Twenty-One Questions Answered About Going Solar
Solar power pioneer John Boiano invites you to join a peaceful revolution by taking the mystery out of going solar.
We live in challenging times. Mother Earth is hanging in there, waiting for our commitment to jump into action as peaceful warriors on the path of preserving a healthy and vibrant planet. And fortunately, we are at the perfect time in history to take peaceful, but powerful revolutionary action as individuals — simply by changing how we access our energy and installing solar energy at home. When We the People use our collective power against the industrial institutions that are trying to keep traditional — and most often dirty — energy at the forefront of controlling how we source and how much we pay for our energy, we can revolutionize the world.
The solar movement is a peaceful revolution, giving us the reigns to take control over our energy access and costs. Let’s face it, your contract with the utility company basically says they can charge you as much as they can get away with, change the rate at almost any time (with utility commission complicity), and shut off your power if you don’t pay your bill. Controlling your energy supply and cost by going solar contributes to a peaceful and healthy planet, as well as providing you with the peace of mind that you are doing something towards that goal on a daily basis.
When my wife, daughter and I went solar seven years ago, we were pioneers in the solar revolution. Today our planet is now a year or two into the early stages of a worldwide switchover to sustainable and less costly renewable energy. Bill Nye, The Science Guy, believes that with today’s technology in solar, wind, geothermal and a little bit of tidal energy, we could be using 80% renewable energy worldwide by 2050!
Let’s dig into some of the most common questions about installing solar energy at home.
1. What are the top reasons why people go solar?
- Save money and take control of energy costs
- Collect state and federal rebates
- Save the environment (or more like save humanity; Mother Earth will be fine without us here)
- My neighbors, family or friends have gone solar
2. Is installing a solar system too expensive for average homeowners?
Solar myth #1: Solar is too expensive. Fact: In most cases, solar actually costs less than staying with your current energy supplier. Going solar means taking control of your energy costs in the long term. Your agreement with the energy company lets them charge you however much they can get away with. According to eia.gov, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island round out the top five most expensive energy states in the country after Alaska and Hawaii. Data tracking website Ycharts.com shows Connecticut has raised their utility rates 21.8 percent from 2013-2017, with Massachusetts raising theirs 16.5 percent in the same time frame. On CT.gov is a Letter of Intent filed with the Public Regulatory Authority to increase existing distribution rates $336 million over 3 years, beginning May 21, 2018, with a 6.79 percent increase in the first year alone. When you go solar, you have lower locked-in rates and you’ve taken control of your energy costs.
Installation costs of a solar system will vary greatly from home to home because every single house and its location is unique, however the average installation is between $20,000-$60,000 before any federal or state rebates. Many homeowners lease panels instead of buying them, which is the perfect option for those who don’t want to take ownership and simply want to buy power at a lower rate than purchasing it from the utility company. Leases offer locked-in rates that give a homeowner financial and environmental satisfaction. Leases are even transferable for the remainder of the term if you sell the home to a new owner.
Many factors determine the installation price of a new solar system including the type of panels, amount of equipment needed (large home versus small), ground mount trenching, electrical upgrades to the home, or roof work. Each home is unique. Owners should rely on a trusted solar professional to give them all the facts particular to their home. A house with a little shade will need more panels to produce the same amount of energy as a home with no shade. Hence, the home with more panels will cost more for the same amount of kilowatts produced. A solar professional will help make it feel like a seamless process instead of overwhelming to the homeowner.
3. Are state and federal rebates still available?
The federal rebate is currently 30 percent of the cost of the system, applied to your tax liability, so check with your tax preparer to see how you can best take advantage of the credit. State rebates are continually changing and each state has its own program. In addition to being in the top five most energy expensive state, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are among the top five states in the country for the most favorable clean energy incentives. Massachusetts offers the SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates), soon to be the SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) program. Currently slated to begin mid 2018, the new Massachusetts SMART program will not be as generous to the homeowner as the current SREC program is. SREC and SMART credits are both commodities sold on the open market. A homeowner is paid quarterly for their SRECs. Rhode Island’s Tariff program works on the same principle as the SREC program, plus the homeowner gets compensated by the state to install solar panels. Connecticut currently offers a rebate through its Connecticut Green Bank, which is calculated using an in-depth formula of energy production factors, best left in the hands of professionals to translate for homeowners.
4. Can I make money by going solar?
Yes and no. You can save a lot of money by going solar because your solar costs stay the same year after year, while utility costs rise. With solar on your roof or ground-mounted in your yard, you are buying your energy at a lower retail cost than buying power from the utility company. But the days of adding more solar panels beyond your current or projected energy usage to your home or business is no longer a valid option for an extra money stream. Utility companies are set up to make it challenging for alternative energy “outsiders” to replace their income stream and commitments already in place, so the grid will pay you back at wholesale value for your overproduction. Beware of any solar company that tries to put more solar on your roof than what your historical or projected energy usage is. There are only very specific scenarios where you can add extra panels and assign the extra production to another party and have them pay you.
5. Will I still have to pay the utility company?
Yes, you still have to pay the utility company. The amount you pay depends on how much energy is created by solar, how much shade you have, what direction the panels face, etc. Solar production is calculated against the amount of energy you use in your home or small business. Once calculated, then you will know an estimated utility versus solar cost. If a solar system can produce 100% of your energy, all you would have to pay the utility company is a small monthly connection fee for the ability to net meter. All of the utility companies charge a monthly connection charge.
6. What is net metering and how does it work?
Net metering is a term used to track the solar energy produced by the panels that is not immediately used by your home or business. Example: On an average sunny day, your solar system may produce more energy than your home is using. At that time, the energy goes past your home and out to the grid, which is tracked by a two-way net meter that spins backwards and tracks every kilowatt that you send to the grid. Later that day, week or month, when you need the energy, the grid sends back your banked or credited kilowatts at no charge to you. The two-way net meter tracks this activity, which will show up on your electric bill.
7. Are there financial risks associated with going solar?
There is a slight risk that utility rates will go down. We have seen decreases in rates, only to have them go back up and exceed the previous high rates in a six-month period. There is also a risk that the utility will try to end net metering. This happened in Nevada for a short time, only to be reversed after public outcry. It was an incredible show of support by communities and politicians in overriding the ruling.
8. Is the price of solar installation going down?
The panels themselves are getting less expensive to manufacture, because as production ramps up you can produce more panels in the same production facility that has already been paid for. However as panel wattage and efficiency increases, they cost more to produce. Production facility costs keep going up. Labor, installation and delivery costs keep going up. As you can see, the panels themselves may cost slightly less to produce, however, when you add in all of the other factors of a delivered and installed product, you can see that it actually costs more for solar today than it has in the past. It’s unlikely this trend will change.
In addition, the solar industry and many bi-partisan allies will vigorously fight for repeal of the new solar tariff imposed by a White House administration hostile to the success of clean energy in the United States and around the world. It is too early in the process to know how this will play out for homeowners. In the meantime, many solar suppliers have a fair amount of panels and equipment already warehoused and ready to install minus any new tariff. For those thinking about going solar, the time is now.
9. What are the different types of solar panels?
The most widely used type of solar energy for residential and small scale commercial is photo voltaic (PV) panels. Those are the panels you see on people’s homes and the large arrays in fields and along the highways, which can either be ground or roof mounted. A roof mount is attached to your roof with a small streamlined rail system and the panels are attached to the rails. Ground mount systems are more costly because holes have to be dug for the mounts, a rail system to support the panels needs to be built, and then a trench needs to be dug below the frost line to run wires from the panels to the home where the electricity will be connected. Ground mount panels are built on either fixed mounts or the more costly tracking system where the panels follow the sun from sunrise to sundown to achieve the most energy possible from the panels. Thermal panels heat water pipes inside them and transfer hot water to the home’s water system to save electricity for heating water. There is small emergence of these integrated into PV systems, mostly in Maine and Vermont.
10. Will I get all of my energy from the solar panels?
Every solar home is unique. It depends upon roof direction, roof pitch, shading and energy usage, which are just a few of the variables considered when designing a solar system. A knowledgeable solar consultant can evaluate and discuss your particular situation with you.
11. Do I need a south-facing roof? What about shade?
Although 180 degrees south is the most efficient way for solar panels to face in New England, with today’s Tier-1 panel technology (highest grade panels) there is plenty of solar access to the east, west and even lower pitched north-facing roofs that can benefit from the power of the sun. As far as shade goes, the less shade the better, but some shade is usually acceptable.
12. Will the panels produce power on cloudy and snowy days?
The panels will produce limited energy on cloudy days and they will even work with a small amount of snow on them. Because the panels are made from tempered glass you will find that snow slides off quite easily.
13. Will solar extend my roof life?
In most cases your roof shingles will last much longer with solar panels covering them. The panels are now taking the weather hit rather than the shingles. Snow will also slide off of your roof faster with the glass panels. They are much slipperier than the sticky/gritty asphalt roof shingles.
14. Will I need a re-roof before going solar?
It all depends on the integrity of your shingles. Before solar is installed, a site surveyor will evaluate the current condition of the shingles to make sure they are safe and secure to install solar on. If, in the future, you decide to do a home upgrade or to re-roof after the panels are installed, most solar companies offer a low-cost service to take the panels off and re-install them after the work is completed.
15. Do solar companies offer equipment warranties in case of roof penetration?
The better companies offer a minimum of a 10-year install roof leak warranty. Basically, if your roof doesn’t leak in the first year or two, there’s a great chance that it never will. If the technology that’s available today is installed correctly, you should not have any leak problems at all. Most companies offer a full lifetime or at least a 20-year comprehensive warranty on their equipment. Make sure these terms are clearly laid out in your contract with the solar installer.
16. What about aesthetics and resale value?
I don’t know about you, but I love the way solar looks! It looks like the future. It looks like taking control of your energy costs. My home will sell faster than the neighbor’s because I have the added option of a lower electric rate that competing homes for sale can’t match. One of the top four reasons people go solar is because their neighbors are doing it. If aesthetics is an objection to get past, my suggestion is to look around. The industry is growing fast. It won’t be long before the majority of homeowners have solar on their roof.
17. How does a homeowner get started with solar installation?
The time frame from an initial solar consultation to turning on your solar power is usually less than three months. After your home is evaluated for solar access, roof direction, pitch, shading, etc., you will choose your equipment, financing and rebate options. Next, you will move through a site survey and permitting process and get your system installed. The utility company installs a two-way net meter and your system is ready to produce clean energy.
18. What are the environmental impacts of solar energy?
Solar energy creates clean, renewable power from the sun and benefits the environment. Alternatives to fossil fuels reduce our carbon footprint, helping to reduce greenhouse gases around the globe. By investing in solar energy, you can help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in favor of one of the most abundant, consistent sources of energy we have available: our sun. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, one home switching from fossil fuels to solar power in the state of Connecticut has the same emissions reduction effect as planting 155 trees and not driving your car 17,640 miles. Plus, fewer air pollutants from burning fossil fuels means less cardio health risks.
Unfortunately, the federal government is rolling back regulations that promote renewable energy so it’s more important than ever to fight for a green future. We will not accomplish anything by continuing to support and pay into the traditional energy producing systems. Solar makes sense for your personal well-being, the environment and your wallet.
19. What is the employment outlook in the solar industry?
Solar creates jobs. Homeowners and utilities alike are choosing solar energy at a faster rate than ever before in the United States. In the last decade, solar has seen an average of 68% growth per year. That’s enough electricity to power over 9.5 million homes. In 2016, solar installed 39% of all new electricity generated.
2015 was a pivotal year, with more people employed in renewable energy than were in the oil and gas industries combined. Currently over 260,000 Americans work in the solar industry, although other countries are leading the way, such as China with over 3.5 million employed in renewable energies. Canada, Iceland, Sweden and Germany — over 50 countries in all — have recently vowed to be 100% renewable energy by the year 2050. There’s a reason that we are seeing states, townships and cities like Portland, Maine, investing in solar as a lower cost option to access electricity. It’s simple to implement and it costs less. The municipal planners look at short and long term money saving goals along with the longevity/integrity of infrastructure systems. Once laid out in spreadsheets, it’s pretty easy to see the value of going solar. If it didn’t save municipalities a significant amount of money, they would not be investing in the technology.
20. What are the new home battery and charging station technologies and are they worth investing in?
The batteries available today are deep cell batteries that typically hang on the wall either indoors or out. These batteries can store electricity generated by solar panels and draw electricity from the grid when rates are low to store for later use. A single battery can cost upwards of $5,000-$6,000 with an average nine-year life span. For example, if you have a 2,000 square foot home with air conditioning and a pool, the Tesla website recommends that you use two Powerwall home batteries that will cost approximately $12,000, plus an additional $800-$2000 for installation and other miscellaneous expenses. The Powerwall’s size is 44”x24”x5.5” and weighs 276 pounds. There are other battery solutions that vary from a deep cell marine size battery to the size of the Powerwall.
Home batteries are becoming a little more main stream as the technology develops. There is still quite a long way to go before battery technology reaches a point where it will be as economical and accessible as solar panels are. Some utilities will currently only let you access the battery storage during a power outage. As battery technology moves forward, we will no doubt see many homes equipped with the storage units. Charging stations are also becoming more popular as electric cars make their way to the forefront of auto sales. Charging stations range in size from a small garden hose reel size to a tall stand like a mini gas station filling pump. Most are in the $500 to $800 range.
Electric cars are hitting the roadways in force with almost every carmaker getting in on the new market of electric and hybrid vehicles. What better way to charge these cars than with a solar array and battery back up at your home? Norway, touted as one of the happiest countries in the world, along with the Netherlands and Switzerland next in line, are leading the way towards countries mandating clean vehicle reform.
21. Should I wait for the next generation of solar technology?
The best time to go solar is now! Sure, technology changes and there will be updates to rebate programs. When you buy a new computer, the technology changes before you leave the parking lot. If you waited, you would never buy a new computer. Solar technology doesn’t change that fast. Once a new prototype is created, it takes years of research to verify its viability, and an even longer time to ramp up production for the growing industrial, municipal and consumer markets. Renewable energy entrepreneur Elon Musk recently unveiled his new solar roof, displaying a few homes with prototype panels on them, but mainstream accessibility at a reasonable cost is far in the future for most homeowners for this product.
Regardless, the solar energy revolution is here to stay! New York City recently announced plans to divest its $191 billion in pension funds from fossil fuel investments, and are filing suit against the industry for damages caused by climate change. It’s up to all of us to take whatever steps we can to serve as Earth protectors. As solar becomes mainstream, the question is not “Are you going to go solar?” but “When will you be going solar?”
John Boiano is a motivational speaker and solar energy advocate with 180 South Solar, a solar energy consulting, design and installation company. Learn more at 180southsolar.com or contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-798-5692.