In this podcast, Brian Sadler from Solaris Renewables, joins us to talk about the advantages of solar power. He chats with Brett Rogenski from N.E.T.R., Inc and moderator John Maher about integrating solar power with your electric heat pumps.
John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher, and I’m here today with Brett Rogenski, General Manager of N.E.T.R., Inc., a heating and cooling company in Massachusetts with a focus on Mitsubishi ductless heating and cooling products. Today we’re talking about integrating solar power with your heat pumps. Welcome, Brett.
Brett Rogenski: Thanks, John. I appreciate you having me.
John: Sure. And our special guest today is Brian Sadler, Vice President at Solaris Renewables, a solar company in Massachusetts providing premium solar and storage technologies with exceptional customer service, designing, installing, and servicing solar systems in Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire, and Maine. Welcome, Brian.
Brian Sadler: Hi, John. Hi, Brett. Nice to see you guys. Thanks for having me on.
John: Yeah, thanks. So Brian, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about solar power and how that works and what the latest advances in the technology are?
Brian: Sure. The technology is very similar to the same thing we put into space in the 1950s. Obviously the applications have changed, right? We’re not putting on a satellite and shooting into space, now we’re trying to apply the same technology to residences and businesses.
So the panels themselves have come a long way in terms of aesthetics, but really the base technology of the cells themselves are very similar. There have been advances in efficiency and output, which is huge. But basically, the basics of how it works is we put panels either on folks’ roofs, be it shingled, any type of roof we’re able to have an application for, and otherwise in your property you can do a ground mount or a tracking system as well.
And that is obviously a sun collector. It’s really in simple terms, takes sunlight or photons of sun, turns it into an electrical current. That current travels through a wire to an inverter where that is inverted from DC or direct current to AC or alternating current, which is what our homes and businesses use. And the inverter is the electronics and the brains of the operation. And there’s different types and applications. But essentially the efficiency of the inverters at this point are 98, 99% of that electricity that’s being collected, that’s being passed through our homes and businesses. And then that electricity would travel right through our main service panel to satisfy the demand that the home or business is calling for.
And then if there’s any additional power, that power actually travels through a new meter that is a bidirectional meter, or called the net meter that’s able to spin backwards in theory. A lot of them are digital now. I usually do my rotating finger that it spins forward and backwards, but everything’s mostly digital at this point. But nevertheless, it decreases that demand that we’re having on our billing cycle from the utility. And then if we overproduce for a given month on our billing cycle, we would actually be able to eliminate our electrical bill and also be able to even get credits if we overproduce enough on a given month.
Those credits then apply to future months, and that’s how we get electricity savings and are able to offset our electric bills, our usage throughout a year in some cases. A lot of it depends on the factors of the site conditions and the load itself, but we have a lot of customers that can only do 50% of their needs and a lot of customers that can do 120% or more and plan for the future. Things like heat pumps and EVs and potential growth to actual their home in itself. So that’s in a nutshell how solar works.
John: Okay, yeah. So tell us a little bit about how solar panels get installed.
Brian: Well, we want to make this a turnkey process for all of our customers and we take all of the process out of the customer’s hands. We want to make this as simple and easy as possible and make sure our customers have a great experience. So really, it comes down to collecting some basic paperwork with the customer. Then we do all the design, engineering, gathering of information and processing that for the utility applications, the permitting as well. And then when we get everything ready, we are able to then come and install in a few short days typically.
We basically have mounts that are going to be attached to the home’s structure. So we go on the roof and again, different applications depending on the roof type. And then on top of those mounts that are sealed, watertight mounts to protect obviously not only the investment that the homeowner made for going solar, but also their property as well, we take that really seriously. We offer a 20-year low leak guarantee. We’ve never had a roof leak, although we get calls on that every month and we have to go diagnose that we were the last ones up there, generally speaking. But also that technology in itself has changed a lot over the years and is really tried and true at this point.
But then rails go on top of those mounts that support the solar system. The panels are affixed to those rails with clamps that keep the panels in place and are obviously able to expand and contract with weather variations and such. Especially here in New England, we need to have robust systems that are able to handle 140 degrees on the roof in the summer and zero in the winter and the wind and snow and all the weather that we get. So then also running a roof box with the wiring and we often take a lot of pride in bringing that wiring as much into the attic spaces and out more discreetly along the homes than other installers may. But that’s something that we take really seriously as well as the aesthetics of the system, and that’s important to our customers.
And then we put the inverter either in the basement, garage, or if need be on the exterior of the home. And that’s where the, like I said, the brains of the operation where the wires connect and that gives the functionality of the system as well as monitoring so the homeowner or business can see exactly what the system’s doing, what their home is using, consuming at that time, and that relationship between the solar system, the grid, and their home.
Typically the actual installation, the boots on the roof so to speak, is for two to three days for the average sized system, which for us is about 10 kilowatt. It’s a good size system, smaller system, maybe a day or two. Larger systems may be longer if we are adding other peripherals, smart panels, batteries, things like that, more complex electrical work, we can end up with some additional time, but even a large project is installed inside of a business week.
Brett: I think that’s really amazing that you guys are able to do all of that in that timeframe because as you said, you touch all the parts of construction there. You’re making sure that the roof is sound. Of course you’re doing the solar system as well as no small amount of electrical on top of it all. That’s really amazing.
Brian: It can be a heavy lift on the electrical side. More and more every year we have more code, more regulations with the utility and such, and more things to look out for, other peripheral items as technology evolves. And we see the general movement of electrifying folks’ homes, so there’s more peripherals that are added and things like that.
But yeah, we have to have a team of specialists that are roof guys and the other electricians that really specialize in what they do. And I think one of the things that we think about is specialization. So we don’t just buy whatever the cheapest flavor of the month is for panels or equipment, and we stick with our partners and what’s tried and true and our guys specialize in that, and that really allows us to handle a large scope of work in a reasonable amount of time.
Brett: Sounds like you have a great process.
Brian: We’re doing our best.
John: Yeah, it sounds actually very similar, Brett, to your process at N.E.T.R. with installing heat pumps and air conditioning, ductless air conditioning systems. In most cases, I think you’re able to install a whole system in a house in two or three days as well. Why don’t you talk just a little bit about ductless systems and how you see those working in a house and how it might fit, how solar might fit in with helping to power those ductless systems?
Brett: Sure, absolutely. And you’re absolutely right. I mean, we have very similar general processes in that you have specialization as Brian said. So we have HVAC technicians who are specially trained in installing ductless and they’re coming into the home, and of course they have to have a fair amount of construction knowledge so that they’re doing their penetrations properly and sealing them and all those great things. And then of course, you have the electrical side because depending on the scope of work, there’s a fair amount of electrical being done as well. From as simple as putting in a disconnect to as complex as we work with people who need to upgrade their home’s whole service from maybe 100 amps to 200 amps, which basically involves all new work from the pole down through the house down to your electrical panel. So we definitely have some specialization there as well, so we can be efficient in the home.
And you’re right, the average install for us is two to three days, but more and more as people are looking to mini splits to heat and cool their home full-time, moving to more and more whole home applications, which are quite frankly just larger systems, you have to be able to heat and cool the entire home. And some of those can take as long as a week even for us to do with full crews on site so it depends on the scope of work.
I really think that solar and mini splits, ductless are really a great combination because the great benefit of mini splits of ductless systems is the elimination of fossil fuels and decarbonization. And then there’s a lot of incentivization out there too from Mass Save, incentivization from the inflation reduction act, the IRA, but it’s an electric heating and cooling system.
And what are we doing with solar? We are now self-generating without having to go to the grid some, or perhaps in certain cases, all of the electricity that is now going to be used to heat and cool your home that used to be natural gas or oil or propane or what have you. So I really think that there’s tremendous synergies between the two, not only for a homeowner’s energy independence, but for decarbonization and clean heat.
The other thing is and it’s come up a lot in the last year or so, is indoor air quality. So the beauty with electric heat and cool, which mini splits are, is there’s no chance of any sort of exhaust or byproducts from natural gas, et cetera, entering the home. There’s coolant being pushed to and from things in sealed lines, and there’s no ability for any sort of poor ventilation to cause an issue. So it actually helps with the indoor air quality as well compared to natural gas or propane or oil.
Brian: I haven’t heard of any heat pumps blowing up either of late.
Brett: You’re absolutely right. Yeah, there’s no heat pump exclusions. So no, exactly that. So I really think there’s a tremendous synergy between the two technologies for better comfort, for better health and safety in the home, as well as taking advantage of decarbonization and all those other things.
John: Do you find the same thing with your customers, Brian? That a lot of them are really looking to make their house greener and reduce their carbon footprint? And maybe you could give your perspective on how you feel that solar panels and heat pumps can work together to achieve those goals.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more with Brett that there’s a tremendous synergy between the two, and we find that a lot of our customers that are going solar either are doing it for environmental reasons. There’s always the underlying piece of savings, right, with solar because there’s a bottom line there. But a lot of folks are willing to break about even or pay a little bit more if there’s savings in the future, especially if they’re planning on a heat pump project that the solar’s going to help cover the cost there. Adding an EV, which has been more and more common, so we’re adding a lot of EV chargers, so I feel like there’s absolutely a tremendous synergy between the two and we get a lot of questions about them so that’s great to have a resource like Brett and N.E.T.R. to be able to share our customers, to ask those questions, and learn more about how heat pump technology works.
I think another thing is that heat pumps and ductless are tremendously flexible. So we just had a project at our house, a whole home heat pump system put in by N.E.T.R. which was a tremendous experience and we found we didn’t have a lot of choices. I live in a slab ranch, we have no basement. Even if we wanted to put an air handler in, it would have to go in the attic and it would be a really difficult working environment for any contractor being up there. And I wasn’t that excited about having duct work and all that stuff in the attic that’s already unworkable anyways.
And so the heat pump was always the solution that we’ve been looking at as we want to get rid of our oil fired boiler and that big oil tank because for one, it’s dirty, it back drafts into our garage, its oil is on the floor, and it leaks and it smells in there. And for us, it’s a place where we need to not live at this time, but it’s storage. I have a wood shop in there, and I’m able to get rid of that and reclaim that space. For one, we’re going to put a battery in where the oil tank is and get a couple batteries there, and then we can move the washer and dryer so we have more space there. So for us, it was an absolute no-brainer to give us a lot more space, functionality of the home cleaner, indoor air quality.
We lower our carbon footprint, and we’re replacing a significant energy cost and oil with a technology, with the heat pumps that we can also control with our solar system. And we’re getting a tremendous offset in cost and functionality and we can control the comfort of our home a lot more precisely, but through the individual heads as well as an app that comes with it. So for us, we’re thrilled about it and it’s an awesome solution.
I know the heat pumps have multiple, all kinds of different applications. Some people just want to stick with something that they have and supplement to maybe an addition that they got or to a basement finishing and things like this.
And then absolutely you’re going to be replacing in some cases a cost. Your electric is going to go up, but you’re also not paying oil or gas or whatnot with that cost. And then solar is really the only thing you can do to control any of those energy costs. Unless you have a refinery or something in your backyard that’s harvesting fossil fuels, which is not much of here in the Northeast. So it’s really a no-brainer that the two technologies work together and that our customers are really looking to navigate that. And I know a lot of customers at N.E.T.R. and all over the region want to understand what heat pumps and ductless mean for me and what does solar do for that solution.
Brett: It’s really a path in my mind towards energy independence, not just on an individual level.
Brett: So I really think that’s important.
Brian: I think that’s one of the huge things that, the control. So we are able to control our energy creation and usage, and be able to view that and learn from it. From our solar system and from our heat pump system, we can really get a good understanding of what does it mean to keep our house at 72, what does it mean to keep it at 67?
Brian: How does that work for us? And we can really make informed decisions on how to control the climate of our house and our energy demand.
John: Brett mentioned incentives like Mass Save rebates and things like that for installing heat pump systems. Brian, are there similar sorts of tax incentives and other types of incentives for people to install solar systems?
Brian: Absolutely, and that’s a large driver in soft landings for folks that want to investigate the technology. Prior to the tax credit coming out, I believe it was 2005, but prior to that, solar was really just an infant emerging technology in these applications that we’re using now. Just a short time later, we’re talking 18 years later, it’s a huge industry, whereas it was a super expensive, niche industry at that time.
The tax credit really helped to accelerate that by investment into the industry and more widespread adoption. There’s a 30% federal tax credit for the gross cost of the system, and the state also has a 15% tax credit, although that is now capped at a thousand dollars. So both of those cover almost a third of the cost of the system itself. So it’s massive, right? I’d say it’s a huge piece of being able to go solar.
And then there are other local incentives. We have 41 municipal light plants here in Massachusetts that are their own utilities towns and municipalities that have their own utility. And some of those offer, there was a coalesced rebate program that’s disintegrated now, and each of the individual municipal light plants have their take on solar programs. And so they have rebates and then there’s always an income program in the state. So there used to be a massive rebate and that transitioned to a performance-based incentive which has declined over time, but it was lucrative.
And then now we’ve transitioned from a new program called SMART, and then now we’re onto back full circle to RECs, Renewable Energy Credits, which have been around really since the ’80s and have a variety of applications, solar being one of them where it’s another performance-based incentive. So essentially for every kilowatt-hour that you produce, there’s a cash value that you can earn and get paid on a quarterly basis of cash payments even directly deposited into your bank account. So all of these pieces fit together to have a huge offset in the investment in solar. And this also, I think there’s a lot of financial options that help with this investment as well.
John: And one of the things that I see all the time is these ads for free solar, “Hey, no money down, you don’t even have to pay for it and you can get solar panels installed on your house.” Tell us a little bit about what that is. It sounds like too good to be true, and what is it that you recommend and if you don’t recommend that, are there other ways to finance solar panels on your house?
Brian: Yes, absolutely. We hear a lot about free solar, so you see it all over social media, right? The governor and the state is going to pay for you to have solar and give you a free system. And then a lot of the large national companies are talking about a free installation. And so we do have people call us all the time and they want to inquire and learn more about it. And then they really like, “Oh, do you guys do the free solar?” My response is generally, sure, we do the free solar that you pay for the next 20 to 30 years because that’s what that program is.
We have offered what’s called a third party ownership. It’s a lease or what’s called a PPA or power purchase agreement. We have had those in the past and a very low volume of our customers have taken advantage of it. I would say there is a fit for it and it does have an application, but right now, 100% and historically well over 95% of our customers own the system. And that way, if you own the system, you are taking all the incentives. If you are allowing a third party to own the system, they are taking all of the incentives. So we do recommend owning the system and the financing has come to mature to such a place where it’s an absolute no-brainer to do so, as you’re going to pay less money for less time.
And then a lot of customers have access to their own financing, so be it cash on hand, HELOC, or whatever that mechanism is that they want to pay for it on their own, to secure their own financing. And then essentially to us that is, it’s just a check, but there’s a large market in our industry just around financing and it has some really great mechanisms that work with the incentives. So there’s tax credit treatments and there’s rebate treatments. So if you’re in a particular area that can take advantage of rebates, they’ll actually include that in the loan as well so that you’re basically become a pass through for tax credits and rebates and such to again, keep that cost of going solar down. And I would say in all cases, if your site is viable, and we would recommend solar for the homeowner of the business, you’re going to pay less than you do today.
So that’s when a lot of folks ask, “This isn’t free?” No, there is a cost associated with it, but it’s going to be less than what you’re doing now and you’re able to fix your costs, right? That’s a huge piece because the utility rates are constantly rising, and this is an opportunity to generate your own power, offset that large utility bill and fix that cost for the time to come until either that loan is paid off or you’ve recouped all of your cash investment, through all the incentives and the energy savings because the energy savings is a huge, huge part of it.
So if you’re getting 30% plus a thousand dollars in tax credits, there’s a third of the cost of the system, now you have a revenue stream that’s coming to you quarterly, and we look at it annually and monthly so we can wrap our heads around it, and that offsets your monthly payment further.
And then you look at your energy savings you’re offsetting, and now we’re talking about being cashflow positive right away. So there are some great incentives. There are some great finance mechanisms out there that make solar accessible for everyone, and it makes it an absolute no-brainer if your site is viable. We’ll tell homeowners we don’t recommend solar for you because you have too many trees or your roof is really tough. These are the limitations, and we’ll educate homeowners and try to help them find solutions or if they have no tax liability, one of those third party ownership programs is great.
Because they can’t realize the tax credit, so hey, let’s save money on our electric bill. We don’t offer those programs at this time, but we’ll let them know, “Hey, the best program for you would be that.” Education is a big piece of the process for us. And being a local company and entrenched here in New England, we want to make sure that no, we understand the ins and outs of the landscape here locally and that we’re giving customers a really transparent and educational view of how solar works.
John: Yeah, absolutely.
Brett: That’s a really great way to be people’s partner. And to your point, if 95% of your customers are choosing to go down that road of ownership, that means it’s financially viable. I think a lot of people think about that free solar because there’s a lot of advertising behind it by some large companies, but I’m an old New Englander too, and is anything ever really free?
Brett: So that’s really great. And like you say, the proof is that you have so many customers going down that road that means that it is financially viable and a better option for them.
Brett: So that’s great.
Brian: We do have a lot of customers that come to us saying that, I was looking at solar and I met with someone with the free install, and so talking about that program and they said the stink meter went up a little bit and they said, “Something’s not right here.” And when we show them how this works and we try to make it in really simple bite-sized pieces, because there are some new concepts, right? Tax credits being applied, your meter’s spinning backwards, this thing making cash payments. Folks always ask, “Well, what’s the catch? This seems too good to be true. What am I missing?” And, “No, you’re not missing. This is how it works.”
Massachusetts in particular has been a leader for over eight years in the incentives nationally. So because we don’t have any fossil fuels here in New England and we generate our power mostly in Massachusetts from natural gas and there’s limited generation, so we don’t have any energy independence. Everything is brought in from out of state, and the only way for us to really gain any energy independence and security is through renewables.
And solar is the most mature and applicable technology to use in all kinds of rooftop, on the ground. You see those on the side of the highway, the big fields and things like that. And we want to have smart land use and building use, but I think that that’s helped folks be educated and understand how solar works for them.
John: Absolutely. Brian, my final question is just you mentioned batteries, installing batteries in your garage. Has battery technology now advanced to the point where you can integrate battery systems with solar panels and how does that work?
Brian: Absolutely. There’s been a huge uptick in the companies doing batteries and it’s absolutely become a lot more mature of a technology as well. We’ve been a Tesla certified installer for their Tesla Powerwall product since 2016. We were one of the first in the state, and it’s a tried and true product. It’s a leader, it’s a really, really advanced product and it grows, right?
So what’s cool about that product is that as features and on the app or the actual hardware and the firmware itself, they come out with new things and the battery system will do more. So these are products that connect right to your home electrical service and allow you to have backup in an outage, leverage the battery at night or on cloudy days if your solar system’s not covering it. So there’s a variety of applications, but I would say most often folks are looking for a battery because of outages, and to have some security and have their creature comforts when there is an outage.
And it could be a short outage. And what’s great about the battery product is it picks right up. You don’t know that you’re on the battery except for when the app tells you, right? You don’t see the lights flicker, you don’t see things fall off. So it’s really advanced technology integrated with an automatic transfer switch and electronic controls that you have visibility over that works with your electrical system, and conversely works with your solar system as well.
So the solar system is charging the battery. If you’ve used some of it the prior day, the next day your solar system’s charging it up and leaving you at full capacity in case there is an outage or a nor’easter coming in, or a hurricane, things like this. And actually the app is hooked into NOAA. So if there is a weather event coming, it will override all your settings, go all hands on deck, charge the battery up and make sure that you’re ready for any type of weather event.
We also use a SolarEdge battery, which is the inverter company that we partner with. Again, that’s a DC coupled battery and Tesla is an AC coupled and I don’t expect everyone to know what that means, but it’s two different types of applications and it allows us to cover all homeowners needs at the end of the day. So it allows us to do retrofits to existing solar systems, install new solar systems with either battery. It really comes down to the application at the home and being able to custom tailor a solution from either one of those systems. And they both have, they work in a similar fashion.
I always talk about batteries being electric, solar power generator, right? It’s not designed to give you any savings. It’s designed to give you security, backup in an outage and then there’s a minute level of savings by cycling your battery through that you’re not net metering, meaning getting electric savings because there’s a slight reduction in those credits you get from the utility, but it’s pennies. So you could say I’m saving a couple pennies here and there by using my battery, but it’s minute. And really the batteries are more of a security and creature comfort solution.
But we do have a lot of customers that lose power. Often we have other companies that are more thinking about future-proofing, right? And that they want to, “Hey, I just want, I like the technology. I got a solar system. I’m thinking about a generator, but I’d rather use the battery.” So that’s a great application in that case. We also have customers that have both.
So the batteries do have some limitations, right? There’s a finite capacity to them. One thing that’s really cool about the battery systems is that it actually shuts you off of the grid. So it enables you to in theory, be a perpetually operating home by using your battery at night and using your solar and charging the batteries during the day provided there’s ample sunlight to do that. But we have customers that have both, right? Because the batteries, maybe they can’t charge all the way up and we have to design it for a fail stop of not getting any solar.
And so a lot of customers, large properties and want to make sure they have all the bases covered. We have solar and the battery system in an outage. The battery system picks up right away and as it works through and we let it drain and it comes to a certain reserve point that the homeowner can set. Once it hits that point, boom, it kicks over to the generator.
We install another ATS, automatic transfer switch, that is going to trigger the generator and whole home generator to pick up. And now they have their whole home on the generator. And then in the morning when the sun comes back up, they can lower their reserve level, turn the battery back on, turn solar back on, they’re able to power their home and recharge the battery with solar and shut the generator off and then they come full circle so they can in theory, continue to operate.
Brett: That’s really interesting that you guys are able to do that because I think for most people, the battery probably covers their needs. They go through occasional short outages, a few hours maybe, and they want to cover their critical infrastructure. Hey, I want to have heat. I want to make sure my refrigerator and my freezer are running and some other appropriate lighting and that sort of thing.
But maybe especially someone in a more rural area where they may be a little more prone to extended outages that battery acts as that shock absorber, so to say, for most of the time. But if you are in that area that can experience extended outages, that’s amazing that you guys can then trigger a generator to cover those night hours or whatever and then let the battery recharge itself during the day as well. So that’s fabulous.
Brian: We pushed, that’s pretty advanced stuff. We did it early on and some of our partners thought we were crazy and then it wouldn’t work and we sorted it out. Our Mass electrician and engineers really delved deep and found ways to make this work. It becomes really cool and being on the forefront of that type of application and being able to take all different types of systems and integrate them and give the customer really what they’re looking for.
Some customers, like you said, out in more rural areas and they want a real fail stop. They’re like, “I want to make sure that if the whole grid goes down, I want to have power. I want to have duplicity in my systems and make sure that I’m covered,” and things like that. So those projects are fun to work on.
Brett: Well, they are. And for some people, like you say, especially maybe more typically in rural areas, that can even be like a life safety situation where they can’t have failure, may be due to medical needs or what have you, so amazing.
John: Brett, any final thoughts for us here as you hear all of this information about solar panels and as you’re thinking about how those integrate with heat pumps and ductless technology? Any final thoughts?
Brett: No, I mean, honestly, my final thoughts are that there’s great synergies between the two. There’s lots of great reasons to go solar, and there’s lots of great reasons to use mini splits, to use heat pumps, ductless systems and it’s really amazing how they’re really both working towards that same goal.
It’s easy to integrate these things too, you’re taking one and one and you’re getting a little more than two out of it. So I really think that it’s super, and I think the folks who are looking at heat pumps, who should really consider those solar options to be able to offset some costs, as Brian was saying, but also you start involving batteries and stuff and being able to really future-proof their home.
Brian: Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.
John: All right. Well, Brian from Solaris Renewables, thanks again for joining us today. And how can people learn more about Solaris Renewables?
Brian: You can check us out at solarisrenewables.com and check out on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn as well.
John: All right. And as always, Brett, thanks again for speaking with me as well. Thank you.
Brett: Thank you for having me.
Brian: Thanks a lot, John and Brett.
John: And for more information, you can visit the N.E.T.R. website at netrinc.com or call (781) 933-N-E-T-R. That’s (781) 933-6387.