Solar energy is 100 percent clean, and has the potential to reduce dependence on oil and to shred electric bills, allowing homeowners to receive checks from PSE&G — rather than write them. But are roof-mounted solar panels a blight upon the land?
The homeowners association at the Crossings at Grover’s Mill in Plainsboro thought so, and tried to stop Manick Rajendran from installing solar panels on his roof. Rajendran is a technologist who owns Diverge (201-349-0066), a medical records software start-up specializing in getting doctors’ offices organized. Formerly a vice president of Deutsch Bank, he is also a dad and an environmentalist, and he was determined to use the sun to power his home.
He and his wife, Raji, who runs an online store, are the parents of two sons, a freshman at Georgia Tech and a sixth grader at the Community Middle School. “We are involved in conservation at home,” he says. He wanted to install solar panels because “we could save 300 hundred trees a year, without even lifting a finger.”
But when Rajendran went to his homeowners association, of which he is the architectural chair, to get permission, he got a swift turndown instead. The majority sentiment was that the panels would be ugly, and would lower the values of all of the homes in the neighborhood. His immediate neighbors were on his side, but their opinion did not sway the association. The rejection galvanized Rajendran to action. He is convinced that solar power is good for the planet, and, what’s more, he says, “my sons were emotionally invested in the project.”
Rajendran triumphed, and in doing so became the first New Jersey resident living in a home controlled by a homeowners association to install solar panels.
His house, which is located at 4 Briardale Court in Plainsboro, is featured on a Green Buildings Open House taking place on Saturday, October 7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is a national event, but local tours are being coordinated by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (www.nsea.org), and complete details on the tour are available on its website. Central New Jersey homes and businesses being showcased include properties in Hopewell, Ringoes, Branchburg, Cream Ridge, Flemington, and Englishtown.
Rajendran, whose panels were installed just about one year ago, used a variety of tactics in his fight to be included in a list of “green” homes. First of all, he polled members of his older son’s class at West Windsor Plainsboro High School North. The youngsters proclaimed his proposed panels “cool.”
“They are the people who will be buying your houses in 10 years,” he told neighbors who were concerned about property values.
Next he arranged a presentation in his home at which he showed photographs of attractive solar installations in California. “They said ‘that’s California, not New Jersey,’” he says of the unenthusiastic reception his show-and-tell received.
Then he went around the state, going through public records to compare resale prices for homes with solar panels to those for homes without solar panels. He found that the homes with the roof-mounted panels were selling for at least as much as the other homes in their neighborhoods. To bolster his contention that the panels would not lower values in his development, he met with real estate agents, and quickly found three who were prepared to appear in front of his homeowners association to state their opinion that the panels would not depress prices.
With the poll, the public records he had found, and the comments of real estate agents bolstering his argument, Rajendran went back to the homeowners association. He was turned down again.
A calm, rational man, with a methodical approach born of his training as an engineer, he nevertheless was not about to take no for an answer. He consulted an attorney, and was told that he was facing an “uphill battle” in going against a decision of a homeowners association. But he went ahead, and told his association that he was prepared to sue. That did it. The association caved, and he got his panels.
They were installed by GeoGenix (www.GeoGenix.com), a Rumson-based company that specializes in geothermal, wind power, and green planning and building as well as in solar energy installations. Gaurav Naik, co-owner of the company, will be at the Rajendran house during the green building tour to answer questions on solar installations.
Naik, who studied solar energy technology at the University of New South Wales and did his graduate work in the science at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has long had an interest in using the sun for power. “During my sophomore year at New South Wales I sat in on a lecture by an American, a woman from Delaware,” he recounts. “She said ‘50 percent of the people in the world do not have electricity.’” Solar power is a way to bring it to them, the professor, who had chosen to teach at New South Wales because of its solar research program, was convinced.
This galvanized Naik. His father was a lawyer and a businessman in India, and, says Naik, had worked with India’s largest car manufacturer to bring buses and trucks to under-developed areas around the world. He hopes to do the same with solar power, and thinks that the technology to reap power from the sun at low cost will be here within seven years. In the meantime, he set up shop in New Jersey, becoming a co-owner of 30-year-old GeoGenix three years ago.
The reason that he chose this state is simple. Thanks to some of the most generous rebates in the nation, demand for solar is booming in New Jersey. But his company, and the 10 to 15 companies like it in the state, are running into a serious problem. Rebates, set at 70 percent 18 months ago, are now down to about 45 percent of the $80,000 that it costs to install a 10 kilowatt solar plant like the one that is powering Rajendran’s Plainsboro home. But, still, it’s a good deal, and so many New Jersey residents are clamoring to go solar that it is taking between 12 and 24 months to receive approval from the state for a rebate. “We have 50 customers lined up and waiting for approval,” he says. “Three years back we did not have enough customers.”
The state set aside a fixed amount of money for solar rebates, and that money is running out, which is why the rebate was dropped from 70 to 45 percent. Naik says that he is heavily involved in changing the state’s approach. Rather than paying rebates, he says that the state should be increasing Solar Energy Renewable Credits. This is money that utility companies pay to homeowners like Rajendran who sell back power that their solar panels have pulled in, but that they don’t use. Naik is convinced that the state will go to this approach within 18 months or so.
Meanwhile, Naik says that Rajendran’s victory will reverberate in homeowner association-regulated developments throughout the state. His company just installed solar panels in such a development in Mansfield. He says that the panels are more attractive and less obtrusive than they were in the past, and are becoming more so all the time. He used 52 panels on Rajendran’s house, but says that a similar system would now use only 45 panels. “It looks just like a big skylight,” he says, “and skylights have been accepted for a long time.” No wires show on a solar-powered house. They are encased in a conduit, which can be color-coordinated with the house and behind the chimney. Conversion boxes generally go into basement closets.
One year after going solar, Rajendran has reduced his electric bills from $200 to $250 to zero in most months, and he just received a check for $1,600 from PSE&G for his energy credits. What’s more, he has received only compliments on his panels from his neighbors, at least one of whom has put in an application for approval for his own solar array.