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Going Solar

By Staff | May 12, 2011

Nathaniel “Than” and Mary Anne Hitt, who live along West Washington Street, will be the first residents in the Shepherdstown Historic District to have solar panels on their property.

The town’s planning commission approved a permit for the project at its April meeting to place photovoltaics on the Hitt’s two-story garage, which was built in 2004, according to the permit application.

Than said there were two motivations in determining to go solar: the desire to burn less coal and the eventual cost savings.

“The coal that’s burnt in Mt. Storm and shipped over the mountains loses a lot of its energy just in transmission – it just doesn’t make sense,” Than said. “So that’s the main motivation.”

Than calculated the amount of coal consumed on the property in which he, Mary Anne and their 1-year-old daughter, Hazel, lives.

Mary Anne and ‘Than’ Hitt, with their daughter Hazel, decided to install solar panels on their property to save on energy consumption and costs. (Chronicle photo by Tricia Fulks)

By taking his family’s energy bill and converting it from kilowatt hours to units of coal while factoring in the distance the energy is transported allowed Than to estimate how much his family of three burned monthly.

“We were burning tons of coal every month,” Than said. “And when you multiply that by all the houses out here and all the places that are consuming energy, it wasn’t something we wanted to contribute to. We wanted to reduce our footprint in that regard.”

Michelle Liefke, renewable energy consultant at Berkeley Springs-based company Mountain View Solar and Wind which installed the Hitt’s photovoltaics, said Than and Mary Anne opted for a solar thermal design, which is also known as photovoltaic energy system. Their panels, which will sit on top of their garage in which Mary Anne’s office is housed, will be part of a grid-tied system in which conduits will connect to the Hitt’s system to offset the entire property’s energy usage, Liefke said.

She said the modular 12-panel model the Hitts have is a 2.82-kilowatt system and will produce up to 3,100 kilowatt hours of energy per year.

She also said depending upon customers’ energy goals and consumption as well as the type of system they plan on installing will determine if the panels offset some or all of the energy of a home home. Than said most months the project will produce 80 percent of energy needs while in the winter months it will produce about 20 percent. Mary Anne believes this will motivate the family to save more energy.

And there were more incentives for the Hitts to go forward with the project.

Liefke said there is a government-mandated standard that utility companies must follow.

“In order to comply with this mandate, utility companies buy credits in bundles from (Solar Renewable Energy Credit Aggregators; and the SREC Aggregators buy these credits from solar panel owners,” Liefke said. “SRECs are a bonus for having solar on the grid.”

Homeowners can make money off of their solar system this way, she said.

Liefke also said West Virginians can offset over 30 percent of upfront costs with federal and state tax credits.

This can supplement the initial installation costs, and Liefke estimates the Hitt’s system will pay for itself within seven to nine years.

Liefke also said that once an electrician comes and hooks the system up to a new meter, the Hitts can net meter their energy, which on the sunniest of days can produce more energy than is needed. Liefke said the net meter spins the meter back, putting energy back out on the grid and creating credits. While they will not get energy credits in the form of money, the credit will be carried over onto their next energy bill, subsidizing the following month’s bill, Than said.

Liefke said this was the “first action to preserve and conserve” in Shepherdstown’s historic district in terms of solar energy. She said she hopes others in the historic district take advantage of the free sun that fall on their roofs and decide to convert it to energy.

“This project shows that solar power and historic preservation are compatible,” Than said.

“The historic character of the town is one of the reasons we like living here, and so we really respect those values; we respect the desire of the people in town to preserve that,” Mary Anne said. “And at the same time the world does change. We didn’t have electricity 200 years ago. We didn’t have telephones 200 years ago, and obviously the town has been able to adapt to change, so we are very hopeful that the town would see this as a really positive step forward.”