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LAKELAND — Lakeland residents have a new way to determine the best way to cut their utility bills.

Lakeland Electric presented a series of customer-service tools to Lakeland city commissioners Monday that will allow residents to look at their real-time electric consumption and better determine whether solar panels are an option for their home.

“Our goal is to communicate with our customers to please go do some research before you make the purchase,” David Kus, assistant general manager of customer service. “What we’re hearing from customers after they made the purchase too often is, ‘I wish I would have done more research.’”

In response, the city-owned utility has a new Quick Link on its website titled Solar Options. Customers can enter an account number to get a quick calculation of how much they could potentially save by switching to solar. Kus said the website takes the prior 12 months of the household’s electric bills and recalculates it using the utility’s solar rate to estimate the money saved per year if a 5-kilowatt system was installed. The average Lakeland Electric customer with an annual bill of $1,300, according to Kus, would save approximately $341 a year.

“An important point here for customers is often they are convinced if you go on solar you will no longer have an electric bill,” he said. “The first thing this tool shows us is this customer is still going to have an electric bill.”

The second step guides residents to third-party websites, including Project Sunroof by Google and Sun Number, to determine whether a house is a good candidate for solar panels. By entering a home address, the websites estimate what size installation may be appropriate.

“Any customer can adjust installation size up or down. As you put a larger solar system on the existing house, the savings go up,” Kus said.

Lakeland limits solar installations to a maximum output of 10 kilowatts.

A third step is designed to help potential buyers figure out the financial impact of going green. The webpage provides an estimated cost if paid for in full versus a 20-year loan. In the example above, Kus said the difference would be $26,000 investment or a $44,000 loan.

“The sobering part of this for most people is when they see the number of years that it takes (to get a return on investment),” Mayor Bill Mutz said.

Lakeland Electric changed its rate structure for solar-equipped homes in 2016 to urge solar panel owners to avoid relying on grid power during peak hours for energy demand. This is counter to the typical residential rate structure in which every kilowatt-hour costs the same regardless of when it is used or how intensely power is being consumed.

For residents not interested in going solar, Lakeland Electric also rolled out a new data component under Quick Links that allows the real-time viewing of their household’s energy consumption. Customers can log into their account to see their electric use by the month, day, hour or down to 15-minute increments. Kus said it was designed to allow users to see when their home electronic use hits during peak periods, during which time the utility bills at a higher rate. He suggested residents could install or change preset timers on pool pumps, water heaters, irrigation systems, air and cooling systems to run at off-peak hours.

For anyone interested, Kus said, the utility is setting up small meetings with various community and business groups to hold informational sessions in the upcoming weeks. Customers can also contact Lakeland Electric at 863-864-9535 to schedule a one-on-one home energy audit consultation to find individual ways to lower bills and discuss solar options.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at 863-802-7545 or swalsh@theledger.com.

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