Is solar power right for you?
Seven key issues to consider before installing home solar power
According to the US Department of Energy, there is enough solar energy striking the earth each day to power all the world’s total energy needs. Generating your own electricity by harnessing the sun’s energy is an exciting idea. It seems fairly easy to do, is affordable, there is plenty of free fuel, and it helps the environment, right?
Indeed, all this is good news, but as a skeptic, I have to ask, “Are solar powered systems actually living up to the expectations?” Or, are they simply a popular fad for the time? Will solar power generation eventually become as commonplace and as important in our homes as other typical household appliances or fresh water and sewer systems? Is it true that solar systems greatly reduce or eliminate electric bills from your local utility? How much do they help the environment?
Although the debate continues between solar power critics and supporters on how to answer these questions, there are now over 40 members within Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative’s (OTEC) service territory using solar generation energy systems. Albeit, the growth has occurred slowly over a 15-year period, but members’ interest in the subject seems to be ramping up, most likely because the cost of solar power technology has come down, there are federal tax incentives available through 2017 to make installation more affordable, and the big one…increased public awareness of climate change coupled with a strong desire to avoid using carbon-based fuels to heat and light our homes.
Regardless of the reason you are interested in a solar power, there are at least seven important things to consider before deciding to invest in a system.
Before you make a decision to purchase a system, answer the following questions.
- Is my roof large or strong enough to hold solar panels? Will my roof need to be replaced to accommodate solar panels?
- Does the sun have unobstructed access to my roof?
- Will zoning or neighborhood covenants allow it?
- Are there enough sunny days to make it worthwhile?
Note: A “no” answer to any of these may significantly increase the cost or risk of failure.
- Consider not only the cost of the equipment and installation, but also any permits, extra homeowner’s insurance costs or other legal issues that must be addressed and included.
- Do not forget to include the added costs of ongoing maintenance and warranties.
- Check with OTEC to determine the cost of a net metering connection, the rates currently available to purchase electric service and the rate OTEC will buy back excess power that may be generated. All these factors are important to your payback calculations.
- What is the maximum payback period you can tolerate?
- If the payback is longer than the expected life of the equipment, you must include replacement costs in your financial projections. The average cost of a home solar system is from $5,000 to $10,000 and goes up from there. Many solar systems today last 20-25 years; however, depending on the total installation and operating costs, some members may never realize a payback or savings in their lifetime.
- No system, including OTEC’s can offer 100 percent reliable service, 24 hours, 7 days a week. Most likely, if reliability is important, you will want to remain connected to OTEC’s system because the sun does not shine every day, nor at night. All OTEC’s solar members are presently connected to the grid, ensuring power is there on cloudy days or when their system is not generating enough electricity to meet their needs. This is important to configuring your equipment requirements as well as the total cost of your system.
- Battery storage back up is becoming a popular addition to solar systems but the technology is still very new and expensive.
- What equipment and installation warranties are offered when something breaks or does not work? And, how fast can repairs be made? Will you have to pay extra for this service? Warranties may add to the cost and change the payback period.
- The best advice is to seek information from others. Talk to people who have a solar generation system to get their input on how things actually work. Discuss the true costs, and the amount of ongoing effort and money it takes to maintain their system.
- Ask for and investigate contractor references. Ensure the contractors you are considering have current licenses and are credentialed or certified. Ask how many installations a contractor has performed because experience is often the key to minimizing problems.
- Do some shopping and get cost comparisons from multiple contractors.
- Be sure to inquire if training for operating and maintaining the system are included.
- Remember optimal performance of any solar generation system is predicated on the right placement, correct roof mounting, and sizing of panels.
- The amount of energy you need determines the size of the system. This requires an analysis of your present electric load. What do you want your solar system to power, for example, a 50 gallon water heater, A/C system, electric range, refrigerator, washer and dryer, etc.?
- Generally a system rated between 1 and 5 kilowatts is adequate to meet your home’s needs. However, be sure to consider future changes such as an addition to the home, adding a hot tub, or some other change that will require increasing electric capacity requirements.
- Size affects the overall cost, reliability, and can impact roof structure, so choose wisely.
- Orientation and tilt of roof panels is also critical to ongoing performance.
- Knowing as much as possible about maintenance and upkeep is critical to your decision making process before buying a solar system.
- How much work and who will do the maintenance and upkeep? Solar panels must be keep free of dirt and leaves, etc. in order to have the maximum absorption.
- Panels should be checked for cracks and scratches and professionally cleaned once a year.
- Is someone available locally who can service my system, or will they have to travel (and how far), and what are the rates?
- There are many solar equipment companies offering a myriad of ways for you to pay nothing or very little upfront to have solar power. These include renting or leasing options, and some incorporate equipment maintenance. However, all too often these deals require additional long-term contracts, commitments and can add costs, all of which should be carefully considered and compared against outright ownership of a system.
- Typically, an agreement with the third-party owner contains monthly fees for the use of the equipment and a charge for each solar kilowatt hour used in the home at a rate slightly less than what would have been realized if the system was owned by the homeowner. Depending on the total costs of installing and maintaining a system, OTEC’s rates may be less than generating electricity from solar power.
- Usually any state or federal tax incentives available cannot be claimed by the homeowner, and the proceeds from selling excess electricity generated by the system and purchased by OTEC belong to the third-party, not the homeowner. Remember third-party contract fees are in addition to what you will pay to OTEC for power when the sun does not shine.
- Nevertheless, many of the third-party agreements include maintenance and upkeep of the system relieving the homeowner of this burden.
Without question, solar power is fast becoming a viable earth-friendly energy solution. People with enough sunlight, money, and space can today take advantage of the solar generation technology to meet all or part of the electric needs.
However, there is a lot to think about before making a decision to lease or own and operate your own solar generation system. There are costs that may not be obvious. It is far better to take extra time to know and understand your household’s unique energy needs and how these are best satisfied rather than making a hasty and sometimes costly wrong decision. Talk to those with existing solar systems, and ask if they had to make the decision over again, what would they do differently? Being thorough during the research stage will give you greater confidence in your choices. Be careful to avoid high pressure sales tactics because a purchase of this magnitude is a major investment and requires a long-term commitment. More than ever before, you will want to know as much as possible about the science of solar and electric energy, how it is produced, and converted to useful energy and how it is used in the home.
Finally, it may be best to begin your solar power journey by looking first for ways to conserve energy in your home. Upgrading old inefficient heating/cooling systems, replacing leaky windows/doors, increasing or upgrading insulation, updating major appliances and changing out incandescent light bulbs for more efficient LEDs are all ways to reduce your electric usage and your electric bill today and may reduce the size of a solar system you ultimately will need.
Don’t forget to call us if you have questions. After all, as a member-owned not-for-profit electric cooperative we are your very own local energy experts who have your best interest at heart.
- 10 Tips For Buying Your Solar Power System. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2016, from Energy Matters: https://www.energymatters.com.au/
- So You Want to Go Solar? 3 Things to Consider When Installing Solar Power at Home. (2014, October 3). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Energy: http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/so-you-want-go-solar-3-things-con...