I first thought seriously about the energy impact of firing electrical kilns after attending the “Sustainable Ceramics” panel at the 2012 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference. As panel moderator Nancy Selvage told us, the source of the electricity used in firing electric kilns matters. On the consuming end, electricity seems completely clean, but the reality is quite different. Based on 2021 data, 60% of electricity in the US is sourced from fossil fuels (mainly coal and natural gas). Another 20% is from nuclear power, so only 20% of electricity actually comes from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.
Selvage’s personal solution was to choose a utility company that sources electricity from renewables, in her case wind power. Eighteen states have open power markets that allow consumers to choose their own utility. This is a fabulous option if it is available to you—problem solved! It’s also currently the only way to fire your kiln completely with alternative energy.
When I was doing my research, I had to first get it out of my head that I could generate enough power to fire my kiln. A slow bisque firing in my 7-cubic-foot, highly efficient Cone Art kiln uses about 97 kilowatts per hour (KWh) over about a 14-hour period. A 10-hour glaze firing would draw about 71 KWh. Solar panels produce a rough average of 300 watts per hour at peak. If I installed 14 panels (the maximum that my utility will allow for my usage level), I could theoretically generate a total of 67.2 KWh. However, the sun doesn’t shine at full power for 14 hours at a stretch! I would also be drawing power to run other appliances at the same time. What would actually happen is that I would use some of my own solar power and some power generated by my utility company.
For those of us who live in a regulated energy market, there are other possibilities to help green our energy-use footprint. My Northern Colorado utility company offers a “renewable option.” There is a slight premium, and this extra income is used by the utility to purchase more wind and solar power, as well as to build more renewable energy plants. Unfortunately, availability of this option is driven by state and/or local mandates to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and only about 25% of US utility companies currently participate—although the number is rising. These utility companies are usually aiming toward a carbon-free deadline like the one proposed in Colorado for 2050. Purchasing green power in this way sends the whole system closer to that goal, but doesn’t immediately provide you with purely carbon-free energy.
Some energy consumers might be able to join a solar farm, but again these are only available in certain areas. In this situation, users purchase or lease a number of solar panels that are installed as part of a large group of panels in a location with ideal conditions. Tip: Look for a similar project in your area as they are being created all the time. The solar energy your panels generate offsets the energy you use that comes directly from the grid. You will also usually save a small amount per year on your utility bill. Note that this option, like the one above, creates green energy that enters the grid; it does not flow directly to you.
If your studio is in your home and you own your home, installing your own solar panels is the most direct way to generate your own green electricity and is available in most locations in the US. (Commercial properties are outside the scope of this article although many of the same principles apply). Right now is actually a great time to do so, as on top of any rebates offered by your local utility company or state, there is a federal rebate program called the Solar Investment Tax Credit that (as of September 2022) offers a 30% non-refundable tax credit for systems installed in your residence by the end of 2024. There is a separate commercial tax credit that can be accessed if more than 20% of your residence is predominantly used as a business. Definitely consult a tax expert to discuss your options. You can also go to www.energy.gov for ongoing updates.
Unless you plan to go off the grid, solar panel owners remain linked to their utility company through a net-metering system (available in most states). This means that the solar power generated goes first to the needs of your system, with any extra flowing outward to the utility grid. If your panels aren’t producing enough power at a given moment, the system will draw power from the utility company. Therefore, you are in effect buying and selling power to the utility company.
Buying batteries to go off-grid is an option, but a very expensive one. A Tesla power wall (the most common battery) holds 13.5 KWh. You would need about 7 of these, at $11,000 each, to get you through an entire bisque firing. Having a battery as backup in the case of a storm that knocks out both the sun and the electrical grid is one thing, but it’s not cost-effective to use any other way.
With a solar system, the upfront costs are high, with savings coming over the longer term, as the price per KWh would normally increase along with inflation as well as the rising cost of generating electricity (the projected annual increase in the price per KWh could be somewhere between 2% and 5%). One of the benefits of creating your own power is that your price per KWh will remain stable. You will be trading solar power with your utility, not purchasing it. Therefore, every year you save more. The cost of installing your system could also possibly be recouped partly or in full when you ultimately sell your property. (If you take out a loan to finance your installation, the remaining balance will need to be paid off before you sell.)
Considering Going Solar?
So, let’s say that you have looked into the options and are curious whether it might be a good idea to install your own solar panels. According to Maya Morrison, solar energy consultant for Freedom Solar, these are the questions to ask yourself if you are considering going solar:
- Are your utility bills near or greater than $75/month? Most companies will not install fewer than 8 panels (systems are sold by the panel, and installation costs are baked in).
- What are the regulations and incentives in your state?
- What is your tree cover and how much sun do you get?
- What is your financial situation? Are you a taxed citizen or not? If you don’t currently pay much in taxes (retirees, low taxable-income earners) then the federal tax credit will not benefit you. This could increase the price beyond your budget.
Consider Your Options
If you do decide to investigate further, find out which companies are offering solar in your area and get quotes from two or three different companies. You will find out what kind of incentives each might be offering and can leave some of the legwork to the professionals. They will be able to confirm what the regulations are in your state and if net metering (or an alternative) is available. Most importantly, they will help you design your system.
Make sure you find out the full amount being charged, as well as the cost of any financing. Find out the total cost for the system as well as the cost per KWh. The quality of the panels matters! Ask a lot of questions. You can review the company’s performance with the Better Business Bureau and check social media for the experiences of local customers. Another great source for advice is Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that promotes solar cooperatives (groups of homes going into solar together), as well as offering general advice and project-proposal reviews.
Finally, consider what your priorities are—going green or saving money? You probably won’t be making much money going solar, but you could make a significant difference in your energy footprint. If solar is not practical for your house, remember that making your home more energy efficient is just as useful in terms of reducing carbon emissions as installing solar panels.
I am currently looking into the financial viability of purchasing a rooftop solar system for my house and studio, but in the meantime, I’m happy to pay the extra 1.6 cents per KWh for the renewable option offered by my utility. Since my annual energy usage is currently about 6000 KWh per year, my surcharge is only an extra $96 a year.
As an example, this is a possible system that I am looking at installing (see 3): I’ve been quoted a price of $18,373 for the installation of 14 panels made by SunSolar, if I pay cash up front. This includes a federal tax credit of $6806, a utility tax credit of $1000, a cash payment credit and other incentives that brought the total down from $30,198. I like looking at the cash amount in order to get the true price, but of course if I were to finance the system, my costs would be higher. This system offers a 25-year warranty. If utility prices continue to inflate at the approximate 4.5% current annual rate for Colorado, I will have broken even in about 12½ years.
Whether or not I choose to install my own solar system, I enjoy the benefits of the sun daily. My garden (see 4) is a huge inspiration for my work and a source of exercise, satisfaction, and relaxation. In a way, my garden has become another studio practice. I have tried to apply the principle of conservation of resources by replacing the existing lawns with xeriscape (low water use) plants. The progress of the seasons is marked by which plants are emerging, blooming, or dying back. I add bulbs in the fall to give me something new to look forward to when spring arrives. There are constantly changing vignettes as perennial flowers that bloom at the same time die out and different plants in different locations become the focus. Floral patterns make their way onto my pots and into my paintings, and flowers from the garden fill small vases inside and make me smile.