The cost of electricity is increasing at a rate of 5 to 10 percent every year with no end in sight. A solar panel system captures the (free!) sun and turns it into usable electricity for your home.
How do solar panels work?
Solar panels collect energy through photovoltaic (PV) cells. The cells are made of pure silicon and electrically linked into modules and arrays which are installed on your roof. Solar electric systems reduce the amount of electricity you need to purchase from your utility, advises Kathleen Troy Maier of Alteris Renewables Inc.
Installing solar panels is costly, cautions Rob Erlichman, founder of Sunlight Electric, but the payback over time is excellent. "Photovoltaics qualify for a 30 percent Federal tax credit, and some states have considerable additional subsidies to encourage installation of solar panels. In states with subsidies, the payback is about 10 years, less for very high energy users." Energy used after that payback is free!
"Solar projects can be started with little or no out-of-pocket investment," says Marc Adcock of The Entech Group. Most residential solar systems cost between $20,000 and $60,000, but few are paid for outright. A number of financing options are available, including unsecured loans, home equity loans, solar leases and PPAs (Power Purchase Agreements).
In addition to materials and labor, there are paperwork costs, says Vincent Battaglia of Renova Energy Corp. Solar company engineers and administrators work with you and your utility and/or municipality to ensure that you're receiving the best return on your investment. Companies such as Academy Solar and SunRunwork very closely with customers to maximize tax and cost benefits, as well as state and federal incentives. This process helps you reach a firm, final price on the true cost of installing a solar energy system.
An installed solar system can earn money through Renewal Energy Credit revenue [the electric company pays you!] and avoid electric bills, which you can use for the monthly financing costs and even leave you with cash in your pocket. "The monthly finance payments are typically less than the utility bills they replace," says Erlichman.
"Quite simply," adds Adcock, "the solar project is a self-funding investment."
Where you live has a lot do with it. "Depending on which state you live in, money may be available through rebates based on the size of your system," says Adcock. "Some states have an REC program that requires the utility companies to purchase Renewal Energy Credits from solar system owners."
The shape of your house matters, too, continues Adcock. "The direction or orientation of your roof, along with any trees or shading issues, can affect the overall effectiveness and efficiency of your solar system."
Financial: Reduce or eliminate your electricity bill, avoid unpredictable future rate increases, add resale value to your home (without increasing property taxes), and create a long-term revenue stream.
Environmental: Solar power is renewable and reduces your carbon footprint, lowers fossil fuel emissions and improves air quality.
Social: A solar-powered home effectively utilizes our natural resources, helps reduce the nation's dependence on foreign fuel and sets a positive example for your children, neighbors and community.
Bottom line, solar panels equip your home to produce electricity. "Look at it like owning rather than renting your electricity," suggests Erlichman. "Would you prefer to rent your electricity from utility companies or own your own power plant?"
An extremely green home
Tour a "zero energy" house
David Shepler from IBM Research gives us a tour of his Zero Net Energy House (crib), built by Anthony Aebi of Greenhill Contracting.