Just a few years ago, solar was not an economically viable option for most home owners. But in a few short years, solar panels have gotten more efficient, equipment prices have fallen, and purchase options have expanded. Now, producing your own electricity may be more affordable than you think.
Solars Rise in Popularity
The great baseball manager and philosopher Yogi Berra once said of soccer, “It is the sport of the future, and always will be.” Berra, famous for his non-sequiturs, could have said the same of solar: “Solar is the energy technology of the future, and always will be.”
The fact is, humans have always used solar power, for heating, for drying and preserving, for sanitizing, and even for cooking. However, it wasn’t until 1954 that Bell Laboratories developed the first silicon PV (photovoltaic) panels that could reliably produce electricity. In 1958, PV panels powered the Vanguard 1 satellite, securing solar PV’s place as a cutting edge technology.
Solar thermal technologies for heating air and hot water flourished during the oil crisis of the 1970s, and President Jimmy Carter encouraged the growth of the solar industry as one way to free Americans from the grip of Middle Eastern oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia. However, when oil prices dropped and Ronald Reagan became president, subsidies for solar were canceled and the solar industry fell on hard times.
It wasn’t until the Y2K scare and the wider acceptance of man-made global warming that solar began to see renewed interest. Solar hot water and thermal systems began to show reasonable paybacks, and after wide adoption of PV across Europe and China, prices dropped for solar electric systems as well.
Purchasing a PV system
Depending on where you live in the U.S., purchasing a solar array for your home or business can pay back in just five years. In many states, you can enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a solar provider and have no up front expenses. You simply pay the solar company a fixed monthly price that will save you money, reduce your environmental footprint, and increase your property value.
When you purchase solar in the U.S., you are entitled to various tax credits and other incentives that make going solar more affordable. The federal government offers a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the cost of the system, while states offer a wide variety of their own credits and rebates. The best source for more information on the solar incentives in your state, visit the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency and enter your zip code for a complete list.
Is Your Home Right for Solar?
The beauty of solar panels is that they take no fuel other than the sun to produce energy. But you need to have a good, sunny spot to put them in! For many people, this means the roof of their house. However, many homes may be shaded by large trees or other obstructions. In these cases, a “ground mounted” array out in the yard may be a better option. In general, you need a good “solar window,” that is, an area with a wide open exposure to the sky from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
In addition to having a good solar window, you will need to enter into a contract with your utility company to connect your solar array to the grid. This is referred to as an “interconnect agreement.” Always make sure to look closely at the interconnect agreement and discuss it with your solar installer. You need to make sure that you are getting retail credit for your electricity, and that you won’t be hit with any burdensome usage fees. These fees can really slow down your payback. Unfortunately, there is no standardized interconnection agreement in the U.S. right now, so it can vary a lot from utility to utility.
Finally, you need to make sure that your solar array complies with any local building codes or neighborhood regulations. Very few localities are outwardly anti-solar anymore, but you want to make sure that you aren’t making enemies of the neighbors by blocking their view, or some other unexpected run-in!
How to Choose a Solar Installer
When looking for a solar installer, many of the same rules apply as when hiring other building professionals. Are they licensed, bonded, and insured? Do they have good references? How many years have they been installing solar?
Many electrical contractors will claim to be knowledgeable in solar, but it really is a specialized area of the electrical trade. Ask for references, and check to see if they have at least one NABCEP certified installer at the company. NABCEP is the The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and they are currently the only certifier for solar installers. Use their website to find certified installers near you.
What’s the Latest in Solar Technology?
Solar panels are getting much more efficient, and there are many more ways to integrate them into the design of your home than in the past. Flexible solar material can be rolled out between the standing seams of a metal roof. Solar panels can be integrated into awnings and carports, and even shutters!
The other big news in solar right now is battery storage. Last year, Elon Musk unveiled the new Tesla Powerwall residential battery, which can help you store your solar power for use overnight and on cloudy days. Other battery manufacturers are rolling out similar products. Battery systems that allow you to go completely “off the grid” have been prohibitively expensive and high maintenance in the past, but look for that to change in the near future!