Catalyst Fall 2015

[IDEAS IN ACTION]

How Do I Go Solar?

Solar panel installation

by John Rogers

With prices for household solar photovoltaic (PV) systems falling by almost 45 percent from 2010 to 2014, electricity from a rooftop system might now cost about the same as what you get from your utility. For those considering “going solar,” here are some pointers to help you through the process.

Choose a Financing Option

A key choice to make is deciding who will own the solar panels—you or the solar company (or a bank). There are a range of options:

  • Leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs). Under these types of arrangements, allowed in almost all states, home owners pay little or nothing up front, then pay a monthly fee or a pre-set rate for the solar-generated electricity.
  • System loans. Various public and private entities ranging from credit unions to government agencies provide or support loans for home owners buying PV systems.
  • Cash or self-financing. Cash purchases aren’t an option for everyone, but if a home equity line of credit is available, it may have lower interest rates and tax benefits than other options.

Take Advantage of Incentives

A federal tax credit for investments in clean energy can give you back 30 percent of the purchase price. Some states also have rebates or requirements for utilities to offer PV system owners a chance for additional savings or revenue. And local utilities may have their own rebates too. All told, credits and rebates can cut the cost by half or more.

Evaluate Your Site

A key step in the design process for a rooftop solar system is to figure out not just what you can afford, but also what your roof can generate. Online tools can help determine the amount of sun that reaches a region, or even a specific roof. Other factors such as a roof’s slope, age, and the material from which it is made also contribute to whether your home is solar-ready.

But rooftop solar is not limited to those with sun-drenched roofs: renters, condominium owners, and people with shaded roofs who cannot take advantage of solar on their own roofs can benefit from “shared solar” solutions. For example, some states allow a household to buy a piece of a larger solar system placed elsewhere, and to take advantage of that solar generation to offset the home’s electricity use.

Find a Solar Company

Whether you find a system provider via the Internet or word of mouth, sharing a few key pieces of information with them will help speed the process:

  • Where you live. Companies can do a rough estimate of the solar energy potential in your locale even before they visit.
  • What you are looking for. Help set the proper level of expectations by thinking about how much of your electricity you are hoping to get from solar.
  • How much electricity you use. Copies of your recent electricity bill will give a solar company an idea of your typical consumption and usage patterns.

After this initial contact, interested companies will likely carry out a site visit, taking detailed solar energy readings and assessing the condition of your home’s roof and electric panel to figure out what is possible, and provide you with quotes.

From there, you’re on your way to powering your home with a clean, renewable source of electricity.

John Rogers is a senior analyst in the UCS Climate and Energy Program. Read more from John on our blog, The Equation.

Cost of installing solar panels