A Thanksgiving miracle: How my Tea Party uncle and I found something to agree on

There's a lot we don't agree on, but last year at Thanksgiving we unexpectedly found some common ground

Published November 27, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

    (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/profile/gmvozd'>GMVozd</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
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There's a lot that my uncle and I don't agree on. And that's putting it generously. An optometrist who lives with his wife and four dogs in New Hampshire, my dad's younger brother -- Uncle Mike to me -- describes himself as a constitutional conservative; he's a "smaller-government... Tea Party type of person." He believes that man-made climate change may be happening, he told me, but he's not convinced it's definite; specifically, he takes issue with the "groupthink" that leads politicians to claim that the science is settled. I, well... I write for Salon, and the president of the United States cited one of my articles in a tweet.

And that's why I was so excited last year when the family got together and Uncle Mike started telling me about his rooftop solar panels. Solar panels! That clean energy-producing, climate change-reducing technology that Obama put on the roof of the White House, that I've written about repeatedly and enthusiastically; not only does Uncle Mike have a system of his own, he was willing to talk my ear off about all the benefits he's getting out of it. I found myself not just listening, but nodding along in agreement. I can't stress enough how unexpected, and welcome, this was.

Sure, our reasons for embracing renewable energy differ slightly: I dream of a world where all fossil fuels are left in the ground, while Uncle Mike enjoys the immediate pleasure of watching his electricity meter run backward (he sings the praises of his heat pump, his tankless water heater and his LED lightbulbs for the same reason). And we still don't agree on all of the details about how it should be implemented. We both really like the idea of cleaner air, though. Something else we discovered we have in common? We hate that the Koch brothers are trying to get taxes imposed on residential solar systems.

It's no surprise, of course, that rooftop solar has taken off with a certain breed of conservative, particularly those who embrace free-market solutions, value self-sufficiency and, critically, have homes with southern exposure. But I wanted to get a better idea of why solar resonates with this specific conservative: the one I'm stuck with for better and for worse. Because he truly loves talking about this stuff -- and because he loves me, too -- Uncle Mike agreed to speak with me on the record about his personal solar revolution. Our conversation has been lightly edited, but only for length and clarity -- I even let Uncle Mike read it over, to guarantee that I didn't pull a Jon Stewart on him.

So tell me about your solar panels. When did you first get them? What led to that decision?

I set up our house for the solar panels when I built it. One of the things we looked for was that we wanted the house to have southern exposure, because otherwise it wouldn’t work. That was 10 years ago, when solar panels were very expensive, but I watched the market occasionally; you go to PopularMechanics.com or whatever and you read an article every now and again. You started seeing it around a little more. And then my neighbor got them. I talked to him and said I’m going to get them next year, and so I did -- that was probably about two years ago.

Were they still expensive at that point?

Expense is relative; there is a high up-front cost, but it's a good investment. I would think that for most people, they would think it would be expensive. I would think that people who are using a lot of energy have got to have a lot of electronic devices or whatever, so they’ve probably got the money and it wouldn’t be expensive. The systems are scalable -- I just expanded mine. And expense is how long you look at it. These things are going to be good for 25, 30 years with no maintenance. There are no moving parts. So if you have no electric bill, that’s good, right?

Definitely. How has your electric bill changed now that you have added solar to the mix?

I don’t have any electric bill. I’m actually going to be producing more next year because I expanded the system. We’re going to have more energy than we can use. We’re going to use it to heat the house and we’re going to do a lot of other things with it. It definitely works, and I was pleasantly surprised about it.

I got the system because, frankly, I think they look cool, right? My neighbor got them and I like high-tech stuff. It was something I wanted for a while; I didn’t expect it to really save me this much money, so that was a pleasant surprise. We have local tax incentives and things like that, and there were a few benefits that I didn’t know existed. The system really performed well, and it’s pretty good. It’s a $100, $250 bill, that I can go spend on something else. It’s good.

I saw New Hampshire has a rebate program. Online it said it’s either $3,750 or half the system cost.

Yeah, I got that rebate, but it isn’t that good because you have to pay tax on it. I mean, it’s better than nothing. But in most towns if you add solar panels, which makes your house more valuable, it doesn't raise your assessment/local property tax. In my town, you actually get to deduct the net investment (the cost minus government subsidies) from your assessment. So if we pay tax at about $20 per thousand, it's like saving another 2 percent a year. If you count the 30 percent that the federal government pays up front and then the 2 percent over, let’s say, 30 years, I get the solar panels for free, and I get free energy!

That is an incredible thing if the interest rate is zero, you know what I’m saying? If you have extra cash and you’re getting zero in the bank -- because that’s what the bank gives you for interest, zero, or you go someplace and lock your money for a year, it’s 1 percent guaranteed taxes -- that’s a pretty incredible investment, I say. But if you have to borrow money to get that deal you don’t quite have the same investment.

But the thing that people don’t quite realize about solar, which is my big thing and what I didn’t realize about it, is that it’s not about the money. It’s about clean air -- because it makes the air cleaner, there’s no doubt about it, because there are no moving parts or anything -- but it’s also a lot of fun.

I’ve got a lot of left-wing friends, they don’t even know what a kilowatt is. The first thing that happens when you get solar is you become very aware of your energy usage. You know how much solar you made because it’s kind of fun, and then you see whether your meter is going up or down: are you using more energy than you’re producing or less? I come home and it’s another thing to talk about: we made this today or we made that today. I work in a building so sometimes I don’t even know what the weather’s like; I can check the app on my phone, and I know if it’s sunny where I live.

If you’re out on the deck, drinking a beer and barbecuing a steak or whatever, and you look up and you see the sun hitting the panels, and you go over to the side of the house and you see the meter running backward… it’s really cool, and that’s what I never really realized about it. I think my house is like my ship and the panels are like my sails. It’s a metaphor, you know?

Would you advocate for the federal government and the state to offer more incentives for solar energy?

I think the incentives are there right now. This is the thing; it’s not the money. They don’t give subsidies to everybody -- you have to have the right setup. If you don’t have the good exposure or it’s blocked, they’re not going to give you 30 percent. It’s got to be approved. So I think having the setup is more important.

I think if it was more money more people would do it, but I think more people are going to do it anyway, and it’s not like we have the money to give to people. It’s already a good investment. I’m going to make back my money in eight years, which means you’re getting about an 8.5 percent return on investment, tax-free. If you compare that to a municipal bond, that’s pretty good. In addition, when the cost of electric goes up, which it will for a lot of different reasons, the returns can compound. It’s already good, so I don’t think more money would make it better.

The contractor is important, too, because the installation is not an easy thing. I have a really good contractor with this and it’s a private company, it’s owned by the employees; it’s big, but it's not that big. ReVision Energy: they’re like the biggest in New Hampshire, which doesn’t make them big. One of the problems I see is these big companies getting involved in it and they try and get between you and your solar panels and the sun and they try and make money off of it. That’s what you get with the incentives. They come in and they sign everybody up with a slick salesperson and then they have all these different subcontracted installers coming and they take your government rebates. I think there’s a lot less investment when you do those lease deals and you don’t own the panels; it makes it a lot more complicated to sell your house. I think if you increased the government money you might get more of these big-business players in there. Anything could happen when that starts going on.

When you generate more electricity than you’re using, that can be sold back to the utility --

Well, it’s not sold back, it’s saved in the bank account.

Right, they credit you toward future bills.

Exactly. What’s good about that is that it doesn’t go away. Let’s say you’re generating an extra thousand kilowatts, which is probably in New Hampshire about $200. Let’s say you do that for 10 years: that’s $2,000 that stays with the house. That makes your house more valuable. I heat with propane in the winter; when you sell the house you fill up the tank and then they get that propane -- it’s kind of like that. You can sell it back in this state, but the problem is they only give you five cents per kilowatt-hour, so why would you sell it back? You just bank it.

That’s one of the things that's very controversial right now. There are some conservative groups that are trying to get rid of this -- it's called net metering -- because it’s a threat to the utilities and cutting into their profits.

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think when you look at big conservative issues in America, I don’t think that’s a big one. I think that may be some limited kind of people with a narrow focus, just like anything else. You can say the government support for solar is bad because of Solyndra, right? It’s a small part of it.

From what I understood when I saw that, they don't want people to turn their houses into power companies, producing more than they need and selling it back to the company at a retail rate, and I think that is how it is in California. The hybrid system that we have in New Hampshire, where you have the ability to bank your usage and then if you want to sell it you only get five cents, you don’t overdo it. You don’t get the five cents, you just bank it and then you use it or you get a Tesla or something. I think that’s a fine system but I could see that if you could sell it back to the utility for a retail price then I think that’s a complicated issue.

In Oklahoma they approved a surcharge to utility bills of people with solar panels.

There are 50 states; that sounds like one state. I don’t know what else is going on in that state; things like that are kind of local. The technology is so good, I can make way more energy than I need. And I’m in New Hampshire. It’s 30 degrees out right now, you know what I’m saying? If I was down in Oklahoma maybe it would be so massive that you could afford a little surcharge -- I don’t know. I wouldn’t think they would do that up where I live.

[Uncle Mike read up on Oklahoma's surcharge, and then emailed me some comments: "This sounds like crony capitalism to me. If the monopoly utility is so concerned about what happens when the grid has 20,000 net metering customers, why don't they wait until this happens? The Tea Party is anti-tax!... I don't think that the Koch brothers speak for the Tea Party people, they are just big government, crony capitalism Republicans."]

What are your thoughts about the potential for renewable energy in general?

You need the right setup. I think it’s cool; one of the keys of this is that you’re really producing the energy where the grid is stressed out. Up in New Hampshire -- basically when you say New Hampshire, it’s really New England because the grid’s tied together -- they’re shutting a nuclear power plant; in Vermont, they’re shutting two coal power plants and, I think, one older oil plant, so we don’t have the electricity we used to have. When it’s really hot in the summer and everything’s maxed out, between me and my neighbor’s property we’re probably making enough energy for five houses.

That’s they key, when they don’t have to burn dirty coal and oil to create electricity. That’s what they have to do, they have to max out the system, that’s really the big plus to it. That’s really where the air gets clean. Natural gas plants are good. From what I’ve seen, most of the greenhouse gases that get produced with natural gas come from when they take it out of the ground. Natural gas burns pretty clean, but it’s when they have to burn coal and oil to hit that peak demand… You can invest a fortune in this stuff like Germany, if you have the financing available. I think it can be much, much bigger.

Yeah, it’s crazy how much Germany has done.

Right, but when you buy a German car it’s about $300 or $400 more expensive because the energy is so expensive. (German cars are so expensive you don’t even realize it.) When people say solar and renewable isn’t mainstream and will never meet our energy demands, what they mean is if you’re BASF and you’re setting up a big, massive fertilizer plant, there’s no way you can ever run it off solar panels. If you’re the MTA, it’s pie-in-the-sky; it’s not going to work. But on a house level, making the energy and using the energy, it definitely works. It just depends on what your definition of “works” is. If you want to run a big, massive manufacturing operation, that’s not going to happen, but on a distributed level I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think it’s great.

Well thanks again for talking with me about this!

Does it make sense? You’re not going to selectively edit what I say like Jon Stewart?

I would never do that.

You can believe in clean air and not believe in man-made climate change. People contribute to the climate but you've got to live, too.

That’s an important part of it, and one of the things the EPA is emphasizing in its regulations is that greenhouse gases are a pollutant that harms air quality. 

That’s what they should be doing. They should be promoting clean air, because that’s settled science. The air has gotten cleaner over the years; when I was a kid, when there was lead in gasoline and you turned on the car and there was snow, the snow was instantly black. In Queens, people used to take their garbage and walk to the basement and they’d put it in the incinerator and everybody in the apartment building would burn their garbage. That would be every apartment building. That’s when the air was bad. By any measure, the air is getting cleaner, and it can certainly get a lot cleaner still. That’s really what the big thing for me is. And I think that would appeal to more people. These small-government people, the people who are big into solar and they’re conservative people, they just want to be left alone. Clean air and generating your own electricity is a great way to do that. That’s what America’s about: being on your own, self-sufficiency, and that’s what I like about it.

By Lindsay Abrams

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