by our son while we were on vacation this summer. Our modest 1.5 kilowatt system sits quietly atop our garage where someday it may help power an electric car as well as offset a portion of the electricity we purchase from Columbia Water and Light. They have graciously facilitated our project by providing our household with a solar electric meter that records energy "purchased from" and "returned to" their grid.

We are very proud of our solar array. It does not make any sound to annoy the neighbors. It doesn’t smell or create gaseous emissions. It isn’t wired to any adjacent poles, but its inexorable input of electrons goes directly into our home. For the most part, it doesn’t require any attention, adjustments or cleaning. It is durable and has no moving parts. In fact, the panels come with a 25-year warranty. When was the last time you purchased anything and received a 25-year warranty along with it, at no extra cost?

Finally, we believe our panels will withstand a pretty severe hailstorm, as our son and daughter-in-law’s array readily withstood the September 2012 storm that caused damage to so many roofs and cars.

Best of all, our solar panels are possibly the only investment that we have ever made that has essentially no chance of losing money, so long as the sun continues to shine. An engineering cost analysis, done by me and my son, indicates that the total investment will return 5.5 percent every year over its 25-plus year lifespan and that is even assuming that electric rates remain as low as they are today.

All this has left us gazing at our roof to see where we might install a few more panels.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Mark Foecking August 22, 2013 | 9:55 a.m.

The only issue you really have with your system is you're still as dependent on the grid as you ever were. If the grid goes down, your system goes down (this is not something some installers tell people - hopefully yours did).

Your system will average about 7 kwh/day. A Nissan Leaf requires 34 kwh to go 100 miles, or 3.4 kwh/10 miles. Your system would give a Leaf 20 miles/day (the average driver drives 35), and nothing else. Cars are very inefficient, even small ones.

Grid-tie users, especially ones that zero out their electric bills, are not paying for the electricity they use at night, and that's a problem that's increasing in places like Arizona and Hawaii. All the panels do during the day is to save the power company fuel, but they still have to maintain generators on standby, maintain transmission and distribution lines, and pay operators. In fact, large amounts of rapidly varying power (like on a partly cloudy day) can make it considerably more difficult for the operators, and require more standby (which uses fuel even if the generators produce no output).

Energy storage is the key to making solar energy truly work. On a small scale, a homeowner can use large natteries to store energy for later. On a utility scale, pumped hydro storage is the most efficient (Taum Sauk is a pumped storage facility), but unfortunately can't be used in flat parts of the country.

Off-grid is the fairest and most reliable way to install solar or wind. Solar penetration in Columbia is negligible (if the same money had been spent on power strips, to control phantom loads, the energy saved would be far greater), but if it increases this is something CW&L will have to address. An off-grid system makes the power company's job easier. Grid-tie makes it more difficult.


(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer August 22, 2013 | 11:07 a.m.

Thanks for the comment, DK. I've passed it on to the reader who contributed the story.

Joy Mayer, Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer August 23, 2013 | 9:44 a.m.

I'm posting this response on behalf of the author of this story. — Joy Mayer, Columbia Missourian


Thank you for your comments.

Yes, we are aware of the importance of being able to connect to the grid. This privilege was afforded by the Columbia Water and Light Department. We are also aware, as most of those tied to the grid should be, that failure of the grid system will similarly deactivate any solar input. Accordingly, we are thankful both to the Columbia Water and Light Department and the citizens of Columbia for having made it possible for us to sell any excess energy we produce through the grid. Still, most of the solar energy we now produce is going directly into our household.

Since, professionally, we work with numerous utilities, we are also very familiar with both the economics of utility operations and their vital concerns over the effects of emerging technologies on revenues. Solar inputs will not only decrease operational costs, but in some cases, will defer the time when additional capital investments must be made to further increase peak capacity.

We agree that conservation is the most effective means for reducing energy use. In achieving near net-zero electrical energy use, my son first spent about six years monitoring and devising means for eliminating phantom loads, avoiding leakage, and curbing wasteful practices. He reduced his household electrical consumption by more than 80 percent before installing solar panels.

Not that it is relevant here, but we rarely drive more than 20 miles per day. Moreover, Arizona and Hawaii not withstanding, we are under the impression that most regional peak electrical energy use occurs during daylight hours.

Finally, hydropower, including pumped storage, is an excellent adjunct to fossil fuel power generation, particularly, if the resource is available and does not create insurmountable ancillary problems such as that encountered at the Harry S Truman Dam and Reservoir where major fish kills during pumpback testing precluded its use for that purpose.

John O'Connor
Columbia, MO

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.