Rooftop solar: How homeowners should do the math on the climate change investment

Solar panels create electricity on the roof of a house in Rockport, Massachusetts, U.S., June 6, 2022. Picture taken with a drone.

Brian Snyder | Reuters

When Josh Hurwitz decided to put solar power on his Connecticut house, he had three big reasons: To cut his carbon footprint, to eventually store electricity in a solar-powered battery in case of blackouts, and – crucially – to save money.

Now he’s on track to pay for his system in six years, then save tens of thousands of dollars in the 15 years after that, while giving himself a hedge against utility-rate inflation. It’s working so well, he’s preparing to add a Tesla-made battery to let him store the power he makes. Central to the deal: Tax credits and other benefits from both the state of Connecticut and from Washington, D.C., he says.

“You have to make the money work,” Hurwitz said. “You can have the best of intentions, but if the numbers don’t work it doesn’t make sense to do it.”

Hurwitz’s experience points up one benefit of the Inflation Reduction Act that passed in August: Its extension and expansion of tax credits to promote the spread of home-based solar power systems. Adoption is expected to grow 26 percent faster because of the law, which extends tax credits that had been set to expire by 2024 through 2035, says a report by Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Those credits will cover 30 percent of the cost of the system – and, for the first time, there’s a 30 percent credit for batteries that can store newly-produced power for use when it’s needed.

“The main thing the law does is give the industry, and consumers, assurance that the tax credits will be there today, tomorrow and for the next 10 years,” said Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of state government energy agencies. “Rooftop solar is still expensive enough to require some subsidies.”

California’s solar energy net metering decision

Certainty has been the thing that’s hard to come by in solar, where frequent policy changes make the market a “solar coaster,” as one industry executive put it. Just as the expanded federal tax credits were taking effect, California on Dec. 15 slashed another big incentive allowing homeowners to sell excess solar energy generated by their systems back to the grid at attractive rates, scrambling the math anew in the largest U.S. state and its biggest solar-power market — though the changes do not take effect until next April.

Put the state and federal changes together, and Wood Mackenzie thinks the California solar market will actually shrink sharply in 2024, down by as much as 39%. Before the Inflation Reduction Act incentives were factored in, the consulting firm forecast a 50% drop with the California policy shift. Residential solar is coming off a historic quarter, with 1.57 GW installed, a 43% increase year over year, and California a little over one-third of the total, according to Wood Mackenzie.

For potential switchers, tax credits can quickly recover part of the up-front cost of going green. Hurwitz took the federal tax credit for his system when he installed it in 2020, and is preparing to add a battery now that it, too, comes with tax credits. Some contractors offer deals where they absorb the upfront cost – and claim the credit – in exchange for agreements to lease back the system.

Combined with savings on power homeowners don’t  buy from utilities, the tax credits can make rooftop solar systems pay for themselves within as little as five years – and save $25,000 or more, after recovering the initial investment, within two decades.

“Will this growth have legs? Absolutely,” said Veronica Zhang, portfolio manager of the Van Eck Environmental Sustainability Fund, a green fund not exclusively focused on solar. “With utility rates going up, it’s a good time to move if you were thinking about it in the first place.”

How to calculate installation costs and benefits

Here is how the numbers work.

Nationally, the cost for solar in 2022 ranges from $16,870 to $23,170, after the tax credit, for a 10-kilowatt system, the size for which quotes are sought most often on EnergySage, a Boston-based quote-comparison site for solar panels and batteries. Most households can use a system of six or seven kilowatts, EnergySage spokesman Nick Liberati said. A 10-12 kilowatt battery costs about $13,000 more, he added.

There’s a significant variation in those numbers by region, and by the size and other factors specific to the house, EnergySage CEO Vikram Aggarwal said. In New Jersey, for example, a 7-kilowatt system costs on average $20,510 before the credit and $15,177 after it. In Houston, it’s about $1,000 less. In Chicago, that system is close to $2,000 more than in New Jersey. A more robust 10-kilowatt system costs more than $31,000 before the credit around Chicago, but $26,500 in Tampa, Fla. All of these average prices are as quoted by EnergySage.

The effectiveness of the system may also vary because of things specific to the house, including the placement of trees on or near the property, as we found out when we asked EnergySage’s online bid-solicitation system to look at specific homes.

The bids for one suburban Chicago house ranged as low as $19,096 after the federal credit and as high as $30,676.

Offsetting those costs are electricity savings and state tax breaks that recover the cost of the system in as little as 4.5 years, according to the bids. Contractors claimed that power savings and state incentives could save as much as another $27,625 over 20 years, on top of the capital cost.

Alternatively, consumers can finance the system but still own it themselves – we were quoted interest rates of 2.99 to 8.99 percent. That eliminates consumers’ up-front cost, but cuts into the savings as some of the avoided utility costs go to pay off interest, Aggarwal said.

The key to maximizing savings is to know the specific regulations in your state – and get help understanding often-complex contracts, said Hurwitz, who is a physician.

Energy storage and excess power

Some states have more generous subsidies than others, and more pro-consumer rules mandating that utilities pay higher prices for excess power that home solar systems create during peak production hours, or even extract from homeowners’ batteries.

California had among the most generous rules of all until this week. But state utility regulators agreed to let utilities pay much less for excess power they are required to buy, after power companies argued that the rates were too high, and raised power prices for other customers.

Wood Mackenzie said the details of California’s decision made it look less onerous than the firm had expected. EnergySage says the payback period for California systems without a battery will be 10 years instead of six after the new rules take effect in April. Savings in the years afterward will be about 60 percent less, the company estimates. Systems with a battery, which pay for themselves after 10 years, will be little affected because their owners keep most of their excess power instead of selling it to the utility, according to EnergySage.

“The new [California rules] certainly elongate current payback periods for solar and solar-plus-storage, but not by as much as the previous proposal,” Wood Mackenzie said in the Dec. 16 report. “By 2024, the real impacts of the IRA will begin to come to fruition.”

The more expensive power is from a local utility, the more sense home solar will make. And some contractors will back claims about power savings with agreements to pay part of your utility bill if the systems don’t produce as much energy as promised.

“You have to do your homework before you sign,” Hurwitz said. “But energy costs always go up. That’s another hidden incentive.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

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The big new Exxon Mobil climate change deal that got an assist from Joe Biden


Could it be that Big Oil’s next big thing got a big assist from Joe Biden?

Maybe, if carbon capture and storage is indeed as big a deal as ExxonMobil’s first-of-its-kind deal to extract, transport and store carbon from other companies’ factories implies.

The deal, announced last month, calls for ExxonMobil to capture carbon emitted by CF Industries‘ ammonia factory in Donaldsonville, La., and transport it to underground storage using pipelines owned by Enlink Midstream. Set to start up in 2025, the deal is meant to herald a new stage in dealing with carbon produced by manufacturers, and is the latest step in ExxonMobil’s often-tense dialogue with investors who want oil companies to slash emissions.

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August, may determine whether deals like Exxon’s become a trend. The law expands tax credits for capturing carbon from industrial uses in a bid to offset the high up-front costs of plans to capture carbon from places like CF’s plant, as other tax credits in the law lower costs of renewable power and electric cars.

The Inflation Reduction Act and Big Oil

The law may help oil companies like ExxonMobil build profitable businesses to replace some of the revenue and profit they’ll lose as EVs proliferate. Though the company isn’t sharing financial projections, it has committed to investing $15 billion in CCS by 2027 and ExxonMobil Low-Carbon Solutions president Dan Ammann says it may invest more.

“We see a big business opportunity here,” Ammann told CNBC’s David Faber. “We’re seeing interest from companies across a whole range of industries, a whole range of sectors, a whole range of geographies.”

The deal calls for ExxonMobil to capture and remove 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly from CF’s factory, equivalent to replacing 700,000 gasoline-powered vehicles with electric versions.

Each company involved is pursuing its own version of the low-carbon industrial economy. CF wants to produce more carbon-free blue ammonia, a process that often involves extracting ammonia’s components from carbon-laden fossil fuels. Enlink hopes to become a kind of railroad for captured CO2 emissions, calling itself the would-be “CO2 transportation provider of choice” for an industrial corridor laden with refineries and chemical plants.

An industrial facility on the Houston Ship Channel where Exxon Mobil is proposing a carbon capture and sequestration network. Between this industry-wide plan and its first deal for another company’s CCS needs, ExxonMobil is hoping that its low-carbon business quickly scales to a legitimate source of revenue and profit.

CNBC

Exxon itself wants to develop carbon capture as a new business, Amman said, pointing to a “very big backlog of similar projects,” part of the company’s pledge to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as Exxon itself emits by 2050.

“We want oil companies to be active participants in carbon reduction,” said Julio Friedmann, a deputy assistant energy secretary under President Obama and chief scientist at Carbon Direct in New York. “It’s my expectation that this can become a flagship project.”

The key to the sudden flurry of activity is the Inflation Reduction Act.

“It’s a really good example of the intersection of good policy coming together with business and the innovation that can happen on the business side to tackle the big problem of emissions and the big problem of climate change,” Ammann said. “The interest we are seeing, the backlog, are all confirming this is starting to move and starting to move quickly.”

The law increased an existing tax credit for carbon capture to $85 a ton from $45, Goldman said, which will save the Exxon/CF/Enlink project as much as $80 million a year. Credits for captured carbon used underground to enhance production of more fossil fuels are lower, at $60 per ton.

“Carbon capture is a big boys’ game,” said Peter McNally, global sector lead for industrial, materials and energy research at consulting firm Third Bridge. “These are billion-dollar projects. It’s big companies capturing large amounts of carbon. And big oil and gas companies are where the expertise is.”

Goldman Sachs, and environmentalists, are skeptical

A Goldman Sachs team led by analyst Brian Singer called the law “transformative” for climate reduction technologies including battery storage and clean hydrogen. But its analysis is less bullish when it comes to the impact on carbon capture projects like Exxon’s, with Singer expecting more modest gains as the law accelerates development in longer-term projects. To speed up investment more, companies must build CCS systems at greater scale and invent more efficient carbon-extraction chemistry, the Goldman team said.

Industrial uses are the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. That’s narrowly behind both electricity production and transportation. Emissions reduction in industrial uses is considered more expensive and difficult than in either power generation or car and truck transport. Industry is the focus for CCS because utilities and vehicle makers are looking first to other technologies to cut emissions.

Almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity last year came from renewable sources that replace coal and natural gas and another 19 percent came from carbon-free nuclear power, according to government data. Renewables’ share is rising rapidly in 2022, according to interim Energy Department reports, and the IRA also expands tax credits for wind and solar power. Most airlines plan to reduce their carbon footprint by switching to biofuels over the next decade.

More oil and chemical companies seem likely to get on the carbon capture bandwagon first. In May, British oil giant BP and petrochemical maker Linde announced a plan to capture 15 million tons of carbon annually at Linde’s plants in Greater Houston. Linde wants to expand its sales of low-carbon hydrogen, which is usually made by mixing natural gas with steam and a chemical catalyst. In March, Oxy announced a deal with a unit of timber producer Weyerhauser. Oxy won the rights to store carbon underneath 30,000 acres of Weyerhauser’s forest land, even as it continues to grow trees on the surface, with both companies prepared to expand to other sites over time.

Still, environmentalists remain skeptical of CCS.

Tax credits may cut the cost of CCS to companies, but taxpayers still foot the bill for what remains a “boondoggle,” said Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington. The biggest part of industrial emissions comes from the electricity that factories use, and factory owners should reduce that part of their carbon footprint with renewable power as a top priority, he said.

“It makes no economic sense at the highest levels, and the IRA doesn’t change that,” Muffett said. “It just changes who takes the risk.”

Friedman countered by saying economies of scale and technical innovations will trim costs, and that CCS can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 10 percent over time.

“It’s a rather robust number,” Friedmann said. “And it’s about things you can’t easily address any other way.”



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