Solar Power Your Home

Oct 20, 2010

How easy is it to solar power your home? Scott Carr from Standard Solar takes your questions.

I have been researching for many months solar power options. My question is with so many options and so many price points, how does the consumer make an educated choice as to the BEST state of the art system at a reasonable cost?

Technology is not changing that rapidly. The best advice would be to choose a system based on a feasible payback period based on all available incentives and savings. Choosing an installer that you trust and can profressionally advise you on these issues is more important than the particular solar panel.  

What are SRECs, how much are they worth, and who should I sell them to?

Great question. SRECs stands for "Solar Renewable Energy Credits". When a consumer chooses to put in a solar electric system, they become a small power generator. Since the power they generate is from a renewable source, they receive credits that can be sold to utility companies to satisfy certain requirements. Values of SRECs range from state to state. In Maryland for example, they are worth approximately $300 each and the average system can generate 3-7 credits which can be sold annually. The sale of SRECs should be considered in a financial analysis when determining payback. Your solar installer should be able to help guide you through the financial analysis and assist you with the sale of SRECs.

My house is partially shaded. Can I still benefit from solar?

It depends...the degree of shading can be determined through a detailed shade analysis conducted on site. A solar evaluation is one the first steps to going solar. Most installers will do this free of charge. I would recommend when approaching installation companies that you should ask specifically how they conduct the initial site visit including shade analysis. Just because your house is partially shaded does not mean that you cannot go solar but it should be taken into consideration in the design.  

How much would it cost to solar power a 3200 sq ft home?

Chances are you will not be able to offset all of your power consumption through solar. It depends on the area that you have available on your roof (or other place on your property) and your overall power consumption. The average cost of a system is about $30,000 but you could receive back up to half of that amount through available incentives depending on where you live.

This is such a timely topic! By the time I'm ready to replace my current roof, which should be in the next 5-10 years, I am assuming that solar technology will improve and be more cost-effective, plus designers and installers more experienced. Is there a "best" roofing material to use with roof-mounted solar panels? In case it matters, I have a single story, pitched roof home in Maryland with great southern and western exposure.

You might be surprised. PV technology is already well developed and there are many installers who are very experienced. For example, Standard Solar has installed 650 PV systems in the Washington Metro Area. There is no distinct advantage to waiting. Keep in mind incentives that are available may not be available in the future.

When picking a roof material it is important to remember a PV system lasts at least 30 years so whatever material you pick should last that length of time.

I have been researching the availability of solar roof shingles which utilize a photovoltaic film, but haven't had much luck finding a source for it or the cost associated with it. When will it become more readily available and is it feasible to use solar roof shingles as a significant offset to the power company in the Southeast?

Solar roof shingles or other types of building integrated PV have been very slow to come to market. Typically, the ones that have are less efficient and significantly more expensive than traditional PV panels. Because of higher cost and lower efficiency, the payback is greatly extended making them less attractive from an investment standpoint. That is why the use of traditional solar panels is more widespread.

I have been told that the best time to install solar power is during the home building stage. Also that it would be the ideal time to purchase such items. Is this true?

Yes, absolutely. As an installer, we do like to work on new construction. However, installing on an existing home can be just as easy. The cost of installing solar often can be included in construction financing.

Are there safety concerns related to having panels on my roof?

In a properly installed system there should be no safety concerns. That is why it is important to choose an installer who has a good reputation and experience. One way to evaluate potential installers is to find out how many of their staff members are certified by NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners).

How much does a system cost?

It depends greatly on what size system meets your needs. The average cost of a system is $30,000 but much of that can come back to you in available incentives. Currently, the federal government offers 30% of a system's cost returned to you in the first year through a tax credit. Depending on where you live, there may be other incentives available to reduce the upfront cost and return on investment can be as few as five years. A good installer can walk you through this and can tell you what is available for your particular location.

PV panels are expensive. But we hear that thin film transistor technology based panels are in the market, and cost only around a dollar. What are your plans for offering them to residential customers?

We have installed thin film technology in certain commercial applications. While thin film is less expensive, it also produces less electricity. It requires a much greater area of space to produce the same amount of power that can be achieved with traditional panels. This is why it is not often the first choice in residential applications. Consideration of the overall investment should include the amount of electricity generated by the system as well as the upfront costs.

I am considering solar. What are the top things I should ask when picking a company?

Installation quality is number one due to the length of the investment. Choosing a solar installer that will be around to service and maintain through the length of the warranty which could be from 10-25 years is another key consideration. Be sure to check references especially ones that are in your neighborhood. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

With your experience, which do you advise? Do you think a panel on the ground in say a back or side yard that can change angle is more productive than say a panel on a roof that is basically fixed at a specific angle though out the seasons? Thank you.

A solar array (a group of panels) on the ground that actually tracks the sun can add substantial cost but will produce energy longer throughout the day. You need to weigh the upfront costs versus traditional roof of fixed ground mount systems. There are also some ground mounted systems that can be tilted seasonally to best capture the sun and these are typically more cost-effective.

How secure is the return on a solar investment, and how does the sale of solar RECs affect the payback period?

There are several options to choose from. Upfront SREC purchases are secure however they are significantly less valued in the long run and often front-loaded so they are more attractive to the broker that is purchasing them. The spot market has high returns in the forseeable future. Long term contracts are guaranteed and are usually the best value, balancing risk versus reward. We offer all three options. 

Hi Scott, What can be done about getting PACE (Property Assesed Clean Energy) financing back on track? This is where you finance a renewable energy system, or efficiency upgrade through the county and pay it back over time in your property taxes. I was getting ready to finance a pv system this way this year in Montgomery County, but then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac effectively blocked PACE financing nationwide. Whats really sad about it is that PACE could be an effective way to get people employed doing installation work.

We, too, had high hopes for PACE financing and we're active with the development of the program in Montgomery county.  We continue to push for legislative action that will promote PACE and other types of programs that will increase availablity of renewable energy to the average citizen. I urge everyone to do the same.

Don't forget to check if solar panels are allowed. How resistant are solar panels to ice, hail, and wind damage? Will my homeowners policy cover any damage or do I need a rider?

We would work along with your HOA. Maryland, in particular, has solar access law prohibiting an HOA from not allowing the installation of a solar system. The panels are hail tested for up to 1 inch hail at hurricane force winds. You should consult with your insurance agent regarding coverage.

Do Community Asthetics Review boards typically always allow solar improvements?

Check with your Homeowner's Association. We would be happy to assist in the process. We have assisted HOA's and architectual review boards to revise the guidelines to allow for solar balancing aesthetic concerns. In Maryland, there is a solar access law which prevents HOA's from blocking solar installations.

It seems like there are a ton of new solar companies out there. Aside from price, what is the difference and how do I pick an installer?

When selecting an installer you should consider the following issues: How long have they been around?  How many installations have they done? Do they follow the highest safety standards? Will they be around for the lifetime of your system to honor the warranty? Will they help you with the entire process from the design, permitting, installation, and the required incentive paperwork that needs to be filed?

I once read that solar energy would only become financially viable when the cost of solar panels dropped drastically in price. Are there signs of a breakthrough in technology, design or manufacturing that would indicate such a price drop?

No, the technology is very stable. There are no major technological advances anticipated other than small efficiency gains. Sometimes people forget that traditional solar panels have been in existence and development for 40 years. Solar energy is financially viable today with the right planning and solar installer to see you through the process. Available incentives have been developed to reduce the upfront costs making it more accessible, but those incentives are designed to diminish over time.

What about the new solar panels that put out alternating current without the need for a bank of batteries and an inverter. How efficient are they? When is the break even point? Are they a good bet for a mid-Atlantic region area like DC?

To dispell one of the myths, battery banks are not a requirement. Systems today are designed to work in conjunction with the grid power that you receive into your home. A solar PV system augments the power that you are using from the grid. Inverters are still necessary with this grid tied system to convert electricity. AC (alternating current) panels still use an inverter but they are integrated into each panel. These will be more common in the near future. Microinverters are available today, they are current being installed throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and really achieve the same results.

Break even is determined by available incentives in your area but can be as little as 4 years, depending on your system size and local incentives.

 

I suspect that most homeowners wouldn't be able to afford a system that covered all their electricity needs, but only a portion. In this part of the country, based on the amount of sunshine and the electricity costs, what sorts of returns on investment can be expected?

Several factors go into an ROI (return on investment) analysis. Net cost (after incentives) divided by savings on electricity and SREC value are the driving factors. Where you live determines available incentives and SREC value. If you are interested, you should contact an installer to get quote and investment review. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Scott, I think the biggest issue that still needs to be addressed is the price barrier to entry. I mean, a $30,000 system after application of rebates and such (which to me just means I am depositing the check in my bank account then just turning around and writing you guys a check) is still going to be about $15,000 or so that needs to be financed in some way shape or form. I would know about this since one of your guys quoted me about that, a couple years ago, before the incentives changed. Personally, what do you think it would take to further lessen that pain? Increased incentives? More panels built in the US than Asia?

Barrier to entry is a big concern. We currently offer several financing options and are always looking for new ways to improve our customers' solar process.

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Scott Carr
Scott Carr is the Vice President of Residential Business at Standard Solar and Standard Energy Solutions.
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