Ralph Gardner Jr: Dreaming Of Sun

Jan 13, 2018

Jesse Cutaia of Hudson Solar
Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr.

This might not be the ideal season to discuss solar panels. In particular installing solar panels. Certainly not in the listening area.

If one’s mind gravitates to sources of heat it’s more likely a roaring fire accompanied by a good single malt.

But think of this commentary as a combination of one of those year-end roundups and a resolution to become a better, more responsible global citizen in 2018.

I took a baby step towards that goal during the fall during a visit from Jesse Cutaia, a project manager with Hudson Solar, a local company that designs and installs solar energy systems.

They came highly recommended by a friend who’d worked with them on his home. And the company recently constructed the energy equivalent of a CSA in Clermont, New York. That’s solar panels that businesses and homeowners can tap into.

Let me say from the start that I thought of Jesse’s visit as more informational, inspirational, even aspirational. I pretty well knew in advance that he wasn’t going to depart with a signed contract. If for no other reason that change comes to our family and our home at a fairly glacial pace.

Our furnace, for example – I can hear it groaning arthritically in the basement at this very moment – dates to the Nixon presidency.

But I wanted to get the conversational ball rolling. It’s pretty clear that alternate energy is the future of the planet. And we better get a move on. Or there won’t be any planet left. At least one hospitable to our particular life form.

Our meeting started, appropriately enough, on our second floor sun deck. I wanted to show Jesse the south-facing roof, even though I had a hunch he might reject it as an ideal location for solar panels, and for reasons I anticipated.

“We’ve been able to work with an older roof,” he told me diplomatically, “but there’s some risk involved.”

I mentioned our antique furnace. It’s positively state-of-the-art compared to our tin roof. That dates to the 1850’s. A local historian visited recently and seemed impressed that the nails holding down the roof were original.

Also, it has a tendency to spring leaks.

“You wouldn’t want to put solar on the roof to take it down five or ten years down the road,” Jesse explained.

He suggested ground-mounted solar panels as an alternative. The biggest obstacle to that being shade.

And if there’s one thing we have a lot of it’s shade. The place is even called Shady Glen. I know it sounds hokey. But that was the name it came with when my grandparents bought the place in the 1940’s. And it more than lives up to its reputation, the sun setting on our backyard a full hour earlier than it does anywhere else in the region.

I have my fingers crossed that the day will come – though certainly not with this Administration and this Congress – where growing trees in profusion will qualify one for a generous tax break. Since trees apparently absorb CO2 and other pollutants that contribute to global warming.

When that shining day arrives, not that I’m holding my breath, our place might qualify as an unintentional example of enlightened environmental stewardship.

A more immediate challenge was finding a field on the property, or something resembling one, that would be suitable for a solar array.

By the way, there are actual tax breaks associated with solar, both state and federal, as Jesse was quick to point out. And they don’t appear to be going away, even with the execrable tax bill Congress just passed.

The reason is the growing political clout of the wind and solar industries.

“There are more people involved in solar and wind than in coal, gas and oil combined,” Jesse told me before we embarked on our scouting walk.

We visited several places on the property as potential sites for forty solar panels measuring approximately fifty feet across, the number he’d determined, based on our electric bill it would take it to supply 100% of our electrical needs.

As we did, he used an instrument called a solar pathfinder to determine how much of the day would see sunlight in a particular location.

“You want to open up nine to three,” he explained, meaning that the spot receives direct sunlight from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. “Anything more than that is going to be great,” he said.

Unfortunately, that would have required cutting down numerous trees at the first site we visited.

There’s also the question of cost. The further you move away from the house the more expensive the trench you have to dig to connect up to the equipment.

But as it turned out we had a ready-made site for solar panels. Our tennis court. The court has seen better days. It features cracks of groaning Grand Canyon-like dimensions. It also tests one’s reflexes since these fissures sometimes cause the ball to bounce in strange and unexpected ways.

In any case, Jesse wasn’t suggesting we place the panels inside the court, making play even more challenging. But directly behind the fence that occasionally prevents errant balls from vanishing into the underbrush.

Employing his solar pathfinder he determined we wouldn’t need to cut down more than one or two trees.

However, recouping the cost of the equipment would take time. “It’s not a get rich quick thing,” he cautioned. “It’s a fantastic investment over the long term.”

I told him I’d get back to him. But the more I think of it the more I like the idea of joining a solar CSA. You buy as many panels as you need on a large array located in a sunny spot and shielded from public view near utility lines. The energy they generate is credited to your electric bill. You don’t need to dig a trench or topple a single tree on your own property.

That, in turn, allows your oaks and maples to keep absorbing planet-warming CO2 for years to come. And perhaps even qualify for a tax break in some enlightened distant future.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.