Finding savings with solar power

November 11, 2008

By David Hayes

Solar panels absorb the fall sunlight for electricity along the roof of Mark Mullet's home. Photo by Greg Farrar

Solar panels absorb the fall sunlight for electricity along the roof of Mark Mullet

Mark Mullet remembers when he was a starry-eyed lad living in the Seattle neighborhood of Greenlake, watching the solar car races. He especially recalled one Volkswagen Bug with its entire back seat filled with batteries.

“It could go 35 miles on one charge,” he said. “Of course, it could also only go 35 mph. So, that kind of made it unnaturally hard to go anywhere in these designs.

“But I always thought it would be really cool to own a solar-paneled car,” he added. “It would only be a matter of time.”

Now, 20 years later, Mullet, 36, has embraced the solar technology for his highlands home. The first reason he had 30 panels installed this summer on his roof was purely environmental.

“I’m not seeing any cost savings yet at this point,” he said. “But if a lot more people installed solar panels in their homes, then you’d see a wider monetary impact.”

Mullet used to be employed in the banking and financial markets before moving to the Issaquah Highlands last year with his wife and two daughters (they’ve since had a third daughter, last month). When he and his wife Sabath designed their own home, they always had in mind to have it be powered by solar energy. In his research, Mullet learned the area was ideal for the technology.

“There are practically no big trees in this new development,” he said. “Here and Talus are perfect for installing panels that won’t be crowded by trees.”

Mullet said most solar panel companies won’t even bother with your home if it is too overshadowed by trees.

He also learned that the Pacific Northwest is actually quite conducive to solar energy, right behind Sacramento, for the amount of ideal sunlight the areas get.

“You’d think somewhere like Arizona would be better,” Mullet said. “But it can actually get too hot for the technology to work properly there.”

Each of 30 panels Mullet had installed by the Puget Sound Solar Co. generates 200 watts of power. So, when the sun is out, his array can churn more than 6,000 watts per hour, or 6 kilowatts. On that sunny day, the panels will generate 60-70 kilowatts. During the winter, the panels can still generate between 10-15 kilowatts.

“Then, if there is a shortfall in the amount we need, the system automatically hooks back into the Puget Sound Energy grid,” he said. “The way it’s designed, it operates so smoothly, you never know if it’s generating its own power or is on the power grid.”

And on those summer days when he doesn’t use all the energy the panels create? He sells it back to PSE.

“It costs about nine cents a kilowatt, and we actually get to sell it back at almost twice as much at 17 cents,” Mullet said. “It’s an incentive program the state has to install solar panels.”

The state offers an additional installation incentive to use solar energy by waving the sales tax, providing Mullet with a $2,000 tax credit.

“It usually costs about $20,000 to install the system,” he said. “Because our home is bigger and we installed 30 panels, it was closer to double that for us.”

The zero impact to the environment fit into purchasing a four-star green home in the highlands. His house’s features — windows, insulation and an efficient heating system, to name a few — all contribute to creating an environmentally friendly footprint.

Which leads to the other reason why Mullet had so many solar panels installed on his home. He wanted the charger for an electric sports car to be totally off the grid.

Mullet will soon be the proud owner of a solar-powered sports car, fulfilling his childhood dream. The Tesla Roadster is the first sports car that is 100 percent electric, which its creators boast burns no oil, drives 244 miles on a single charge and goes from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds. These perks do come with a price — the Tesla has a base price, before additional amenities, of $98,000.

“And I’m going to be the first one in the Seattle area to own one, even before (Seahawks owner) Paul Allen,” Mullet said.

With his home’s current arrangement, he said he figures about 25 percent of the energy the solar panels generate would go toward charging the Tesla. The other 75 percent will go to his home.

“My environmental goal was to have a car that I could completely charge off the regional power grid,” he said. “The car has the advantage of using truly clean electricity.”

That’s quite a step up from the VW Mullet remembers from his childhood.

Reach Reporter David Hayes at 392-6434, ext. 237, or dhayes@isspress.com.

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