The sun sustains life on earth. Plants and animals need its rays to exist. But did you know that our closest star also has the capacity to power all our homes, cars, and businesses? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, just one hour of noontime summer sun meets our annual electricity demand, yet only about 6 percent of residential homes have solar panels in the U.S.
Solar power systems were first invented in the mid 1800s but it was only in the past few years that the technology took off and came down enough in price that it is more accessible to the masses. Nearly 20 states in the U.S. have set commitments targeting either 100 percent clean energy or zero emissions in the next two decades. Whether you are just researching, getting quotes, or ready to take the plunge, Sustainable America has assembled a list of important information and considerations to help you in your journey.
HOW SOLAR ENERGY SYSTEMS WORK
Solar panels are made up of photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight into direct current (DC) power. When the sun shines on a panel, photons from sunlight are absorbed by these cells creating an electric field where electricity begins to flow. The DC power is then sent to a converter which changes it into alternating current (AC), the standard form of electricity in houses.
It will be important to determine if you want to be connected to the grid. If you choose to be, the local utility company will come and install a bi-directional meter which allows you to be properly credited for the power you send back to the grid. If you choose not to be connected to the grid or cannot be, your home will need either a battery to store power for when the sun is not shining or an additional alternative source of energy production like a windmill.
A residential solar energy system installation typically costs between $15,000 - $25,000 and will last 30 years or more. Once working, if you are connected to the electrical grid, your bill will likely go down. Most home solar systems will generate more energy than they need during a given time period and many utility companies will compensate you for the electricity you send back to the grid. Solar policies differ across utility companies so be sure to check in with your local provider to better understand how this works.
Solar panels add to the property value of homes but unlike adding a new addition, installation will not trigger a reassessment and cause an increase in property taxes. Once installed take the time to contact your homeowner’s insurance company and have your policy amended to include the new system.
SPACE AND LOCATION
The majority of homeowners install solar arrays on their roofs though some installations can occur on the ground. This is a good option if you have limited space on your roof or panels won't get enough sun exposure.
Before getting started, consider the state of your roof. If you think you may need to replace it soon, it may be financially beneficial to wait, as solar panels are fixed on roofing materials and would need to be removed. The type of your roof can also impact costs. Traditional shingles are less expensive to install systems on compared to spanish tiles.
Providers can often look at satellite images to determine if your space is set up for solar. Panels are ideally installed on southwest facing spaces but this is not always possible for every structure. Positioning panels toward the southeast, east, and north-northwest can sometimes work. Tree coverage is also important to note, as large trees can shade the roof and limit direct sunlight from hitting panels.
If you live in an area where it snows, also consider the time when panels may be covered by snow. Typically snow does not stick to panels for long periods, given the angle they are installed at but if you are not connected to the grid, this could be an important consideration when choosing to install a battery or secondary energy source.
Energy consumption is measured in kilowatt hours: 1,000 watts = 1 hour. Understanding the amount of energy you typically use is an important initial step in choosing a system. Most solar panels installed on homes or businesses today are between 250 to 365 watts per panel. To get a better understanding of your energy needs, look at the “usage” section on your utility bill, which will show your average monthly consumption. If space is at a premium, you can consider higher wattage per panel though this will increase your overall price.
Investing in a solar system is a massive investment even with current price trends. To offset costs some states and federal programs exist to incentivize installation.
The Department of Energy currently has a tax credit for households who install residential solar systems. A tax incentive is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of income tax you would otherwise owe. While not a direct rebate, the solar incentive has no maximum claim amount. From 2020 to 2022, there will be a 26 percent tax credit for systems installed within those years, and a 22 percent credit for systems installed in 2023. This amount will likely continue to lower and eventually be phased out. For more details and information, visit energy.gov. For information on state and local incentives check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
If you don’t own your home, community solar may be an option. Community solar allows multiple households to lease or purchase solar panels onsite or at a different location. As of 2020, there are community solar projects in 39 states and Washington DC and about a third of states have policies supporting their use. The set up is also a great option for homeowners who have properties unsuitable for panels.
FIGURING OUT NEXT STEPS
If you feel intrigued but hesitant to make the investment, consider getting a quote to see what the actual cost would be and then see how this lines up with federal and state incentives. Solar pricing continues to decrease each year, yet many incentives will likely phase out in the near future. Talking to neighbors and friends in your area can also be informative, as you can better understand the obstacles and challenges faced on similar structures and in similar climates. Finally check out the Department of Energy’s Homeowners Guide to Going Solar, where they have detailed information on what goes into setting up and using a system.