Go Green, Save Green: Bringing Solar Power Home

Illustration: Ana Benaroya / Photo: Steve Gold

Editor’s note: This story appears in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of NEW. You can download the entire issue here, or find a print copy at one of our many distribution locations. Since it was published, the state agency handling the solar program has halted all rebates until September, and the story has been updated to reflect that. For more on the cuts to the solar program, check out this companion piece by NJ Spotlight’s Tom Johnson.

It’s a weekday evening, and Adam Szpala’s 3-year-old has just burst into the house crying because her doll fell into a puddle and now has a wet dress. Szpala dries her crocodile tears as his wife, Christina, puts a few chicken cutlets in a pan to start dinner.

The Szpalas have a comfortable home on 4th Street, three floors of roughly 1,300 square feet each. The first floor is a two-bedroom rental. Inside their space, they have all the goods: ceiling fans, big vertical windows, skylights, vaulted ceilings, three flat-screen TVs and the Holy Grail of an in-house washer and dryer.

It sounds like a money pit — and it was. Until the Szpala family went solar.

“I was getting frustrated with my utility bills,” says Adam Szpala, a self-employed contractor in the construction industry who built the house himself. He grew up in Jersey City and went to school five blocks from where he now lives.

“You can get mad and scream, but it’s not going to change anything,” he says. “This was the only way for me to combat that.”

The Szpalas are not alone. This is, after all, “the solar state” — New Jersey is full of solar arrays, second only to California in number. And because New Jersey is much smaller, there is more solar per square mile here than in any other state in the country, according to Matt Elliott, the global warming and clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey.

“For the past 10 years, we’ve worked hard to build a robust solar market in New Jersey, and it’s now clear that it’s been a win-win for the environment and the economy,” Elliott says.

For Adam Szpala, the choice was more about saving money than the environment. Szpala is a skeptic on global warming, and thinks cap-and-trade programs are crazy when the economy is suffering as it has been.

But he supports reducing pollution, and would like to see the U.S. make a break from Middle East oil. Solar, he says, can only help.

And the savings have been significant. Where he used to see a $450 electric bill, he says he now pays around $200. It might have cost him $550 to cool his home during a hot month in the past, and that bill is now $250.

Taking into account energy price increases, Szpala believes the system saves him about $200 a month.
He owns and rents out the building next door, and two of the four units there are hooked up to their own solar system. Four years ago, Szpala paid about $45,000 out of pocket for the installations on both buildings. It was an investment that would have cost him more than $120,000 if not for rebates from the state.

While the money homeowners can get back has dropped over the years, the state was still offering rebates of $1.75 per watt for systems with capacities of up to 10 kilowatts as of March, according to Doyal Siddell, spokesman for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. But in May, the state halted all rebates until September, saying it has run out of money after Gov. Christie diverted more than $400 million from clean energy programs to help close the state budget gap. A solar contractor trade group, the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, has sued the state over the move. (For the latest information on reimbursement, visit njcleanenergy.com.)

But many people can’t go solar — because their rooftops are shaded or not facing southward, or because they rent and don’t have the option, or simply because they can’t come up with the initial investment. A bill supported by Environment New Jersey allowing for co-op style arrangements would make solar energy accessible to even more people. This way, multiple families could come together to build a solar array near their homes and all share in the costs and benefits.

“This bill would be revolutionary and level the solar playing field in New Jersey,” says Elliott.

Szpala’s solar arrays generate 7.6 kilowatts apiece, enough to cover a good chunk of the energy he and his tenants use.

On top of the direct savings he sees in his monthly bills, Szpala has tax-free Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) that work like royalties; he receives regular checks that add up to more than $7,000 a year.

“I feel great when the checks come in,” he says.

The price of SRECs varies; Szpala says he receives about $300 per credit, much less than the going rate, because he is locked into a contract.

Still, in a few years he believes he will have recouped his investment completely.

The dividends have helped Christina Szpala answer the questions she asked when she and Adam first talked about solar panels: “Could this be worth it? Are we really going to save money?”

The array has also given their older daughter, who is 8, something to be proud of. “When they talked about it in school,” Christina Szpala says, “she thought that was pretty cool.”


Number of solar projects in New Jersey (includes residential and commercial): More than 5,000

Amount of capacity that represents: 130 megawatts

State rank, number of solar arrays:

State rank, number per square mile: 1

For more information on solar power in New Jersey, call (866) NJ-SMART or go to njcleanenergy.com.

a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the The Wall Street Journal, and Agence France-Presse. She is also a former editor for Jersey City Independent.