Renewable Energy

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5/17/2016

Solar Mistakes to Avoid

More and more homeowners are making the switch to solar energy for their home. As electricity prices rise and solar panel prices fall, installing a residential solar PV system is becoming a sound economic decision for many homeowners across the country, translating into considerable savings over the 25 year lifetime of the panels.

Installing a solar energy system for your home is a big decision, the value of which is similar to a car, so you want to do your homework and make the best decision for your situation. Here are a few of the mistakes to avoid when switching to solar energy.

1. Having Unreasonable Expectations

While solar panels for your home can be a great investment, it’s important to realize that, depending on where you live, it can be one that takes many years to pay off. But remember, most solar panels have a lifetime of about 25 years, sometimes even longer, so time is on your side when it comes to recouping your money. Having a reasonable expectation of the payback period will help you in your discussions with installers and in deciding how to finance your system, as different financing options will affect the profitability of your investment.

Sunmetrix Discover can help you figure out how much solar energy you can produce with different size systems, how that compares to your electricity consumption, and what that translates into in terms of savings. All of this information, along with the expected payback period, can also be found in our Solar Report for homeowners.

When it comes to unreasonable expectations, another factor that homeowners often overlook is the variability of the sun. The output of your solar system will vary from day to day and from season to season, as it is affected by cloud cover as well as the number of daylight hours. Understanding this variability and knowing what to expect for your location will help you in managing your expectations with regard to the profitability of your system.

Just like with investments on the stock market, day to day variation is normal, but what is important is the long term outlook for your investment – in the case of solar, if you’ve done your homework, it is a decision that can offer consistent returns.

2. Not Researching Your Financing Options

As mentioned, installing solar panels for your home is expensive, on the order of $15,000 to $25,000, depending on the size of your system and where you live (more on incentives in the next section). Most homeowners don’t have that kind of cash lying around for an outright purchase.

When solar PV systems started to become popular, solar leases were developed as a means for people to afford solar panels for their home: With zero-down payment and low monthly payments, it seemed like an obvious choice for many homeowners keen to reap the benefits of solar energy. But there are a number of important drawbacks when it comes to solar leases.

With a lease you don’t own the system and as a result, you miss out on some of the key benefits of having a solar PV system, namely the federal investment tax credit of 30% (along with other local incentives) and your home’s increase in value (in fact a solar lease can undermine the sale of your home, as many would-be buyers do not want to take over a lease).

Today, you have another option, one that is increasingly popular: a solar loan. Solar loans often come with no down-payment, flexible loan terms, and reasonable monthly payments, that allow you the homeowner to enjoy all the benefits of your solar PV system. The Sunmetrix Buy or Lease Calculator allows you to compare your numbers, adjusting the terms of the loan or lease to really see what makes the most financial sense for you.

Sunmetrix Buy or Lease Calculator

3. Missing Out on Financial Incentives

A reputable solar installer will be aware of the solar tax credits, solar rebates and other financial incentives available to you where you live, and might even help you with the paperwork, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also know about these programs. Ultimately, you will be the one who pays for your system and benefits from these programs – it’s in your best interest to make sure you don’t overpay.

In your initial research phase, you want to understand what programs are available to you to bring down the cost of your system and you want to know the fine-print (for example, do you have to wait until tax filing time to receive your benefit?). All of this information will help you make the best financing decision and arm you with the information you need when you start speaking with installers.

It will also help you manage your expectations as you navigate the process. You can refer to our regularly updated pages of incentives by state, listing the available programs in your state with links to the details. Some programs are state-wide but others are specific to certain municipalities. If you want to focus on the programs available for your address or zip code, you can refer to our Solar Report. To be sure that you don’t miss out on financial incentives that can make your solar panels more affordable, it pays to do your research.

4. Not Getting More Than One Quote

As with most big purchases, it’s worth your time and effort to get a second (and third) opinion. Not only will you learn more with each site visit from installers, but you will have a chance to interact with the companies and determine which one is best suited to handle your installation.

Installers will evaluate the condition of your roof, consider its orientation, take shade estimates and go over your electricity bills with you. This is an important process that is required for the installers to propose the best design for your system and make a proper estimate of the cost.

In an ideal world, the installers will make estimates for the same size system, using similar equipment, so that you can make direct comparisons. While this is not always possible, you do want to understand how they determine the best system size for you (one that will meet your needs).

Once you have some numbers, you can use Discover to see how they stack up. We can help you find installers in your area, check out their credentials and see their Google and Yelp ratings and reviews.

5. Waiting Too Long

It is a big decision, but waiting until prices come down is not always the best strategy because you could be missing out on savings today, in the form of lower electricity bills and/or financial incentives that are time sensitive. As more and more homeowners chose solar energy for their home, solar rebates and tax credits will be phased out. Electricity prices continue to rise, on average by 3% every year across the U.S. since 2005, known as the escalation rate (in some states this annual increase is more than 5%).

It’s important to realize that solar leases also come with their own escalation rate, whereby monthly payments increase over time, something that generally makes leases less desirable. With an outright purchase or a solar loan, however, your solar PV system can help you reduce your electricity bill and mitigate the risk of rising costs, as you will know exactly what you’re paying for your system with no unpleasant surprises.

Why not Discover today what solar energy can do for you where you live?

Simone Garneau is the co-founder of Sunmetrix, an online consumer education website for residential solar energy. The goal of Sunmetrix is to help homeowners go solar and save money with our Solar Cashback Program. In addition to the 200+ articles about solar energy, Sunmetrix offers homeowners three main resources: a Consumer Report for solar energy, Discover to preview solar energy for your home, and GO, the only solar energy test drive experience. Read all of Simone's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/9/2016

Family With Solar Panels

If you’re looking for an investment that will help to save you money as well as conserve fossil fuels, solar power is great option for many homeowners and businesses. With the continual drop in equipment prices, the advantages of solar energy just keep growing.

Of course, before undertaking such a project you may be wondering how much can solar panels save exactly? Let’s jump in by going over some of the basics to gain a full understanding of the power of solar energy.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar panels allow homeowners and businesses to produce their own electricity, using what Mother Nature provides for free! A solar panel, also referred to as a photovoltaic (PV) module, is made up of an assembly of solar cells which use light energy from the sun to generate electricity.

The flow of electric charges produced by the panels is then run through an inverter which converts it into usable electricity. Clusters of panels can then be mounted onto the rooftops of residences or commercial properties to produce a range of electricity, turning your home into a solar powerhouse.

How Much Can Solar Panels Save Me?

The amount of savings available for solar panel users is determined by several factors, including the amount of sunlight, the cost of electricity in that region, and financial incentives available in the state.

First, the amount of power generated by a solar system at a particular home or business depends on how much of the sun's energy reaches it. Obviously, the sunnier the better. That being said, although cloudy areas won’t produce as much solar electricity as sunny places, they can still produce enough to make your purchase worth it if the following factors are also available in that area.

Second, the cost of electricity through your traditional power provider will give you some insight into how much you can save with your own solar panels, logically the more expensive traditional electricity is, the more you can save with your own system each month.

The last important factor on saving money with a  solar energy investment is the availability of state rebates and incentives.

A number of states offer large cash-back rebates for installing solar on your home or business, immediately saving you money on startup costs of the solar system. Some of the states with the largest solar incentives include California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona, Hawaii, South Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts, to name a few.

Learn more about offerings in your states here.

Other Advantages of Solar Energy

In conjunction with conserving the use of electricity from fossil fuels, there are many solar panel benefits that users can take advantage of. The use of a solar power system produces no air, water or global warming pollution, making it a very green energy alternative to heat water, cool and heat homes and businesses.

Most solar energy systems are capable of powering houses and small businesses without any connection to the electricity grid, allowing these users to live “off the grid” if they desire.

In addition, power providers in most states allow net metering, an arrangement where the excess electricity generated by grid-connected renewable energy systems is fed back into the grid and if you feed more electricity into the system then used, the power company will generally pay you for the extra electricity at its avoided cost.

For homeowners, another major incentive of solar energy is to increase property value after installation. Research sponsored by the Department of Energy shows that buyers are willing to pay more for homes with rooftop solar panels. Studies have shown that home buyers are willing to pay a premium of $15,000 for a home with the average-size solar photovoltaic system, compared with a similar home without one. So apart from saving on your electricity bill every month, you can actually make money on your solar investment whenever you choose to sell your property.

If you’re fired up and ready to make this the summer of solar, you can easily calculate your potential savings with a solar power calculator.

You can learn the exact cost of solar panel installation on your home, and find qualified solar installers in your area by using the form below.

Photo by istock

Sarah Kezer is passionate about helping others take advantage of the power of solar energy. At 123SolarPower, Sarah assists in answering questions and providing expert information for users to explore their options when it comes to going solar. 123SolarPower connects individuals with the largest network of solar power providers in the U.S. Connect with Sarah on Twitter and Facebook.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


5/5/2016

solar vs wind energy

Installing a renewable energy system on your property is one of the best ways to save money on your electricity bills while reducing your impact on the environment. If you’re a homeowner weighing your renewable energy options, you already know that thorough research is the best way to find the right system for your home. Here’s everything you need to know about the benefits of residential wind vs. solar power so that you can make your decision with confidence.

Comparing Wind Energy vs. Solar Energy for Home Usage

At the national level in the United States, wind power is significantly more popular than solar. Out of all the renewable energy produced in the U.S. in 2015, 19 percent came from wind, while just 6 percent came from solar power. For utilities and other large-scale power producers, wind power can be an efficient and effective way to cleanly generate electricity.

The primary benefit of wind over solar power for your home is that wind turbines aren’t dependent on sunlight. This means that they have the ability to generate power 24 hours a day, whereas solar panels only generate power during sunlight hours. Wind come with a significant caveat, however: in order to be effective, wind turbines need to be situated high above any obstacles that would block the wind. 

A typical wind turbine for residential use is about 80 feet tall, and it needs to be in the path of some serious wind to produce power efficiently. Most installers recommend sites with average wind speeds of at least 12 miles per hour. If you live in a rural, windy area with lots of open space and few obstructions blocking the wind’s path, then installing wind turbines at your property can be a great option for renewable energy production.

In contrast, solar panels can be installed on almost any roof, as well as on the ground, and still produce enough power to meet the majority of your electricity needs. In the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, the average solar shopper met 84 percent of their annual electricity needs with solar in 2015.

Wind turbines also have moving parts, which can result in more wear-and-tear and higher maintenance requirements. Unless you choose ground-mounted solar panels with a tracking system (a technology generally reserved for utility solar installations), your solar PV system will be stationary and require limited maintenance.

All things considered, solar isn’t as popular as wind on the utility scale, but is generally a more practical renewable option for residential energy production. An experiment by Inland Power & Light, a utility in the Pacific Northwest, underscores the comparative benefits of residential solar. After fielding many inquiries about the benefits of solar vs. wind energy for homes, the utility actually installed both technologies at their corporate headquarters in Spokane, Washington to provide a definitive answer to their customers. Their result: Over the course of 14 months, the solar panels produced about five times as much electricity as the wind turbine.

What About Options Other than Solar and Wind?

There’s no reason that a solar panel system has to be the renewable energy that you use in your home. Solar thermal technology, which can provide both heat and hot water for your home, is often installed alongside solar PV. If you’re looking for a renewable heating and cooling system to pair with your solar panels, you can also install a geothermal heat pump to use the naturally existing heat underground to regulate the temperature of your home.

Compare All Your Options Before Making a Decision

Whatever renewable energy option you’re considering, it’s always a good idea to compare multiple offers before making a final decision. Solar can save you thousands on your electricity bills. Want to see for yourself? Check out EnergySage’s Solar Calculator to get an instant estimate of how much solar could save you.  Once ready, compare quotes from solar installers on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace to find the best deal. Solar shoppers in the Marketplace generally save up to 25 percent off the costs of installing a solar panel system simply by shopping around first. There’s no better way to go solar.  

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



4/25/2016

is your home fit for solar

Home solar power is more popular than ever in the United States. Last year, the U.S. installed enough solar to power 5.4 million homes across the country. It’s no wonder homeowners love being powered by the sun: when you install solar PV, you can save money on your electricity bills, increase your property value, and do your part to protect the environment. If you’re starting to think about going solar, knowing that your home and solar are a good match makes the shopping process even easier. Here are the top five questions and answers that will help you determine whether solar is right for your home (read on, it might surprise you):

1. How big is your electricity bill?

The factor that has the biggest impact on your long-term solar savings isn’t how sunny it is where you live – it’s how much you pay for your electricity. If you have high electricity rates, solar can save you major cash, even if you don’t live in the sunny Southwest. Don’t believe us? New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York are proof: the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) ranked all three Northeastern states in its Top 10 Solar States for 2016.

2. What direction does your roof face?

You might have heard that your roof needs to face south for solar to be a worthwhile investment, but that’s no longer true. While it is true that your solar panels will produce more electricity if they are facing perfectly south, solar makes sense even for homes with east- and west-facing roofs. Since the cost of solar has dropped significantly in the past few years, significant solar savings are possible for you even if your roof doesn’t face perfectly south.

3. What material is your roof made of?

While solar panels can be installed on practically every roof material, some can be more complicated to work with than others. Not every solar company will install PV panels on a slate or cedar roof, so if your home’s roof is made of either of those materials, you will need to seek out an installer who has the experience and ability to work with them. 

4. How old is your roof?

Solar panel systems can last for 20+ years – that’s part of what makes them such a good investment. However, removing them temporarily can be costly. If you expect that your roof will need to be replaced in the near future, consider doing it before you have your solar PV system installed. The good news: solar panels can actually extend the life of your roof by shielding it from inclement weather, so once they’re installed, you can be confident that your new roof is well-protected. 

5. How much of your home is shaded during the day?

Contrary to popular belief, a small amount of roof shade doesn’t mean that solar won’t work for you. In an ideal world, your roof would be open to the sun for the entire day to maximize your electricity generation. However, if your solar installer designs a system with the right components, you can minimize the negative impacts of shading.  Even if trimming back your trees isn’t an option, solar can still be a good fit for your home. 

Alternatives to Rooftop Solar

Still not sure that installing solar on your home’s roof is right for you? There are plenty of alternatives that can still get you major solar savings. You can install solar panels on a garage or carport, or even put ground mounted solar panels in your backyard if you have the space. If you’re a renter, or your homeowners’ association prohibits solar panels, you may also be able to sign up for a share of a community solar garden to access the benefits of solar without a rooftop installation. 

Ready to Get Started? Compare Your Solar Options Today 

The best way to truly understand whether solar is a good fit your home is to start reviewing multiple offers from solar companies. Sign up on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace to compare customized solar quotes from qualified, pre-vetted solar installers based on the exact characteristics of your home. Still unsure about solar? Try using a solar calculator to receive an instant estimate of how much solar can save you, based on imagery of your roof plus real-time offers in your area.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



4/14/2016

Solar Panel Size

Solar energy is growing in popularity, especially as solar equipment prices fall and the cost of electricity continues to rise in most parts of the country. In a previous article, I discussed how to determine if switching to solar energy makes financial sense for you (while solar energy will save many homeowners money in the long run, it is not necessarily a good economic decision for everyone just yet).

Let’s assume that you have decided to go solar. The next question you may be asking is “how do I choose the right size solar photovoltaic (PV) system for my home?”

In addition to determining how much solar energy you can produce where you live, there are a number of other factors to consider, such as the amount of electricity you use, the size, orientation and design of your roof, and the state/municipal/utility policies that affect the cost of going solar.

Ultimately, a qualified solar installer will need to come to your home and go over the particularities of your situation with you, but it’s always a good idea to have a better understanding of the situation before this stage, so that you can follow the discussion and ask the right questions.

Electricity Use

One of the first things to consider is how much electricity you typically use, and how it varies with the seasons. For example, do you have an air conditioner that runs at full blast in the summer, or do you heat your home with electric baseboard heaters during the cold winter months?

The most accurate way to calculate how much electricity you use is to dig up your utility bills for the past 12 months (or longer if the past year was unseasonably warm or cold). If you don’t have your bills on hand, you can use our Power Consumption Calculator to estimate your electricity usage.

Once you determine your average annual electricity use, you can use our Solar Power Calculator to determine which size system, where you live, will best match that your needs. A general rule of thumb would be to try and optimize the system for your actual electricity use, and not to over-size or under-size it by too much. Obviously, every situation is different, so as you learn more you can come back to the calculator and fine-tune the parameters so that you get the most bang for your buck.

Here is an example for a south-facing roof in Jackson, New Jersey (see image below). Let’s assume that your average annual electricity use is 8,500 kWh, which is slightly above the state average of 8,036 kWh/year. Using the Solar Power Calculator, you can adjust the Annual Electricity Consumption slider so that it reflects your electricity use and then adjust the Number of Solar Panels slider until the solar electricity production matches (and the blue wedge in the orange circle is minimized).

It’s also important to adjust the utility rate if it is higher or lower than the state average ($0.16/kWh in the case of New Jersey), in order to more accurately estimate your savings. In this case, you would be looking at installing a system that is around 6.5 kW. But not so fast, you need to consider your roof now...

Solar Power Calculator

Your Roof

It’s all well and good to estimate what size system will match your electricity use, but what if the portion of your roof that is south-facing is very small, or is disrupted by skylights, or is partially shaded in the afternoon? Only a solar professional can actually determine what size system will fit on your roof and work optimally to meet your electricity needs.

When a solar installer visits your home, they do what is called a home site audit or assessment. A comprehensive assessment includes taking detailed measurements and making a thorough examination of your roof, looking at the condition, age and structure of your roof, as well as the placement of vents, attic fans, chimneys or other obstructions that will impact the system design and solar electricity production.

The assessment will also include shade measurements and an examination of your electrical panel. These steps are necessary for the installer to determine what type of system is possible and to propose the optimal design for your situation. It’s recommended that, whenever possible, you speak with multiple installers and get multiple quotes.

State/Municipal/Utility Policies

As I mentioned earlier, you generally want to choose your system size to match your electricity needs. However, there can be policies in place at the state, municipal or utility level that might impact your decision.

For example, a smaller system might be all you want (and be less expensive!) if your utility rate schedule is a tiered one and your main goal is to keep out of the most expensive tier. A small solar PV system that covers some of your electricity use can keep you below that critical threshold where the retail rate jumps to a more expensive rate. Or, if you are on a time-of-use schedule, you might be looking for a system that can offset your use during the peak electricity period when rates are highest.

Another reason to consider under-sizing your system would be if you live in a state where net-metering policies are such that excess electricity is only credited at the wholesale rate, rather than at the retail rate (which is what you as a consumer pay when you need extra electricity), such as is the case with the recent policy change in Nevada. Unless you have a battery system to store excess electricity, in a place like Nevada, you would not want to overbuild your PV system.

At the other end of the spectrum, an over-sized system might be beneficial if you want to ensure that you produce enough solar electricity to meet even your highest consumption days and are fortunate enough to live in a place where you are well compensated for your solar electricity production.

A number of states offer performance payments, in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). In the District of Columbia, for example, homeowners earn SRECs for every MWh of electricity generated that are generously credited at the moment, although the rate of compensation is decreasing. Other places, such as Washington State, have other programs to compensate homeowners for their electricity production, and which increase if the solar equipment is made in the state, for example.

Conclusion

While installing a solar PV system is an environmental decision for some, for most it is a financial decision. Determining whether solar energy will save you money in the long run and finding the system size that will help you make the most of your investment are important considerations.

It pays to take the time to understand your situation, to speak with multiple installers, and research your options. Sunmetrix Discover can help you, by letting you adjust your system size, your utility rate, your electricity use, and more.

Simone Garneau is the co-founder of Sunmetrix, an online consumer education website for residential solar energy. The goal of Sunmetrix is to help homeowners go solar and save money with our Solar Cashback Program. In addition to the 200+ articles about solar energy, Sunmetrix offers homeowners three main resources: a Consumer Report for solar energy, Discover to preview solar energy for your home, and GO, the only solar energy test drive experience. Read all of Simone's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



4/1/2016

Solar and home value increase

If you own your home, you’ve probably heard that going solar can help you reduce your electric bill, delivering major savings over the 20+ years that your solar panels produce electricity. You may have also heard that installing a solar energy system on your roof can increase the value of your home – but by how much? It’s time to get past the sales pitch and understand exactly what solar companies mean when they say that your home value increases when you install solar. 

It’s True: Going Solar Can Increase Your Property Value by $20k or More

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), a Department of Energy-affiliated research lab, has studied solar home sales extensively. In 2015, researchers at LBNL compared sale prices of solar homes to homes without solar across eight different states to determine just how much value a solar energy system adds to a home. What they found: “Home buyers consistently have been willing to pay more for homes with host-owned solar photovoltaic (PV) energy systems —averaging about $4 per watt of PV installed—across various states, housing and PV markets, and home types. 

For a 5-kilowatt (kW) solar energy system (the average system size in the U.S.), $4/Watt means an added value of $20,000. That extra value is a big part of the story, but remember – it doesn’t even include the month-to-month savings you’ll see on your electricity bill when you install solar on your roof. Considering that the average solar panel installation cost in the U.S. is about $3.70/Watt, it’s easy to see why going solar is a smart investment in your home.

Your Solar Home Value Increase Depends on Where You Live

There are many factors that influence how much you can save when you go solar, but the most important one isn’t how much sun you get – it’s the cost of electricity from your utility. As a result, the value that a solar energy system will add to your home is dependent on where you live.

Because solar reduces or eliminates your electric bill, your 20-year savings from installing a solar energy system will be greater in areas where electricity is more expensive. That means high electricity prices can result in greater solar home values, because potential home buyers are willing to pay more for a home with greater solar savings., That also means that newer solar panels will add more value to your home, because they will generate electricity for a greater lifespan.

Does Leasing a Solar Panel System Increase Your Home Value?

LBNL’s 2015 study only analyzed homes with solar PV systems owned by the homeowner, which means that it doesn’t include homes where the property owner signed a lease or power purchase agreement (PPA). Solar lease corporations like SolarCity say that both owned and leased systems increase home values, but the additional value that third-party owned solar provides isn’t quite as clear. NPR and the Los Angeles Times have both written stories featuring homeowners who say that their solar lease made it more difficult to sell their home. So what’s the truth? 

Unlike a system bought in cash or with a solar loan, selling a home with a third-party owned solar energy system means that you also have to transfer your lease or power purchase agreement to the new property owner. This can make the sales process more complicated, and some prospective buyers might not be excited about taking over a long-term lease or PPA.

The good news: a 2016 survey from LBNL found that, while a leased system can make your home sale more complex, “the overall impacts [of solar leases and PPAs] in terms of sales price, time on market, agreement transfers and customer satisfaction are largely neutral and in some cases a net positive.” So while leasing a solar panel system might not improve your home’s value, it probably won’t hurt it either – and you’ll have the benefit of a reduced electric bill for as long as you live there. 

How to Get the Best Solar Value: Compare All of Your Options

At the end of the day, the best way to be confident in your solar investment is to fully understand and compare your options. Use a solar calculator that gives you an instant estimate of how much you can save, and then use comparison-shopping marketplace like EnergySage to receive multiple offers from solar companies online.

With the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can compare equipment, financing, and solar company reviews to find the right combination of cost and quality for your needs. By comparing multiple offers, EnergySage customers can save as much as 20 percent on their solar panel systems.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



3/14/2016

Solar Energy Home Improvement

Now that spring is here, many homeowners are thinking about taking advantage of the warmer weather and longer days to tackle some home improvement projects. You don’t need to look very far to find a great opportunity to increase the value of your home and save you money in the long run – just look up! Solar energy is growing in popularity because of its many benefits. But homeowners naturally have a number of important questions. I hope to answer some of the most common ones here.

Will solar panels really save me money?

In many cases, the answer is yes, but it all depends on three important considerations, all of which are location dependent. The most obvious one is the amount of sunshine where you live, but this is less important than you might think (and I address this point in more detail below). The other very important factors is assessing the profitability of solar energy are the available financial incentives that bring down the cost and the price of electricity where you live. Obviously, the more you pay for electricity, the more you stand to save with solar energy.

The term grid parity is used to describe when the cost of solar electricity is the same or cheaper than electricity from your utility. A number of states have reached grid parity, such as California and New Jersey to name a couple. They receive quite different amounts of sunshine, but because of the generous incentives and the high cost of electricity, solar energy is a worthwhile investment in these states. In another example, going solar in Connecticut makes much more financial sense then in Florida (the Constitution State beats the Sunshine State hands down, when it comes to the value of solar electricity!)

A solar power calculator, like Sunmetrix Discover, can help you determine the profitability of solar energy where you live, and by adjusting some of the parameters in the Buy or Lease Calculator, you can determine the best way to finance your system. Generally speaking, a purchase (with or without a solar loan) will save you more money than a lease in the long run.

Doesn’t it have to be very sunny where I live?

It’s only natural to think about the level of sunshine where you live, when you think of solar energy. But even places that are fairly cloudy year round or further north with short winter days benefit from solar energy. Germany, for example, is a world leader in terms of installed solar capacity, and Berlin, Germany receives just over half as much solar radiation as Los Angeles, California. Yes, it’s true that cloudy places will not produce as much solar electricity, but they can still produce enough to be a profitable investment, if the other two factors I mentioned (available incentives and cost of electricity) are favorable for solar energy.

If I still need to be connected to the grid at night, then what’s the point?

Most residential solar photovoltaic systems are grid-tied. In other words, you keep your connection to your local utility. This is important for two reasons: 1) you can receive extra electricity when your panels are not producing enough, such as at night and 2) you can sell your excess electricity back to the utility for credits when you are producing too much. This is called net-metering.

Recently, there has been quite a bit of news about changes to net-metering in certain states, such as Nevada. Instead of being compensated for excess electricity at the retail rate (what you would have paid for the electricity if you needed it), Nevada is only compensating solar generators at the wholesale rate (what the utility pays to buy electricity from power plants), which is considerably lower. This can significantly lower the profitability of your solar system if you’re regularly sending excess electricity back to the grid for credits. As a result, we will see batteries for excess solar electricity grow in popularity in areas that do not credit solar electricity at the retail rate (Australia is a great example of this trend).

However, most states still have net-metering policies that credit homeowners for their excess electricity at the retail rate. Even if you’re not producing electricity at night, you will benefit from the credits you accumulate producing excess electricity during the day, and/or benefit from lower electricity rates at night where time-of-use electricity rates are in place.  

Will installing panels cause roof damage?

This is a common question. One of the first things a solar installation company should do, when preparing a quote for you, is to visit your house and look at your roof. In addition to looking at the shade levels and orientation of your roof, they will be assessing the condition of your roof. If it is relatively old or in need of repairs, you will want to address this before proceeding with a solar system installation. After all, those solar panels can be ticking for 20-25 years, and the last thing you want to do is remove them after a few years for a roof repair.

But what about a brand new roof? It is important to look at the fine-print of your roof warranty (because most roof warranties are null and void if you do anything that interferes with the integrity of the roof), but you should also protect yourself by choosing a solar company that offers their own warranty. Talk to the installer and get them to explain the risks and their warranty, and read consumer reviews to find the most highly-rated installers in your area. Nearly one million homeowners have gone solar in the U.S., according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). With some initial homework, you can find a solar company you feel comfortable with, and join those homeowners who are enjoying the benefits of producing their own clean, green electricity.

Shouldn’t I wait until solar-panel prices come down more?

Like with many high-tech purchases, it’s usually not long after you purchase them that the price comes down. According to SEIA, the price of residential solar has dropped nearly 60 percent since 2006, but this rate of decrease is likely to slow down, as mass production and intense competition in the solar equipment market (i.e. the panels and inverters) made up most of the price drop. Today, it’s actually other so-called “soft costs” that make up most of the cost of installing solar panels. These soft costs include permits, design and customer acquisition to name a few. While many companies are working hard to bring down these soft costs with innovative software tools, the rate of price decreases is not likely to be as dramatic as it has been.

In locations where grid parity has been reached, holding off from going solar means missing out on savings today. This lost opportunity could translate into a considerable chunk of change in the long run. If you’re on the fence about whether to go solar, there are two other important considerations to keep in mind: the electricity escalation rate and the federal investment tax credit of 30%.

Electricity prices have been going up on average across the United States. Since 2005, the average escalation rate (the rate by which electricity prices have gone up each year since 2005) for the U.S. was 3%, with Michigan experiencing the highest average year-over-year increases since 2005, at nearly 5.5%. By comparison, Louisiana experienced the lowest average year-over-year increases since 2005, at 0.3%. While looking at what has happened in the past does not tell us what will happen in the future, it gives us some ideas about the general trend. Solar energy gives you the chance to lock-in cheaper electricity for the next 25 years on average.

The federal investment tax credit (ITC) of 30% for solar panels is another very important reason not to delay by too much. While it was originally set to expire at the end of 2016, it was recently extended through 2019, after which it will be gradually phased out over the following three years. The solar ITC has made the difference in many places, making solar electricity cheaper than electricity from the utility. Make sure you take advantage of this generous incentive by going solar soon. There’s never been a better time to reap the benefits of solar energy.

Conclusion

So there you have it: solar power may sound a bit complicated at first, but with some basic research you can be on your way to generating your own clean power at a very competitive price point. Now, if only tackling your kids’ bedroom closets for spring cleaning was this easy...

Simone Garneau is the co-founder of Sunmetrix, an online consumer education website for residential solar energy. The goal of Sunmetrix is to help homeowners go solar and save money with our Solar Cashback Program. In addition to the 200+ articles about solar energy, Sunmetrix offers homeowners two main tools: Discover, to preview solar energy for your home, and GO, the only solar energy test drive experience. Read all of Simone's MOTHER EARTH NEWS POSTS here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.









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