The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 22, 2014

Earthworks

Homeowner taps natural energy source – the sun

By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor

SHENANGO TOWNSHIP — While touring Germany last year, David Sykes spotted solar panels resting in a residential back yard.

Then he saw the panels in another yard, then another, and another. He saw them in fields, on top of barns, and at businesses.

“They were all over the place,’’ the retired electrical engineer said.

Thanks in large part to hefty government subsidies, by the end of 2012 Germany had cranked out 30 gigawatts of electricity from solar power, a third of the world’s total, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.

Sykes was smitten.

Even before entering the field of electrical engineering he found the power of current fascinating.

“When I was 3 years old when the car wouldn’t supply battery juice, I would recharge the batteries with my dad,’’ he recalled.   

As an adult in 1970, he decided to buy electric tractors made by General Electric.

About four years ago, he began buying a few solar panels to install on his garage to power that. But after seeing the true power of the sun in Germany, he decided to transform his Shenango Township home into a miniature solar power plant.

With 40 solar panels now arrayed in his back yard, Sykes is just about ready to turn on the system. While he expects it will power his entire house, he isn’t going off the regular electrical grid.

If he generates excess electricity, a utility, by law, must accept the juice he pumps into the grid and pay him for it, noted Ron Laverty, owner of Laverty Electrical Services, Sharon.

Laverty installed most of the working guts of Sykes’ solar system. In addition to running electrical lines and boxes for the system, he also installed the vital power inverter and batteries needed for the project. An inverter converts the direct current produced by the photovoltaic cells of the solar panels into alternating current.

U.S. homes and businesses use alternating current, better known as AC, versus direct current, or DC, which is used in the European electrical grid.

Batteries resembling those found in tractor-trailers store electricity created by the system for use at night or for up to five days should the weather turn severely cloudy.    

A veteran electrician, Laverty has studied how solar power systems work for years. Sykes’ is Laverty’s first all-home solar system project.

“We’ve done smaller stuff like for garages,’’ Laverty said. “But nothing that was tied to the grid.’’

Installing a solar system can’t be done willy-nilly, he explained. The system must be in compliance with the National Electric Code.

“Plus, it would also have to follow a municipality’s code which can go over and above the NEC,’’ Laverty said.

By still being tied to the electrical grid, Sykes’ system would automatically pull electricity from it if its own battery system ran dry of power.

There is also a safety system in place.

“If the utility grid would go down in an outage, then the inverter would not allow the electricity to be put on the grid because it would prevent a utility lineman from getting shocked from the feedback,’’ Laverty said. “The inverter would just provide power for the home.’’

While the U.S. gives homeowners a tax credit if they install solar power, the upfront cost isn’t cheap. It cost $10,000 for Sykes’ solar panels, plus another $26,000 for the batteries and another $10,000 for the inverter. In all he’s got more than $50,000 invested in the project in hardware and labor.   

Although the tax credit is nice, that’s not why he did the project.

Solar power is all about the future, he said. “It’s just common sense.’’