Is Solar Power Right for You?

Here’s the scoop on figuring out how much solar panels will cost, how much you can save, and what to know before you install a photovoltaic system for your home.
By Megan Phelps
Feb. 17, 2009
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Solar-electric panels on a south-facing roof in Brooklyn, Mass.
SOLAR DESIGN ASSOCIATES/DOE/NREL
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Have you ever wondered whether a solar-electric system is right for your home? There are a lot of good reasons to consider solar power. It’s a great choice for the environment, because with photovoltaic (solar-electric) panels you can get your electricity from clean, renewable solar energy, rather than polluting fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil. In most circumstances, installing solar panels can also save you a lot of money.

To figure out whether solar-electric panels make sense for you, start by considering these questions:

1. Do you have a sunny, south-facing space to mount solar panels? Chances are you do, because there are a lot of options (check out the Image Gallery for examples).

2. How much will it cost for a solar-electric system that meets your needs?

3. Will solar power save you money in the long-term?

The last two questions are the trickiest. To begin with, you’ll need to decide if you want a grid-connected system, or if you would prefer to be “off the grid,” and completely independent of the electric utility. (More about those options here.)

But how much solar power will cost you also depends on your location. For example, the same set of solar panels will produce more electricity in the sunny Southwest than in rainy Seattle. Another important factor to consider: Some states offer hefty rebates and tax incentives for purchasing solar-electric systems.

So how do you find out whether solar makes sense for where you live?

First, Some Background

You can find many great websites for learning about solar power (more on that below), but there’s so much information online that it can be a bit overwhelming. To help cut through the fog, I contacted Real Goods, a renewable energy retailer and solar installer that’s been selling solar-electric panels for more than 30 years. I spoke with Liz Huntington, the marketing director, and we talked about what people should know before they start shopping for solar panels.

Liz said the main thing to know is that when you’re looking at the cost, you have to think long-term. “Often there is sticker shock. When you’re looking at the numbers, you have to think about it as an investment.” She says that in the end the question is, would you rather own your power or rent it?

So how much do solar-electric systems cost? An initial estimate on an average size solar-electric system might come in at $20,000 to $40,000 — or more. But as Liz points out, an average American household can expect to spend more than $100,000 over the next 25 years on electricity. Buying a solar-electric system is like buying that electricity up front, and depending on the details of your situation, making that investment now can save you a lot of money in the future. It also creates immediate cash flow and increases the value of your home, which can help offset that sticker shock. New federal tax credits can help, too. These renewable energy incentives give you a 30 percent dollar-for-dollar tax credit for the price of the panels, and if your state offers additional incentives, you can end up saving as much as 50 percent!

Another thing Liz says people should keep in mind is that if you’re serious about installing solar panels, there is a certain amount of effort involved in working out the details. “It’s just like any other construction project, like a home remodel. You’re going to want to go through the same process to make an informed decision,” she says.

You have to do your homework to get the best deal and be sure you get the best quality— after all, you don’t want just anyone poking holes in your roof. A safe bet is to choose a professional installer. That means contacting different companies and getting bids. Liz also suggests checking a company’s record with the Better Business Bureau, and asking the installer lots of questions about their previous experience in construction and with solar. And to keep things simple, look for a professional installer who will take care of all the design, permitting, installation and rebate paperwork.

Finally, Liz says, if you’re considering solar power, it’s a good idea to start thinking about your own daily habits. “It’s very important to understand how your electricity is being billed and what your electric usage is. There might be ways to minimize your charges (are you running appliances during peak hours?) and minimize your usage (are you already using energy-efficient light bulbs?) so that you don't need as big of a system.”

One Simple Tool

That brings us to a great place to start exploring solar, the website FindSolar.com, which is hosted by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES). Their handy solar calculator is a remarkably quick and easy way to get a lot of information about how solar-electric panels would work in your location. All you have to type in is your ZIP code, the name of your utility, and your average monthly electricity bill and it will give you a rough estimate on how much a solar-electric system may cost you.

Here are a few other things this solar calculator will tell you:

  • How large a system do you need? (You can adjust the calculator so it shows what it would take to provide all of your electricity, or only a percentage of it.)
  • What federal, state and local tax incentives would you be eligible for?
  • How to contact solar installers and retailers in your area.
  • Estimates on payback period and ROI (return on investment), information you need to figure out how well solar panels work for you as a long-term investment.

Of course, this is just a starting place. Getting a free site evaluation from a local installer will give you the most accurate assessment, because an installer will take into account factors such as shading from trees and the direction your roof faces. It’s important to base your decision on real world numbers and keep in mind that a professional estimate may end up being less expensive than what shows up in the solar calculator. Nevertheless, the web is a great place to do some initial research.

Other Helpful Websites

Here are some other helpful online tools and references:

  • For a general introduction to solar concepts and terminology, check out the Department of Energy’s EERE (Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) website. In particular, they have a great FAQ page where you can learn more about photovoltaics.
  • For more about how solar works, you can read the Real Goods 700+ page Solar Living Sourcebook for free online.
  • The Energy Star website has a very helpful page on federal tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency. They also have detailed information about ways to make your home more energy efficient.
  • The Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency is the go-to source for information about local and state tax incentives.
  • For more information on the costs and savings of solar panels check out this Mother Earth News article, You Can Afford Solar Power.
  • For a fun and useful solar calculator check out RoofRay.  You can find out what size of PV system you need, and even draw a solar array on your own roof using Google maps.
  • To find out more about how much electricity a solar-electric system in your area would produce, check out the PV Watts site. Just follow the links to get to their calculators. (Version 1 is easier to use than Version 2. And as a nice bonus, this site includes solar data for cities around the world.)

There’s a lot of great information out there. So just one final question for you: Are you ready to get started?

­­If you have a solar-electric system at home or have considered purchasing one, you can share your experiences by posting a comment below.


Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .


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Post a comment below.

 

SHEILA BENSON
1/3/2010 4:48:43 PM
How do we calculate usage and cost if we intend to be off the grid? We will be building a new home and will not be connected to the grid. Is air conditioning possible?

Scott Cronk
6/1/2009 9:39:02 PM
www.Solar-Estimate.org offers some very useful online solar estimating tools. They cover solar electric (PV), solar water and solar pool heating. The solar calculator also includes all solar incentives and a nice financial analysis including payback.

David Rickenbacher
4/22/2009 1:46:02 PM
I am wondering if I can run our electric range,dryer, and furnaces on solar or windpower..... Thank you for any help....

Jonathan_3
3/5/2009 12:18:15 PM
We have a 5.28 kWh system that was tied to the grid on July 31, 2007. We did not have a shade free roof so had to go with a pole mount system which added a bit to the cost because of the need for posts, a rack system vs. roof rails, and a long trench with wire and conduit. Pole mount systems are nice because the panels stay cooler, you can adjust the tilt of the panels as the seasons change and easily remove any snow that hasn't been shed by the steep winter angle. When nearby roof mounts are covered with snow, our system will produce at full capacity during the cold sunny days. Our system was designed to meet about 50-60% of our electric use. Credit from our power provider has equaled 50% of what the system has produced so far.

George Works
2/20/2009 8:31:48 AM
We installed a solar electric system 3 years ago and am delighted with it. We live on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius where there is plenty of sun, but electricity generally costs over 30 cents per KWh. Worse, electricity is often out for a day or more, and for several days when a passing storm damages the power lines. In preparation we collected the usage by appliance and used a spread-sheet to estimate total usage, and reconciled this with the electric meter reading. Since electric water heat seemed a large contributor, we replaced our electric water heater with a solar hot water heater and noticed a large, immediate drop in usage. We installed a 2.5KW solar array, 34KWH (to 50% discharge) deep-cycle long-life battery bank, a 4.5KW inverter and a charge controller. I did the installation myself with some help from local laborers, using some heavy locally-made wooden mounting rails on the roof to stand up to our occasional hurricane winds. We operated off-grid for the first year and always had plenty of power, but recently have operated in grid-interactive mode. This has the advantage that the batteries don't discharge unless the power fails, which should prolong their (15 year) life. In this mode the system "sells" excess power to the grid during the day, and "buys" it back at night using the grid as a giant storage battery. We've never had a problem with the system, and we no longer even know when the grid is off except by looking at the lights on the inverter. We continue to collect and analyze data on the system and have now installed a second one on our barn, and helped a neighbor design one for her house here.








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