Let The Sunshine In: Casting Light on Residential Solar Energy in Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Having grown up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had a large backyard with a creak to explore, Kevin Eigel has always had an interest in nature and the environment. With a father heavily involved in the Oil and Gas Industry, Eigel was equally intrigued with energy production and consumption. It wasn’t until he went to work for his father, though, that Eigel knew what direction his competing interests would take.

 Reflecting on his time working in the oil and gas industry he said, “I didn’t like what was happening, and it solidified my resolve to do something for the environment”.

In 2002, Kevin Eigel quit his job and bought a farm. With no prior understanding of renewable energy, Kevin decided he would make his new home completely energy efficient.

He did what many new solar enthusiasts would do, researching all he could find on what solar energy has to offer. But he went further and installed the solar panels on the roof himself. Through the design of his own “eco-house,” Eigel developed a passion for renewable and efficient energy that would later drive him to found his own solar company, Ecohouse Solar.

Rising Potential

Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. In the past decade, industry revenues have grown from $42 million in 2007 to over $210 million in 2017. In 2016 alone, the solar industry contributed over $84 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). According to a 2017 Employment Report by the Department of Energy, over 370,000 Americans work full or part-time in the solar industry- an increase of nearly 400 percent since 2009.

Today, the total installed U.S. solar generation capacity is over 55 gigawatts – enough to power 11 million American homes. Current projections show no signs of slowing.  In the next five years, U.S solar generation capacity is expected to more than double. With such success nationally, Ohio residents might be left wondering, “Why is the same success not heard or seen here?”.

Ohio is a unique state with a history of raw skill, manufacturing and innovation. This combination places Ohio in a position of great potential with the solar industry. Eigel took advantage of this opportunity, founding Ecohouse Solar in 2008.

Today, Ecohouse, which offers design and installation of solar PV systems as well as comprehensive energy audits, has grown into a leader in Central Ohio.

Kept in the Dark

Misconceptions keep most Ohioans from fully embracing the potential for solar in the state. As Eigel explained, “most people say solar won’t work in Ohio because we don’t have enough sun, or it’s just too expensive, that it just doesn’t make sense to do it.” Neither of these perceptions is true.

In reality, Ohio receives almost as much sunlight per day as solar industry leaders on the East Coast. New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, all have about the same amount of sun as Ohio —   four hours per day on average, Eigel explained.                   

In Columbus, where Ecohouse Solar is located, an average of 4.67 hours of sunlight reaches rooftops each day. For reference, the “sunshine” state of California receives an average of 5.88 hours a day.

Even with its overcast days, Ohio remains competitive.

On the financial side, initial installation costs feed the idea that solar isn’t a practical option for everyday Ohioans.

A residential solar installation isn’t cheap, with the average price ranging from 15,000-30,000 before any federal tax credits. But when these projects are viewed as investments, rather than simply a price to be paid, the assessment of costs and benefits can be seen differently.

If the cost of a new solar system, for example, is included in the mortgage for a new home, it is the only feature in the home that has a monthly direct return on the investment.

Ohio’s Place in the Sun

States that embrace the opportunities that the solar industry provides often incorporate programs to incentivize personal, and even commercial investment. In turn, these statewide programs stimulate investment in the state and local economies.

For example, Connecticut, a state with comparable annual sunlight, incentivizes solar installation for residents by exempting their solar systems from sales tax and from additional property taxes on their home’s added value.

Currently, Ohio doesn’t have incentive programs for solar development. This is partially attributable to our low utility rates but is also largely a consequence of the lack of statewide incentive programs.

“Ohio doesn’t have any real economic incentives right now like they have in other states…and those states generally have a lot more activity than we have here,” Eigel said.

Without real incentive programs to offset costs, it’s understandable to be hesitant. But as the Ecohouse team has seen firsthand, the benefits still outweigh the costs.

Typically the payback from the time of initial installation only takes 9-10 years depending on the size of the panel system. After that point, homeowners are not only receiving clean electricity for free, they’ll likely be profiting from the investment by selling electricity back to utility companies.

“[Solar investment] increases the value of the building, it continually produces electricity and is going to pay for itself pretty quickly,” Eigel concludes.

“Despite legislative barriers, installations continue to increase,” Eigel said. Ecohouse Solar  completed 45 projects in 2018, and anticipate to complete a total of 200 systems by the end of this year.

His clients range from the Dean of OSU School of Engineering and the Director of the Columbus and Franklin County Metroparks to everyday homeowners up to 60 miles outside of Columbus.

How do they appeal to such a range of homeowners? Eigel answers simply that “no matter who you are, you’re going to be paying your electric bill.”

When you invest in a residential solar system, “You’re locking in the price of your electricity for the next 30 years,” Eigel said.

Helping Lighten the Load

Of course, not everyone is capable of making the large up-front investment, and Ecohouse doesn’t turn a blind eye to this. Financing is available for those looking to install solar on their home. “If they don’t have the money, we can still do it,” Eigel said.

Ecohouse advertises its ability to aid clients in obtaining low-interest loans on its site.  As technology advances, prices will only continue to drop. “Solar system costs have decreased 50 percent in the last five years,” Eigel stated. Ultimately, when looked at from an economic standpoint, solar almost always makes sense. “But that news hasn’t gotten out yet.”

From his personal experiences, teaching himself to design, and to implement solar systems, Ecohouse Solar has incorporated the importance of education in their practices.

It is Eigel’s passion to inform others about the benefits of solar that set Ecohouse Solar apart. “No matter how familiar you are with solar power, they will make you feel informed and comfortable with the whole process,” homeowners James and Carey H. said about their choice to work with Ecohouse.

Beyond financing and economic incentives, the largest factor in making solar energy a conventional choice in Ohio is education. “We have the skills and the technology right now. It just needs to be implemented,” Eigel said.

With increased education on renewable energy and greater consideration from Ohio residents, Eigel knows that there is so much to gain, “I’m really optimistic about the whole thing, some people might not be so optimistic, but I am.”

by Erin Fisher