Jeff Brehm on Solar: “The Longer You Wait, The More, It Costs”

BlairToday.com Staff
2021 July 9, Friday

You can’t see them from the road. So, when you drive past my brother-in-law, Jeff Brehm’s house, you would never know it’s powered by the sun. But, not only does Jeff get power from the sun, he actually makes money – while your electricity bill goes up. The good news is, he did the research you need to help get off the fence and put panels on your roof, too.

(1) BLAIR TODAY: Blair, Nebraska is not a hotbed of solar energy. How did you get involved?

JEFF BREHM: That’s a question with a multifaceted answer. Truth be told, I have a brother-in-law that had solar panels at one point that didn’t work out. I’ve always been interested in “green energy,” and when I had the chance to do it, I went forward with it.

(2) BLAIR TODAY: Did you talk with other like-minded people in Blair before you installed your solar system?

JEFF BREHM: There were other installations in the county I was aware of. And, I was friends with at least one couple that had an array on their house, and I talked with a lot of people before I went forward with what we did.

(3) BLAIR TODAY: Did you install your system to save money, “save the planet”, or be independent?

JEFF BREHM: The original thought was to reduce my cost of using electricity, while simultaneously, not having to rely on a commercial power source, if at all possible, at all times.

(4) BLAIR TODAY: So, independence was your main focus?

JEFF BREHM: No. I couldn’t be independent fully because my system is not backed up by a battery array. That was one part of the system that was not installed. I chose to be “grid tied.”

(5) BLAIR TODAY: People who know you would say you are probably on the “right” or “conservative” end of the political spectrum. Is that a fair assessment?

JEFF BREHM: That would be fair. I’m more right-leaning than I am left-leaning. But, a centrist…

(6) BLAIR TODAY: It seems like – and, maybe this isn’t true anymore – but, it seems like many people would associate “green energy” with “the left.” Do you find that’s true these days?

JEFF BREHM: The people I talk with who are interested in solar, many times I do not know what their political background is. So, I don’t think I’d throw politics in there…

(7) BLAIR TODAY: Well, political leanings aside, I bet your solar installation leads to some great and interesting conversations…

JEFF BREHM: Political bias had no bearing on my decision to “go solar.” And, again, I know people who have solar arrays, but I don’t know what their political background is. So, I don’t know how I’d categorize everyone I know that is non-solar, or is solar-minded. But, your comment about it being a great conversation starter – that is true.

(8) BLAIR TODAY: When you got into solar, you didn’t start small. You went big with 40 panels on your roof. Was it worth it from a financial standpoint so far?

JEFF BREHM: My solar array is already paid off…

(9) BLAIR TODAY: Let me repeat that for folks who read this… I want to see if I have this correctly: You’ve had this solar array for how many years?

JEFF BREHM: It was installed in December of 2016, so not even five years yet.

(10) BLAIR TODAY: So, in roughly five years, your investment’s already paid off?

JEFF BREHM: A typical return on investment for paying off your solar array by industry standards is, I believe, somewhere around five to eight years. The fact of the matter is, I was able to pay mine off on the lower end of that scale because I refinanced my home and rolled the remainder of the cost into that refinance. So, I “cheated…”

(11) BLAIR TODAY: I’ve seen a picture of the panels on your roof. 32 of them face west, and 8 face south. With so many trees in your neighborhood, how many hours a day of sun do you get to make all this worth the investment?

JEFF BREHM: When I first installed the system, I had one of two oak trees still in my back yard. The last one was taken down because of age. Since that time, I’ve seen a 15% increase in my solar conversion, with the removal of that shade-causing tree. The other trees in the neighborhood around me don’t affect the system as much. I get – I think it’s in the area of – a good six to eight hours of full sun on all panels. Some panels get more sun than others – the south-facing ones definitely get the most sun, just based on their location in relation to the one remaining tree I have in the front yard that has some height to it.

(12) BLAIR TODAY: So, you believe, for someone in Blair, if placed correctly, with proper installation, it’s possible to have a return on your investment, fairly-quickly?

JEFF BREHM: Definitely. To boil it down to a monthly cost, I look at my power bills – because I still draw power from the power company, and I sell my excess back, when I’m able to – which is quite a bit. During April, May, June, July, August, and September – that six-month stretch, my power bills are almost completely under $100 a month. That’s even with running air-conditioning, multiple TVs, kids leaving lights on – you name it – in some months my power bill is under $30. That’s the bare-minimum charge the power company charges you for even having a power meter. Which means, I’ve made enough sunlight conversion to make money.

(13) BLAIR TODAY: This was a venture with many unknowns. Did you have family or friends who thought this was a crazy idea?

JEFF BREHM: I had some family and friends who thought I was crazy for spending money in this manner. But, that didn’t matter. I knew what I was doing. I did lots of research, lots of reading, a lot of watching videos.

(14) BLAIR TODAY: When you look at the total experience to this point, what is your feeling about the amount of money, time, and emotional capital spent vs the return? On a scale from one to ten? Do you think this is for everyone?

JEFF BREHM: The route I took – and, that includes the sidebar that I don’t have a battery system as a part of this – just the solar system to convert the solar energy to energy I can use immediately and pass excess back on to the grid to be used by everyone… There’s always a sense of giddiness when I open a power bill and see how low it is compared to before solar panels. You must understand that before I had solar panels there were some summer months where my power bills were between three and four hundred dollars. This month I think I had a $70 bill. That’s $30 for the meter, plus taxes and fees that are always tacked-on that the power company tucks in there, and then, I think I had like $20 – maybe $23 – of actual purchased-power for the month. And, that’s really a giddy feeling knowing the way it was five or six years ago, and watching the power bill be $300 a month. So, on a scale from one to ten, with the known fact that I don’t have batteries, I would be in the ten range all the time now, but I’m fairly satisfied at around a 7.5 on a “one to ten” – ten being good, one being bad. A 7.5 is a good indicator for my feelings when I think about, talk about, or do more research on what I’ve done with regard to solar panels.

(15) BLAIR TODAY: So, you’re not where you want to be, ultimately, but very close…

JEFF BREHM: I am. At some point in the future I’d like a battery system. I just haven’t gotten around to doing my final comparison shopping. I have some companies and battery lines that I’m fairly-certain I’d like to go with, but batteries get better every day – there’s always more industry improvements being made. It’s surprising how long it’s taken for me to “pull the trigger” on it. It would be another ten to fifteen thousand dollar investment, but – and this wasn’t touched on before – part of the reason I did this in 2016 was a tax break of 30% which reduced the cost of the system, mentally as well as literally “pulling that trigger.”

(16) BLAIR TODAY: Blair has extreme weather – from hail, to heat, and bitter cold. Do you do anything special to care for your panels?

JEFF BREHM: I must bring up the fact the panels I chose are 100% American-made. They have a twenty-five year warranty. And, they are rated being resistant to 1/2 inch hail. And, before taking that last tree down, I actually had an oak tree branch, about five-feet-long and two-inches in diameter come straight down on top of one of my panels, and it didn’t crack. So, I’m very happy with that. During winter months I did have to buy a “snow roof rake,” so I do make sure I keep the worst of the snow off the panels. They’re at an angle where, once they get sunlight on them they’ll warm up – they’re dark colors – once they warm up they pretty much melt the worst of the snow where it will slide off.

(17) BLAIR TODAY: What would you say to someone on the fence with respect to solar energy?

JEFF BREHM: It doesn’t matter whether it’s Blair, or elsewhere, I talk with people all across Nebraska since I had my system installed. I tell them the same thing: The longer you wait, the more expensive electric power will be to get from the power company. They promise you they’ll keep your prices for only so long. But, the basic cost of power, plus the taxes they must pass on to their customer, will only go up. For me, the ultimate answer is financial security: Knowing that, yes, I was going to take a bite in the pocketbook when I got the system, but I knew that each successive year I would pay less and less for the actual power that I needed to purchase off the grid. So, I tell everyone who is even vaguely considering this, “The longer you wait, the more it costs. Both in the literal sense, and potential tax breaks. Unless both federal and state governments go forward and re-affirm those year-to-year, the tax breaks will continually erode.” In 2016 terms I went with it before that year ended because I got that 30% tax break. If I waited to install until 2017 I would only have gotten a 26% tax break – so, a four-percent difference. It was supposed to go down another 4% by every year following until it got down into the teens somewhere. Now, I think since then both federal and state government levels have re-affirmed they wanted to keep that 26% to 30% tax incentives, but I’m not 100% sure on what those exact levels are at this point.

(18) BLAIR TODAY: Is there anything you want to add about solar we didn’t cover so far?

JEFF BREHM: There’s one fun fact that doesn’t seem to appear on many solar discussion forums, or solar panel websites… It’s the fact that when you install solar powers on top of a house, they are not attached directly to the roof. They are suspended above the roof. And, that gap between the solar panel and your roof, creates shade on your roof. Which means, your roof does not heat up as much… Which means you don’t have to run your air conditioner as much, or as hard, to keep your living spaces cool. So, there is a “stacking effect,” in that you use the power from the sun to run your air conditioner, but not as hard as it needs to be just because of the fact the solar panels are there providing shade.

View of Jeff’s solar panels from the south.
Image found at NebraskansForSolar.org