Going Off the Grid at Home

A solar panel at the Mattituck home of Allen Tooker. Images courtesy of Element Energy System

On the face of it, John LaMountain of East Hampton and Allen Tooker of Mattituck would seem to have little in common. Mr. LaMountain is a retired Wall Street executive, while Mr. Tooker works as a heavy equipment operator.

But when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint — and their energy bills as well — the two men are part of a growing movement of people who are migrating off the grid, or, at the very least, living on its fringes.

Mr. LaMountain, who grew up in Syossett, came of age in the early 1970s when gas lines were a harsh reality. His sole motivation, he said, is to do right by the environment.

“I don’t have a spread sheet on my computer. I don’t know what I paid per panel. I don’t know what I save in kilowatt hours,” said Mr. LaMountain, who began his career as an accountant. “I’m not sitting here monitoring it because I didn’t do it for that reason. I just know I don’t really spend anything on electricity anymore.”

Mr. Tooker, who said he was happy to wean his family from fossil fuels, nonetheless, points to his home — which seemingly has as many solar panels as a fish has scales — as a money maker. “We produce so much extra electricity we don’t even have to pay our basic hook-up charge,” he said. “PSEG is buying it back from us at 11 cents a kilowatt.”

A wind turbine at Allen Tooker’s home.

Both men have worked with Element Energy Systems, a Mattituck firm. The company offers a full range of alternative energy services, from wind turbines to geothermal systems, but its bread and butter is the installation of residential solar electric panels.

“Most of what we do is based on education,” said the firm’s chief operating officer, Michael Lawton. “We educate our clients, so they know what is available and how they can do something that’s good for the environment and takes care of their electric bill too.”

Because systems are customized to fit both the size of the client’s house and budget and there are so many financial elements in play — from state and federal tax credits to low-cost financing — asking how much a typical solar electric system costs is a little like asking someone how much a house costs. It depends.

For now, the federal government provides tax credits for up to 30 percent of a system, but those credits are being phased out. While New York State still provides up to $5,000 in credits, PSEG no longer provides rebates. Although the Trump administration recently slapped tariffs on foreign-made solar panels, prices have been falling for years, making them more affordable.

The main difference between now and a decade ago when systems were heavily subsidized by tax credits and rebates is that today many banks will provide low-cost financing. “You can start to save money as soon as they are connected,” said Mr. Lawton.

Mr. LaMountain has 33 panels on his roof, which he estimates generate about 8 kilowatt hours. His net outlay was about $25,000, he said, but his electric bill all but disappeared once the system was turned on.

He has also installed a closed-loop geothermal system that makes use of the constant 55-degree temperature of water several hundred feet below the surface to provide both heat and air conditioning. Soon, he will add a generator and lithium battery backup system that will allow him to store the energy his solar panels create during the day for use at night, further reducing his dependency on the grid.

Mr. Tooker purchased his house from his father-in-law, an early advocate of alternative energy, so some of the systems on the house date back a decade or more. He estimated that the various solar arrays that cover every square inch of roof space generate about 30 kilowatt hours. His home has a separate solar system to preheat his hot water and two geothermal heat/AC systems. He has a small battery system set up in his garage, but plans to replace it with a more robust setup soon, so he can store more of the power his solar panels produce.

Although Mr. Tooker, who describes himself as something of a libertarian, doesn’t want to see the government involved too closely in day-to-day life, he thinks that people who build houses with south-facing exposure should be required to provide some of their own energy.

Mr. LaMountain said shortly after he installed solar panels on his house, his landscaper said pretty much the same thing. “He told me, ‘You shouldn’t be able to build houses unless you do everything to improve your exposure,’” he said. “‘They should make it part of the building permit process.’”