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Solar Power Options and Ideas

September 09, 2022

We’re all familiar with solar panels used to generate power, but there are other solar technologies that can help your home save big on energy costs.

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Photo: Shutterstock

The Latest Solar Technology

Solar is having its moment. Material and production costs are down, technology efficiencies are up and the labs are busy developing new products to dazzle us in the marketplace. Good-quality solar appliances are often pricey, but they also come with fantastic warranties — some of the best in the appliance world — and pay for themselves with utility bill savings because they work for free (or close to it). Generous solar incentives like the federal income tax credit (a whopping 30% from 2022 through 2032) are reducing upfront pricing on many solar products even more. With the cost of electricity on the rise, it’s the perfect time to consider how to incorporate solar into your household.

Photovoltaic (PV) power generation gets most of the attention, but it isn’t the only way to use the sun or plug into its savings. Instead of creating electricity, other solar technologies focus on reducing the need for it by using the sun to heat our air, heat our water and light our spaces. After all, the less electricity we use, the less we need to buy or make ourselves. Let’s look at several of the stars of solar savings.

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Photo: SolarCity

Solar Panels

The average American household uses nearly 11,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a year — paying thousands for it — yet many homes are capable of generating that same amount of power for free. The most bang for your buck in solar power generation comes from a photovoltaic (PV) panel installation. On the market now are primarily three types of panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film. They vary in material composition, efficiency, appearance and cost but all operate the same: The PV cells contain silicon or other semiconductive material inside that gets really excited in the presence of light and throws off electrons in response, creating an electric current. Not every home is a candidate for at-home solar power generation — forest folk need not apply. But if you have enough solar resource — aka sunlight hitting your property — slap some panels on the roof or in the yard and get your utility to start paying you for power.

Cost: Before incentives, the average solar panel installation costs $2.77 per watt (W) in 2022, according to EnergySage, a solar comparison marketplace supported by the Department of Energy. That would make an 8 kilowatt (kW) system about $22,000, or $15,500 after the 30% tax credit from the feds.

Install: Find a local contractor on EnergySage.

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Photo: CertainTeed

Integrated Solar Shingles

Solar panels aren’t the only rooftop solar game in town anymore. Say hello to the integrated solar shingle. Sized like conventional roofing materials, solar shingles use the same cells found in some panel modules but the shingles are deck-mounted — meaning they lie side-by-side with your normal roofing, instead of on a rack that sits on top of the roof. Solar shingles may have lower efficiencies than panels and arrive at a higher price. The tradeoff is improved aesthetics with a sleeker appearance, which many people are willing to pay for. There are a few companies creating solar shingles now, including roofing manufacturer CertainTeed. The company makes two different models designed to blend nicely with conventional roofing shingles and tiles.

Cost: Integrated solar shingles and tiles are often more expensive than a panel system at around $4.90/W and up, but the cost varies by manufacturer (EnergySage).

Install: Hire a pro through the shingle manufacturer's installer network.

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Photo: GAF Energy

A Roof, Plus Solar

The best candidates for solar roofing products are households with roofs ready for replacement. At this point, a shingle installation could be competitive against a panel system, where you’d have the added cost of the conventional roof underneath. But for most shingle systems, that still means hiring a solar contractor for the shingles and a roofing contractor for the traditional roof. GAF Energy, in partnership with established roofing manufacturer GAF, combines the two under a single warranty and a single job, called the Timberline Solar roofing system. A GAF-certified contractor installs the whole shebang — conventional and solar — theoretically reducing costs and the headache of juggling multiple overhead projects. The system is based around the company’s flexible solar shingle that’s installed with the same nail gun as conventional shingles. Ultimately customizable, the solar portion could be only 25% or as much as 85% of the roof. And the flexible design discovers solar opportunities in situations that bulkier panels may find inhospitable. The company markets Timberline Solar as a roof, with solar added­, emphasizing that its simplified process incentivizes solar adopters of all sizes — even the wee ones who have traditionally been excluded from the clean-energy club.

Cost: Martin DeBono, President of GAF Energy, in an interview with The Washington Post, estimated that he could have installed a Timberline Solar roof on his Northern California home for about $30,000 after incentives. That’s $14,000 less than his traditional roof plus solar panels ($44,000).

Install: Currently installing across the country, see if there’s a GAF-certified Timberline Solar roofing contractor near you.

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