Can You Afford Solar Power?

State incentives, utility electricity payments, financing options and better-looking solar panels are prompting more and more homeowners to convert to solar power. As always, the overall amount of sun hitting your roof is the determining factor of whether solar power makes sense for you.
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By: Jill Connors

With residential solar installations increasing 51% between 2013 and 2014, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there’s no question that American homeowners are welcoming the sunshine. It’s partly mindset: At every level — individual, state, federal — renewable energy sources are seen as an attractive solution to environmental and economic challenges. Many states have mandates set by their legislatures with a target amount of energy that must come from renewable sources every year, but the local utility may not have the capital to create large solar-harvesting photovoltaic (PV) arrays to generate the power — so houses have become the tiny power stations that can help the state achieve its renewable energy goals. That’s good news for homeowners. Even more importantly, the price of a completed residential PV system has dropped 45% since 2010, largely because of new, widely available financing and leasing options.

To decide the true cost of solar power, you’ll need to understand the basics of solar power and the amount of solar energy in your area, plus the types of incentives, financing options and production capabilities of your roof will help determine if solar power is advantageous to you.

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Photovoltaic Basics

The technology, price and aesthetics of photovoltaic systems have improved to the point that PV arrays are now the most popular choice for homeowners, versus years ago when thermal solar products for heating water were often the first consideration. PV cells convert sunlight directly into electricity, and the cells are typically contained in panels that are installed on a home’s roof; a group of solar cells is called a module or panel, and a group of panels is called an array. A typical PV installation for a 2,000-2,500-square-foot house in New England that uses air conditioning would include an array of 20-40 PV panels each with micro-inverters (or DC optimizers with a central inverter) to convert the solar-harnessed electricity to AC electricity that can be used in the house or sold back to the power company.

However, a solar array on a rooftop in New England will generate a different amount of electricity than an identical one in Florida or California because of a factor known as the solar resource, or how much sun is available every day to a PV panel oriented due south. To find the solar resource in your area, check the solar maps produced by the National Renewable Energy Lab. Knowing the solar resource in your area and the amount of power you want to generate, you’ll be able to get a sense of what size system you need.

For example, the average annual electricity consumption of a U.S. residential customer was 10,908 kilowatthours (kWh) in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. To generate that 10.9 kWh of electricity, a house in southern New England would need a system roughly 7 kW to 10.5 kW at a cost of approximately $26,000 to $39,000 (or $0, see below). Many solar cost estimators, such as Solar-Estimate are available online to help you get a sense of what your particular solar costs might be; an estimate by a reputable solar installation company is an even better way to find out your costs and electricity production capability.

Money Talks

New financing and leasing options have made it possible to go solar with literally $0 down. For example, the southern New England home in the example above would be eligible for financial incentives that would reduce a $33,000 system’s upfront cost down to approximately $12,000-$16,000 — or $0.

“Most customers come to us because they want to reduce their electricity bill,” says Eric Martin, sales manager of Newport Solar, in North Kingstown, R.I. “How much a solar installation can reduce a power bill has a lot to do with state policy.” In Rhode Island, the $33,000 system can be reduced by a combination of a statewide solar grant, a statewide renewable energy program that pays the homeowner for generating electricity, a statewide renewable energy tax credit, and the federal tax credit, which is 30% of the net cost at installation, to bring the upfront cost to $12,000-$16,000 and the utility bill savings to nearly $70,000 over the 25-year lifespan of the system. Leasing and financing options could further bring the upfront cost down to $0, and the savings on the power bill each month would more than cover the financing, so the homeowner comes out ahead.

To check the incentives available in your area, a good place to start is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

In many states, there are two different incentive paths — net metering or feed-in tariff — that a homeowner today can take, and each way yields a different return on investment. With net metering, the solar panels are offsetting the kilowatt use of the home on which they are installed and the state will pay full retail value per watt to the homeowner; the system works using one meter that can count up and down as electricity is produced or consumed. With a feed-in tariff program (instead of net metering), the homeowner has a second meter on the house that measures the outflow of electricity from a home independently of how much the home is using; this allows the electricity consumption and electricity generation to be priced separately — a portion of the production value is used to pay the homeowner’s own power bill and the excess value is distributed to the homeowner by check.

The Latest Products in Solar Power

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Solar Cookers and Grills

When the mercury climbs and the sweat is never-ending, we’ve all heard someone remark that it’s “hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” But with solar cookers, you don't need a scorching hot summer day to harness the sun to cook your food. You don’t even need summer … or above-freezing temperatures. You just need the sun’s rays and the right equipment. In as few as 20 minutes, solar grills like the GoSun Sport (pictured) will reach temperatures of 550°F / 290°C, cooking your meal through the power of the sun.

Photo By: GoSun

Inflatable Solar Emergency Lantern

Solar lights were some of the first photovoltaic-paneled products to go mainstream, so salute those small stake-lights that still stoically line garden paths all around the country. But that’s not all solar illumination can do. Inflatable solar lanterns offer an entirely different type of lighting and more versatility for the user. From functioning as lovely floating pool lights for evening swims to roughing it with campers who need some evening illumination to doing serious humanitarian duty and offering clean lighting sources where they’re desperately needed, inflatable solar lights are shining near and far. 

Photo By: Wayfair

Solar Garden and Patio Fountains

The relaxing streaming sound of water from a bubbling garden fountain is a joy to many outdoor-decor-minded homeowners; finding unobtrusive ways to power that fountain, however, can be a kink in the stress-free stream. A solar-powered fountain can go anywhere in the yard or patio, though (as long as there’s a conduit to a sunshine source!) without worrying about tripping over cords or surge-protection proximity. Some solar fountains have separate panels that stake next to the water feature, while others, like the solar fountain pictured, have an integrated solar panel in the top bowl to maximize ray-catching and minimize aesthetic distractions.

Photo By: Fountains.com

Solar Stepping Stones

Think outside the plastic PV stake-light! Your garden path can step into a whole new realm of style with sun-soaked stepping stones. These solar pavers and tiles come in a variety of different designs to suit your needs, and you’ll be glowing with pride as your guests “ooh” and “ahh” at your remarkably fashionable solar-powered outdoor path.

Photo By: Wayfair

Glowing Garden Gnomes

Want a little solar whimsy in your garden? Try solar-powered glow-in-the-dark garden gnomes that double as daytime bird feeders. Your feathered friends get their nibble during the daylight hours while the gnome’s battery cell powers up, then at night, the bird-feeding figure decorates your outdoors with its (literally) glowing smile. And if gnomes aren’t your thing, you can find other sun-powered bird feeders to flock to, like this little lighthouse that, with its solar-powered evening light, really looks like a beacon in the night.

Photo By: Wayfair

Artistic Garden Light Fixtures

Ditch your extension cords and tired trip hazards, and say so long to doing the electric slide over puddles with shocking wiring in your hands. The sun may have set, but it’s not done illuminating your yard for the day when you use solar-powered LED string lights to replace traditional garden strands. And get creative with your glow: try color-changing solar spheres (pictured) as a quirky and colorful lighting option, hang “mercury glass” Mason jars equipped with solar cells to make your trees shimmer, or get down-to-earth with glow-in-the-dark solar-powered LED planters.

Solar-Powered Outdoor Audio Speakers

Whether you’re camping, hanging out at the pool or working in your garden, it’s nice to have the sound and security of a radio with you. What’s not nice is having to worry about its battery life. Solar-powered speakers take that concern away, and many, like the Eton Rugged Ruckus (pictured) can even act as a portable battery and allow you to charge small devices like mobile phones.

Photo By: Sam’s Club

Solar Generator

A solar generator isn’t going to give you the same power, right now at least, as the gas-guzzling behemoths. But it is going to keep going … and going … and going … even when there’s no more in the tank for its bigger fossil-fuel-eating brother. And it won’t expel deadly gasses like potentially fatal carbon monoxide, either. Solar generators can be used to power multiple hand-held devices, a mini-fridge and other small but survival-necessary items. So for those who require powered devices to breathe or refrigerated medications, a solar generator could be the difference between life and death during an extended outage. 

Photo By: Goal Zero

Solar-Powered Security Lights

Power up your motion-sensing security lights with solar energy and you’ll never find them dark in a power outage. With a 16-array of daylight LEDs, security lights like the Maxsa Bright from Silicon Solar will fill even large-coverage areas like driveways and yards with solar-powered illumination.

Photo By: Real Goods

Solar-Powered Attic Fans

Your attic space is one of the hottest areas in your home, and your roof takes the brunt of the sun’s rays. Add those two factors together and suddenly it’s clear why a solar-powered attic fan makes sense for a lot of homeowners. Attic heat barriers and insulation are critical parts of energy efficient homes, but solar attic fans can further lower temperatures in your attic space, taking a load off your AC … and as a result, your pocketbook. 

Photo By: Amazon

Solar-Powered Pool Heaters

For in-ground pools, solar-powered pool heaters are panels installed on the roof similar to solar panels. Water moves through small tubes in the panels and is constantly heated and redirected to the pool, and cool water is recirculated through the panel, keeping the pool warm via the solar array.

Solar-Powered Water Heaters

The two main types of solar water heater systems, active (which has pumps and controls) and passive (which doesn’t), both include the same basic parts, such as storage tanks and solar collectors. While active systems are somewhat pricier, they also allow for more flexibility in design, like hiding the storage tank. Because solar-powered water heaters have a variety of options and details, such as water needs, geography and aesthetic concerns, it’s best to research and then discuss your interest with a contractor experienced in installation and maintaining solar water heater systems.

Roof-Mounted Photovoltaic Panels

Roof-mounted solar panels are nothing new, but if you think your options are relegated to the same chunks of black photovoltaic cells from 20 years ago, here’s news to brighten your day: solar panels have come a long way, baby. Not only are the current thinner-profile residential solar panels less of an eyesore, they’re also much more efficient at soaking up the sun’s rays and converting them into energy, which means you’ll need fewer of them to meet your home’s energy needs. 

Solar Shingles

If you still can’t see yourself as a solar panel person, but you live in a sun-drenched climate and love the idea of lowering your energy bills with solar technology, things are looking up for you. Literally: up on the roof! No, not PV panels, but photovoltaic shingles. That’s right: Solar shingles that double as energy-savers and roofing material could be the next big thing in rooftop solar savings. This low-profile, high-tech roofing option can typically handle between 30-60% of the energy consumption of the home it’s installed on.

“We have found that net metering can be good for the person purchasing a PV system with their own money and that the tariff programs are particularly good for a person who is financing because they are using the money they are generating to service the loan,” says Martin. “Either way, financing options allow solar to appeal to a broader audience.”

Better Aesthetics, Too

On top of the actual cash-flow benefit that can be derived from converting a home to solar power, there is also a real estate benefit. The new, sleek PV arrays are attractive enough and the environmental and financial considerations are appealing enough that a PV array on a house is actually increasing the house’s value, according to a recent study in California by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The study found that each 1-kilowatt (kW) increase in rooftop solar system size adds $5,911 to a home’s resale value.

With reduced environmental impact and increased cash in the pocket, it’s not so much a matter of ‘can you afford solar power’ as ‘can you afford NOT to have solar power?’ Let the sun shine.

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