Being green is becoming as easy on your wallet as it is to the environment.
Ian Smith of Standard Solar is 6’4”, and yet he manages to squeeze his angular frame through a small bedroom window and onto our roof, the better to assess the potential for a solar installation on our Mt. Lebanon house. He’s done his homework prior to his visit, using Pictometry to view aerial snapshots of our house that suggest the sun’s rays will shine at a favorable angle. Test passed, Smith is now inspecting an asphalt tile overhang on our otherwise slate roof that runs the length of the house and faces southwest. Using a solar pathfinder—a palm-sized, low-tech tool—he generates an instant snapshot of our solar potential 365 days a year. If he places three rows of Darth Vader-like solar panels on this spot, we could generate electricity for three hours on either side of noon most days, seeing as how the sun’s rays penetrate even on the grayest of days.
The payoff for solar and other sustainable practices is twofold: you help the environment by reducing the use of fossil fuels and attendant CO2 emissions, and you save money both short- and long-term. Although a solar installation on our 2,300-square-foot home would cost around $20,000, we can use a 30 percent federal income tax credit against the price tag of the entire project (available to residential and commercial customers, the credit can be carried forward until 2016), and can also potentially qualify for state dollars from the Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar Rebate program equal to 15 percent of the install price.
Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) are another aid in defraying the cost of our solar energy system. For every thousand kilowatt-hours of solar energy we produce, we receive an SREC through a program administered by the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, that we can sell into a spot market or via long-term contract. Prices of SRECs have fluctuated in recent years, from a high of $300 to a low of $40 per certificate, so it makes sense to consider this revenue stream as an added benefit and not a primary source of funding. Additionally, our new system is net-metered; it’s like having an electric meter that spins forward and backward. Solar consumers funnel all of their newly generated electricity into the grid and what they don’t use is carried forward for use at a later date. Any unused electric generation is purchased by their utility at the retail rate on an annual basis. It’s nice to think we could be generating clean energy for use by our neighbors.
Another important factor in the sustainability equation is energy efficiency. Home energy auditors can assess a home to see if it is operating as efficiently as possible and can suggest improvements that save both dollars and energy. Even better, there are state programs that make these investments attractive. Tim Carryer, president of the energy efficiency firm Green Over Green, stresses the importance of prioritizing home improvements.
“You can spend $40,000 on new windows that look great, but it’s a waste of money if you haven’t looked into your walls first for air leaks,” says Carryer, who is also president of Diagnostic Energy Auditors of Western Pennsylvania, a trade group.
He suggests looking at your house as an operating system and focusing on heat and air. How is the heat from your boiler distributed? If your house uses forced air heating, how does the ductwork look? A home can lose 30 percent of its energy via ductwork alone, says Carryer, so having this unglamorous bit of work done first makes the most sense and requires only a modest investment. Infrared tests performed by home energy auditors quantify the performance of a house and hone in on thermal, air infiltration and moisture issues.
“Our houses were built leaky,” notes Carryer. “There was a lot of coal [back then] so it was no issue.”
List in hand, consumers can turn to Keystone HELP, a low-rate financing program geared toward energy efficiency home improvements operated by the state. Air sealing and insulation loans carry the lowest interest rates (0.99 percent to 2.99 percent) while loans for Energy Star-rated appliances (certified by the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy as energy efficient) are nominally higher. You can also finance whole house, solar and major energy improvements to a 120 percent loan-to-value ratio up to $35,000. See www.keystonehelp.com/index.php  for details. A comprehensive list of state-by-state incentives and financing tools is available at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). Visit www.dsireusa.org/  and click on “PA.”
Mt. Lebanon’s new stormwater utility fund will collect money for maintenance and modernization of the municipality’s stormwater management system. Complementary initiatives, such as a credit for the purchase of a rain barrel, further address the issue of pooling rainwater that picks up pollutants from hard surfaces and contributes to erosion of saturated green spaces. Mt. Lebanon’s effort is being lauded by Luke Stamper of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, an organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of an urban watershed in Pittsburgh’s East End as well as the promotion of sustainable practices.
“Mt. Lebanon is at the forefront of stormwater management,” says Stamper. “Rain barrels are a great way to save money and be part of the solution. It’s an exciting time for Mt. Lebanon.”
StormWorks, a program sponsored by Nine Mile Run, provides a consultation by a staff expert to determine the stormwater footprint of a residence or business. A solution may comprise the use of rain barrels, rain gardens, trees or all three and the initial consultation fee of $75 will be deducted from the cost of any products purchased from the organization. Mt. Lebanon is also offering a $50 credit on the stormwater fee to any household that purchases a standard-size, 133-gallon rain barrel, which will collect enough water during the spring and summer months to help defray the cost of watering a garden.