3 Ways to Go Solar: Simple Solutions for Going Solar

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Belita Schindler pays a little extra on her utility bill each month to support solar projects in her area.
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Patrick Ferraro says nearly nonexistent utility bills and the "feel-good" factor make his investment in solar power worth it.
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Peggy and Glen Roberts lease a solar array that produces most of the power their home needs for $50 a month.

Think capturing the sun’s energy is too expensive? Three homeowners–with three very different budgets–find ways to build photovoltaic power. 

1. He bought the system.

What He Did: After retiring from a 33-year career in water politics in 2003, Patrick Ferraro retrofitted his creekside home with a solar water heater and thirty-six 100-watt solar panels, which power his home and recharge his Chrysler Global Electric Motorcar neighborhood electric vehicle. Patrick researched solar options and took classes on solar energy payback, then hired Mike Clifton of Santa Clara’s M C Solar Engineering to advise him and handle the installation.

Cost: The installed system cost $39,600 before rebates and credits. Patrick received a California Energy Commission rebate for $10,700 and a California state income tax credit of $4,500. The panels reduce Patrick’s power import by 50 percent and save him $600 a year.

How It Works: Patrick’s photovoltaic (PV) system converts sunlight into energy, which powers the freezer and refrigerator; washer and dryer; window air conditioner; wall heaters; and shop tools. Maintenance is easy. Patrick washes the panels with a long-handled broom and a garden hose. In the past six years, he hasn’t had to replace or repair a panel. “The system runs itself,” he says.

Why He Did It: Since he purchased his home in 1972, Patrick has wanted to go solar. “Regardless of the cost you incur when you install PVs, the feel-good part is priceless,” he says. Nearly nonexistent utility bills are pretty nice, too.

Drawbacks: Solar panel installation can be pricey–even with credits and rebates. At current energy rates, it can take 15 to 20 years or more to break even.

2. They rent their panels.

What They Did: Peggy and Glen Roberts wanted a solar-electric system for their 2,100-square-foot bungalow, but even with rebates and tax incentives, it was out of their price range. Last year, the couple discovered SolarCity’s SolarLease program. Once the Robertses replaced their tile roof underlayment (which they needed to do anyway), SolarCity installed PV panels onto the tile roof. The 4.1-kilowatt DC system consists of fifty-five 75-watt panels that produce 7,084 kilowatt-hours a year. Any excess power their system generates is sold to the power company, and if their electrical loads exceed their system’s capacity, they can pull power from the grid. Ideally, Glen says, the amount of excess power they produce will offset much of what they need from the grid over the course of the year. 

Cost: The Robertses’ only upfront cost was a $150 permit fee for their neighborhood homeowners association. Peggy and Glen will pay $50 a month for their 15-year lease, with an annual increase of 3.5 percent (lower than the 5 percent estimated utility rate increase). The couple, whose panels were up and running in September, expects to save 10 to 15 percent on an annual basis when both the lease payments and reduced utility costs are factored in.

“In the long run, it is of course better to purchase a system than to lease,” Glen says. “But if you do not have $30,000 lying around, the question becomes, ‘Do we lease and take advantage of a solar lease program we can afford now, or do we continue to be reliant upon power generated by dirty fuels?'”

How It Works: It’s similar to leasing a car. After checking out the location and applicants’ credit history, SolarCity installs the panels and provides maintenance. For their monthly rent payment, homeowners are able to use all the energy their panels produce and sell the excess to their local utility. At the end of 15 years, clients can renew, upgrade or have the panels removed for free. If they sell their home before the lease term is up, the lease term can be taken over by a qualified homebuyer.

Why They Did It: “Going solar, particularly with no financial sacrifice on our part, seemed like the greatest contribution we could make toward reducing our carbon footprint,” Peggy says. Glen adds, “We’ll be producing most of the energy we need. I also like that we’ll be helping to power the neighborhood.”

Drawbacks: Solar-as-service programs aren’t available everywhere. Because the solar providers own the panels, they get most rebates and credits. (SolarCity maintains that the utility company rebate helps them keep the lease payments low.)

3. She supports solar.

What She Did: Since Austin Utilities began offering its Solar Choice program, Belita Schindler has paid extra on her monthly utility bills to support solar and wind projects in her area.

Cost: Belita estimates she spends an extra $10 to $12 a month on her utility bill.

How It Works: The Solar Choice program connects companies that produce and share solar energy–such as Good Earth Natural Foods in Austin–with customers such as Belita, who support renewable energy development by paying a small premium on their utility bills. The panels installed by local companies power their businesses–and whatever they don’t use is sold to Austin Utilities. Then, thanks to the contributions of individuals like Belita, the local solar producers receive a bonus from the money raised through the Solar Choice program.

Why She Did It: It’s a low-cost, low-commitment way for Belita to support alternative energy in her area. “We have to take care of the planet, and you do what you can,” Belita says. Purchasing or leasing solar panels isn’t an option, but she’s willing to help others go solar–and she’d continue to do so even if rates increase. “It’s totally painless,” she says.

Drawbacks: Utility-based green power programs let you support renewable energy producers, but the electricity that’s fed into your home isn’t necessarily solar. Programs vary considerably. Austin’s Solar Choice program provides tangible results in the community, but in many cases utilities simply purchase renewable energy credits from producers that are already up and running.
Julie Collins is an Illinois-based writer who hopes to install solar panels on her own roof one day.