We asked Opower’s Vanessa Richter, west regional vice president of sales, about her family’s decision to install solar photovoltaic panels on their Tucson home, and her answers were a little surprising.
SH: Why did you and your family decide to install rooftop solar?
VR: First, it wasn’t our goal to go off the grid. That would require oversizing the installation, and we weren’t really wanting to be completely self-sufficient. That would take too long to pay back. Before adding solar, we worked to be as energy efficient as possible. With the research that we did, and provided by our local utility, Tucson Electric Power, we realized that Tucson averages 300 days of sun per year. We installed 17 solar panels, covering about 75% of our electric usage.
SH: Did you include battery storage as part of your solar installation?
VR: No, we didn’t add battery storage. That was an investment that we didn’t see as necessary at this time. We do have a plan for storage: we want to add an electric vehicle next year, and use it as part of our storage strategy. Our plan is to charge the vehicle when solar is prevalent during the day, and pull power from it at night as needed.
SH: Was rooftop solar a personal decision for you?
VR: (laughing) No one in the family was surprised that we went solar. This is important to me because it allows me to align my personal passion with my professional skills. Walking the walk, if you will! I wanted the family to add solar if it was a good fit, and the research proved it would work very well for us, especially in this area. Even before we installed the solar panels, it was a combination of efforts to reduce our energy usage around the house. So I’ve always been an advocate of reducing energy consumption both personally, and professionally.
SH: Was your family always on board with this change?
VR: This vision to move to mindful energy behavior is challenging for everyone, including me. One of the biggest challenges is getting everyone to understand about time-of-use rates. When this happens everyone has to know that we should use more energy when the sun is shining, and less when it isn’t. My family had no idea which appliances use gas versus electric. They also have to understand about time variable rates.
I work from home, and I’m in and out during the day. Plus we have teenagers that are very busy as well. The time-of-use rates are something we’re all committing to incorporating into our home schedule. So far, it’s working fairly well, and I think that we’ll continue to get better integrating this into our day to day lives.
SH: How long did it take to get everything up and running with solar?
VR: The planning phase was in August (2019); the installation was in September, and the panels were turned on in October. Obviously we’re still adjusting to this new energy source, but so far it’s worked very well. The solar provider has an online tracking app, and we plan to install a smart thermostat before next summer; both of those tools will enhance our household usage at the right times.
We designed this install to break even at the seven-year mark, and part of the timing on the installation was to get a federal tax credit that had an end-of-the-year cut off. Most importantly, we didn’t push for a 100% installation just to help control my own mania about energy efficiency.
SH: How have you involved your family’s solar journey into your professional life?
VR: Well, it certainly makes me understanding for utilities that have a large number of rooftop solar customers in their service area. And I know that Opower, and Oracle Utilities have some excellent tools to communicate with their customers. Whether you have solar on your own house or not, the timing of your usage really matters where there is a lot of energy provided by clean sources like wind and solar.I don’t want to proselytize on behalf of cleaner energy sources, but if anyone asks I certainly share my experience and perspective.
The cool part of my job is that every employee at Opower is also a utility customer. As consumers, we all have unique insights with our utilities. This perspective helps inform our products and services every day.
SH: Would you recommend solar to other people?
VR: Definitely. I would tell them to do their research. The region where you live is important for the amount of sun you receive throughout the year. Also, it’s important to talk with your utility for interconnectivity issues. Your utility might also help with your research. Solar isn’t for everyone, but cost wise it’s become more affordable, plus it helps reduce your carbon footprint, and takes your energy efficient home to the next level.
Lead art: Vanessa Richter, second from right, with her spouse, Lori, Emmett, 15, left, and Harrison, 13.