Sorting Solar Fact and Fiction with a Property Brother

Solar energy is cheaper than ever, but there’s still a lot to learn

Jonathan Scott
Jonathan Scott with a solar panel installation.

Scott Brothers Global

 

When I think about solar energy, two thoughts come to mind: saving a boatload of money on utility costs and those friendly solicitors visiting my front door to tell me I can essentially get a rooftop solar system for free.

While I listen patiently to each of those pitches (and I still get them a few times a year), I imagine unsightly, window-screen-sized, black plates on my roof and paying thousands of dollars up front for installations. I always smile politely as the local solar companies try to tell me how I’ll make back my investment in five (or more) years thanks to subsidies and net metering, where I generate so much energy that I can sell it back to the local utility.

Usually, these people are still talking as I pull the screen door closed and then step back behind my front door.

Let’s Shed Some Sunlight on This

This, I now admit, is a narrow and ill-informed view of solar tech and its impact, something I started to realize as news reports on the impact of climate change shifted from “in the future,” to “it’s happening now” and “we’re screwed.”

Even the economics of solar have changed drastically since it first started to move into the mainstream decades ago. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the cost of an average-sized residential solar system installation has tumbled from $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $18,000 now, and that’s before incentives.

In recent months, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of bringing solar to just a small part of my home. Well, not actually my home but my shed. Years ago, I had a powered shed until the sprinkler-installation crew cut the buried power cable and no one could find and reattach it.

As casual web search brought up this fascinating YouTube video of a solar shed project, and this shockingly affordable solar kit. For roughly $800, I could get an “easy-to-install” kit and battery backup.

I was starting to get excited about solar, but probably not as much as Jonathan Scott does.

Meet Your Solar Brother

You might know Scott as one half of the insanely popular (and ubiquitous) HGTV Property Brothers. With his twin brother, Drew, Jonathan Scott helps people find and fix up their dream homes. Drew is the realtor and Jonathan is the hands-on demolition and reconstruction crew.

Now, though, Jonathan Scott is taking on the unlikely mantle of renewable energy crusader.

Last week, Scott and the Al Gore-backed Climate Reality Project released “Knowledge is Power.” The free 36-page ebook both explains “everything you need to know about solar” as well as discusses solar as a better energy option than fossil fuels. In particular, it seeks to counter misinformation about the impact of solar on jobs and the environment.

"I put solar on my house in Las Vegas. It unleashed this three-years long, mind-numbingly frustrating process.” —Jonathan Scott

It’s pretty good reading, but doesn’t bear much resemblance to the lighthearted, somewhat jokey persona Scott presents on the Property Brothers.

As is often the case, Scott’s solar interest began with a house project. In this case, his own.

“I put solar on my house in Las Vegas. It unleashed this three-years long, mind-numbingly frustrating process,” Scott told me.

Scott said he tangled with the local utilities and even state legislation that “shut down solar in Nevada for 2 years.”

While resigned anger and frustration would’ve been reasonable response (certainly mine), Scott instead embarked on a cross-country solar listening and learning tour.

“Back in college I was a debater. If somebody pissed me off, I would go to the ends of the earth to find research…and prove them wrong. That’s what happened with this,” he said.

What Scott learned is that utilities around the country have been waging war on solar and renewable energy. It’s a quiet war, usually conducted on the local legislation battlefield, but often with almost diabolical misdirection.

In Florida for example, residents were asked to consider an amendment, “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” that appeared to open the door for more state-based solar energy support, but would’ve killed net metering support and potentially added a surcharge to solar customers who needed to buy traditional electricity at night. The bill, which was backed primarily by the utility industry, fell in 2016.

“I don’t like when powerful companies manipulate the public,” said Scott, who saw an energy monopoly-busting measure defeated in Nevada by what he called the local utility's $60 million misinformation campaign.

Tactics like this are simply delaying what Scott sees as the inevitable. The mainstream, he contends, like and want solar.

The Changing Face of Solar

As a debater, Scott knows his argument has to be framed in such a way that it can win, and winning is not a zero-sum game.

“We can’t eliminate fossil fuels just like that, and it would not be good for America,” said Scott, “[but] we can swing aggressively.”

It’s probably easier to act aggressively as solar becomes more fiscally and efficiently attractive.

Solar panel performance is generally measured in efficiency. The earliest panels, in 1960, were just 14% efficient. Modern panels are now 30% efficient and in 2017, scientists created solar cells with 44.5% efficiency.

“I don’t like when powerful companies manipulate the public.” —Jonathan Scott

Modern solar panels are also much thinner, but I still cringe when I see them on someone’s roof. They look bad. Tesla CEO Elon Musk must’ve felt similarly. His company developed Solar Roof, which is made up of hundreds of solar shingles and looks a lot like a traditional roof, but with a bit of a shine. Musk also smartly paired the Tesla Solar Tiles with his Powerwall Batteries. Without batteries, your solar system is useless after dark.

Even though Musk declared 2019 “the year of the roof,” Musk has struggled to mass-produce these attractive solar panels. In addition, Tesla Tile installations are far more expensive than a traditional roof and solar panels. One real-world example put the cost at $35 per square foot.

“The Tesla shingles are a very cool idea and they’re beautiful,” said Scott told, but they’re “not as efficient as an excellent [photovoltaic] panel.”

What Do You Guys Want?

When I told Scott that though I’ve been watching Property Brothers (and its various spinoffs) for years, I couldn’t recall a solar installation episode.

He explained, “For our shows, most of the homeowners we work with, they have an extremely tight budget. Often not even half the budget they need. [Solar] is a premium add on.”

That said, during 2018's Brother vs Brother (there are so many shows), Scott did an Eco-Chic renovation that included a living wall, fake concrete, and, yes, solar. Plus, he is seeing more of the homeowners he works with ask for solar.

Aside from price, there are other considerations. Solar is clearly climate-change positive, but it’s not always environmentally neutral.

"Audubon opposes any further construction of concentrated solar towers.” —Audubon Society.

In addition to residential solar panel installations, there are utilities creating vast solar farms. Many of these work similarly to the panels on your home, using the suns rays to convert light into electricity that can be fed to the grid or stored in giant banks of batteries.

As you might guess, birds sometimes confuse panel arrays for water and some die flying into them. The Audubon Society believes that on-balance “installing solar panels at home is one of the best ways to help birds avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” It is, however, less sanguine about what’s known as Concentrated Solar Power or “Thermal Solar,” which uses the solar array to superheat a central area, generating steam that can run a turbine.

According to Audubon, birds and their prey are drawn to the light beams and can die when they come in contact the high-heat areas. One such plant killed 6,000 birds in one year. “Because of this, Audubon opposes any further construction of concentrated solar towers,” said the society in a blog post.

Clock’s Ticking for Your Solar Deal

For homeowners, solar is still a net positive. But the clock is ticking on whether or not it will be as fiscally attractive in the future.

While my home state of New York has fairly generous solar subsidies, other states have dropped or never implemented them. The nationwide Solar Industry Tax Credit, which, since it was implemented in 2006, has been one of the biggest drivers behind consumer solar adoption, starts shrinking at the end of this year and will fall for three years until it disappears.

"If somebody pissed me off, I would go to the ends of the earth to find research…and prove them wrong. That’s what happened with this.” —Jonathan Scott

A bi-partisan bill known as the Renewable Energy Extension Act, which would extend the SITC, has been submitted to Congress, but with an administration that’s more firmly behind coal than it is alternative energy sources, the Act's passage is far from assured.

Scott, who’s working on a documentary (Adam McKay is a partner on the project), argues that solar is not “not a political issue, not a conservative versus liberal thing. It’s a way to power their lives the best way they think represents their beliefs.”

In the meantime, I’m still hiding from solar solicitors and thinking about that solar shed project.