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Solar Case Study – Jim Kovalcin

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Written by
Published on 11/04/2014
Updated 11/05/2014

Sometimes, it pays to advertise. When Home Depot decided to be a good corporate citizen and promote solar installation, it caught the eye of Jim Kovalcin, who did some research and ended up going through the home improvement store to finance his 36-panel layout, which is now producing enough power for Jim to sell some of the excess on the open market.

Most people reading this will be familiar with walking into a Home Depot. A big box store dedicated to
everything you could ever need (and probably a few things you don’t) for your house or apartment.
Depending on the time of year, they’ve got gardening supplies, winter weatherproofing, or even holiday
decorations. And of course, if you want a new grill, Home Depot’s your store every spring.

Periodically, their focus is on a particular product or service. At Jim’s local store, one such product was solar power, and the ad caught his eye. When we asked him about his reason for going solar at that time, he said, “It was definitely the Home Depot ad.” After noticing the promotion for solar power, Jim researched going forward with an installation, and realized that with the help of Home Depot it would be possible for him to add solar to his aging roof, which he replaced, except for the section that’s completely covered by the solar panels. “It’s the perfect roof installation,” said Jim, “because there are no protrusions or any other issues. It lays flat against the roof, meaning I didn’t have to replace the shingles there. It’s good for a long time.”

Because of his educational background (Jim is a physicist), he knew that the technology behind solar
panels was solid, and had no worries in that regard. “I knew the stats on solar panels and what they
could do.” His only concern was cost, and with Home Depot doing some of the financing up front and
offering a no-interest loan for one year on solar installations, combined with the Federal tax credit and New Jersey’s rebates at the time, he was able to make it work. Of the total cost of just about $56,000, Jim estimates he ended up having to pay roughly half of that amount. “From an economic point of view, Home Depot made it easy for me to do.”

In addition to reducing Jim’s monthly energy bill, New Jersey’s open market for renewable energy
certificates allows him to sell his excess power and earn a small profit on the solar power he generates but does not use. The competition is fierce, however, so it’s not something that’s going to give him a chance to quit his day job. “New Jersey has a ton of sun, we really do. I generate a lot more power than I use, and I end the year with a significant net surplus. It’s not like Pittsburgh, where I grew up, where things are cloudy all the time.” Jim’s only regret was not locking his certificate rate when fewer consumers had solar power available. “I’d have been a bit better off if I had taken a long-term contract instead of going with the higher-paying short term deals at the time.”

Part of why Jim is producing a surplus of energy has to do with this desire to increase his own home’s
efficiency. As soon as his solar array was installed, 36 panels in all, Jim started doing things like installing LED lighting and replacing his appliances, to cut down on the energy he personally needs and allow him to move the maximum extra power possible to the rebate market. “To give you an example, I bought a new refrigerator. It’s the same size as my old one, but it uses one third the energy of my old fridge, saving me money every month and easily recouping the cost I paid for it.” Jim also discussed with us how much of an impact changing from standard light bulbs to LED light can be, citing one adjustment from a 40 watt traditional dimmer to a 9.7 LED dimmer bulb. “They didn’t have that technology before. You can’t even tell the difference between old lighting and LED now.”

Technology improvements are something close to Jim’s heart and he talked with us about them in
relation to several different areas. In an ideal world, he’d like to get off the grid entirely, but for now he’s still connected. One of the quirks of solar panels is that they need energy to keep going, so if the power goes out across the regional system, Jim cannot make energy for his own use. A solution to this problem would be solar batteries, but as of the time of our conversation, they still weren’t financially viable. Elon Musk, the man behind Solar City, Tesla cars, and other projects, is currently working on the battery issue, and Jim expects him to find a way to make it work. “Look at what this guy [Musk] did with the Tesla patent. If he can get those batteries going, I can get off the grid.”

Jim sees a bright future for solar power overall, noting how much more common it is than when he
installed his panels about five years ago. “At the time I did my installation, there was really only one company to work with. We weren’t the earliest in the area, but we were pretty close. Now there’s even a solar farm nearby!”

As a matter of fact, Jim was so early, the zoning officials had to come up with guidelines as he moved forward with his installation. Fortunately, they worked closely with his installer, which meant they didn’t impose unnecessary restrictions. The only misstep was the lack of a revenue-grade meter, which Jim needed to be able to participate in the energy market.

In world where “even the local stop and shop has solar panels” Jim believes that solar technology will be something more and more people can access. “Of my fifty-six thousand, only about five thousand dollars came from labor, which is a fixed cost. It would probably cost almost half what I paid to go solar now.” Combined with a potential to generate 9,000 KW per year of electricity, some of which may be possible to sell (depending on the state), anyone going solar now will have it easier than Jim did. He’s extremely happy–“I’ve only paid the meter fee for the past four years”–and even with the prospect of wear and tear in the future, expects his decision to install panels to continue to be the right call, as he moves closer to his goal of energy self-sufficiency.

Last modified: November 5, 2014

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