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How do solar farms work?

A solar farm with mountains in the background
A solar farm with mountains in the background (Credit: Soonthorn Wongsaita/Shutterstock)

By Mirela Niculae

A solar farm represents a medium- to large-scale photovoltaic system built to supply the grid with clean, renewable energy. The energy captured by the panels installed on the farm goes through an inverter and is sent into the local energy grid. In most cases, the local utility company is buying clean energy from the solar farm (or farms) in order to reduce an area’s carbon footprint.

Who can build a solar farm?

Many solar farms are privately owned. According to Aaron Halimi, the CEO and founder of Renewable Properties, a San Francisco-based company that develops solar farms, the ideal land for a solar farm is relatively flat and is close to the energy grid infrastructure. “In addition to site-specific characteristics, we’re looking for land that’s located in an area where there’s a known path to permitting for solar,” he added.

Energy produced by the solar farm is sent to the grid in order to be distributed wherever it is needed. “At the end of the day, the more solar we have on the grid, the better, so a balance of utility, residential, and commercial applications are the appropriate approach” Halimi said.

If they don’t want to run a solar farm themselves, landowners could lease part of their property to a solar developer. This option allows landowners to profit without having to worry about the upkeep of solar panels.

Aerial view of a solar farm
Landowners can lease their extra acreage to solar farm developers (Credit: JiriCastka/Shutterstock)

How solar farms benefit the local community

Even though the presence of a solar farm has no direct influence on their utility bills, residents of communities with solar farms benefit from a more powerful energy grid. “The electrons generated from the solar farm are consumed at the nearest point and the homes that are near the farm benefit and consume the electrons being produced by the solar farm” Halimi explained. “The grid is stronger with power generation so close to where the power is being consumed.”

Unlike producers of fossil fuels, solar farms are not a nuisance. They’re quiet, they don’t require much assistance from local municipal resources and they don’t pollute the air.

Solar energy solutions for homeowners and renters

Because solar panels need optimum sunlight to create energy, they can’t be installed just anywhere. You need the panels to have a specific angle, in an area with easy access to sunlight. Even more, renters and people who live in apartments may not be able to install solar systems of their own.

This is where solar communities come in place – these are similar to a solar farm, only that they get capital from individuals and other investors, not specialized companies or industrial investors. The energy also goes into the grid, but the investors benefit from reduced energy bills based on their percentage of investment and the amount of energy sold by the community.

To invest in a solar community, all you have to do is pay the price of one or more solar panels that are already installed on the land. Prices may vary from one supplier to another, but it should be around $200 per panel (however, the ability to invest in a solar community depends on whether or not there are opportunities where you live).

This is a long-term investment, as the panels you buy now will generate power for about 15 to 20 years. For instance, one panel usually produces about $5 worth of energy per month, so the more solar panels you buy or lease, the more you’ll save on your energy costs. Additionally, investors in solar communities could qualify for  federal a tax credit.

Finally, if you install your own panels on the roof or somewhere on the property, you are responsible for maintenance and energy storage. If you invest in a solar community, those responsibilities are left to the farm owner or administrator.

Close-up of solar panels on a solar farm
If purchasing their own solar system isn’t an option, homeowners can purchase individual panels on a solar farm (Credit: nrqemi/Shutterstock)

Are solar farms and solar communities a good solution?

Solar farms bring more clean energy into the grid and provide better use for land that may not be so suitable for farming, allowing landowners to make the most of every acre. They’re also a fantastic way to harvest energy without polluting the environment.

Meanwhile, solar communities are an excellent solution for homeowners and renters who do not have space or the budget to install solar systems of their own. You will save money on installation costs, and you will ultimately save money on your energy bill while helping to reduce your carbon footprint.

5 Solar Panel Brands that Give You the Most Bang for Your Buck

Solar panels on a house at sunset
These five solar panel brands offer a great value for their price (Credit: vchal/Shutterstock)

By Mandy Ellis

Deciding solar energy is the right choice for your home also means picking the correct panel type. Because meeting your home’s energy needs plus getting the best value and production are critical components, this list of companies and models below offers the chance to save money over the long-term. These five brands offer the best bang for your buck through warranty, panel quality, cost, lifespan and efficiency.

Panasonic

“Everybody except Panasonic jumped by 30 percent [in cost] with the new tariff,” said Haim Vagas, CEO of ArtGreen Construction in Los Angeles, “Panasonic kept the same price and absorbed the tax. Besides being good panels, now with the 30 percent tax increase, Panasonic is closer [in cost] to the cheap panels.” With higher-end silicon wafers and better cell structure, Vagas says Panasonic panels provide more energy at lower costs, and homeowners should consider investing in the VBHB330SA16 model.

Panasonic provides a 25-year warranty on performance, parts, labor and placement, and they are a bit more expensive (about $300 to $350 per panel or 90 to 95 cents per watt), but their long-term value is one of the best on the market. Additionally, as Panasonic has multiple business streams, even if the solar division ends, the warranties will still be honored under the company’s umbrella.

“It’s also that the panel won’t lose more than 11 percent production over 25 years so they guarantee about 90 percent production over 25 years, with about 20 percent efficiency,” said Vagas, “When you buy solar, you want to invest in a system that performs year after year. If you buy something cheap with poor performance, maybe you saved some money on the purchase price, but you’ll pay for it down the road.”

Solar panels on a red roof on a sunny day
When evaluating the cost of solar panels, consider warranty, panel quality, lifespan and efficiency (Credit: U.J. Alexander/Shutterstock)

LG

Although LG is on the higher-end of budget-friendliness (about $300 per panel or 90 to 95 cents per watt), they offer excellent value through their built-to-last design. These panels also include 25-year performance, 12-year product and 10-year workmanship warranties. Because LG has businesses outside of solar, like in computers, cell phones, and TVs, David Yoo, founder and CEO of Pingo Solar in Buena Park, Calif., says even if the solar panel business is extinguished, the large parent company will still honor the warranties.

Like Panasonic, LG solar panels are guaranteed about 90 percent production over 25 years, and according to experts, homeowners should consider the LG NeON R models of LG350Q1C-A5 and LG365Q1C-A5.

Hanwha Q CELLS

In terms of value, Hanwha Q Cells offer excellent return, and as a business with multiple revenue producers that’s been around for 100 years, Yoo says they’ll be able to honor the 12-year product warranty. Panels are less expensive at $180 to $200 per panel, utilize high-quality materials and their up to 20 percent efficiency provide buyers good value on dollars spent. Solar experts say to review the Q.Peak DUO-G5 series.

Hyundai

“If you look at the companies and rank them in term of budgetary consciousness, I’d rank Hyundai panels as great products at a low price, and one step down from Hanwha Q CELLS,” said Yoo. Hyundai’s longevity and aerospace, car and ship building businesses will support the 10-year product warranty, and their up to 18 percent efficiency at $180 to $200 per panel cost make these panels a good investment. Models within the Hyundai 300 Watt RG Series are top options including the multi-crystalline type (HiS-M250RG, HiS-M255RG, HiS-M260RG and HiS-M265RG) and the monocrystalline type (HiS-S275RG, HiS-S280RG, HiS-S285RG, HiS-S290RG, HiS-S295RG and HiS-S300RG).

Aerial view of solar panels in a residential neighborhood
More efficient and durable solar panels will offer a better value in the long run (Credit: Neil Mitchell/Shutterstock)

Solaria

“I like Solaria Power XT Series, as it’s a very good brand and line, and really is a good bang for the buck right now,” said Thomas Rendon, chief executive officer and managing partner of Victoria, Texas’ Sweetwater Energy Services. Solaria, a company that’s manufactured durable solar panels with affordable value for almost two decades, provides 10-year craftsmanship and 25-year production warranties, over three decades of lifespan and an efficiency rating of up to 20 percent.

Honorable Mention Brands and Models

  • SunPower E-Series
  • SolarWorld Sunmodule Plus Series
  • Peimar Full Black Line SG Series
  • Seraphim Solar SRP-6MA Series
  • SunSpark Technology SST Mono Series
  • Mission Solar MSE Perc Series

Should You Pay More for Better-Looking Solar Panels?

Close-up of black solar panels
Does it make sense to pay more for better-looking solar panels? (Credit: kosy-photography/Shutterstock)

By Mandy Ellis

When homeowners consider investing in solar energy, they may arrive at an unexpected question: Should I pay more for better-looking solar panels? Before buying a solar system, review panel aesthetics, how panel cosmetics affect curb appeal and home value, and if upgrading to premium panels provides good return on investment.

What do more attractive solar panels look like?

“Solar adds value to a property, curb appeal should be considered, and over the last five years, there’s been tons of progress with solar system design aesthetics,” said Robert Sarai, business development manager at LA Solar Group in Los Angeles, Calif., “Panels typically aren’t bulky or silver and blue anymore; they’re sleeker, black-on-black, low-profile and thinner.”

Polycrystalline panels, the older design, usually have bluish hued solar cells with a silver frame, while modern monocrystalline panels come in black-on-black styles (black panels, frame, railing). You have two options to choose from: black solar cells with a white or silver backsheet that shows a light-colored diamond pattern or the top design, black solar cells with a black backsheet that shows thin white lines.

There are also the Tesla solar panels, which come in black-on-black, low-profile traditional panels and roof tiles in finishes such as textured, smooth, tuscan and slate. Compared to others, the large-scale panels are some of the most attractive black-on-black varieties, and the roof tiles are not only sharp and sophisticated, but look natural and fit in as well as a traditional roof. However, according to solar experts, the jury’s still out on whether they’re truly more efficient than other panel types.

 

A house with black-on-black solar panels
Although they are more expensive, black-on-black solar panels are more efficient and attractive than blue-on-silver panels (Credit: ingehogenbijl/Shutterstock)

Comparing the styles, the black-on-black monocrystalline are slightly more expensive than silver and blue, and when installed on your roof, they may look more like a skylight, says David Yoo, founder and CEO of Pingo Solar in Buena Park, Calif.

“When you have a white backsheet with black solar cells, it acts as a reflective surface and sunlight can hit the solar cell twice creating better efficiency,” he said, “However, with a black backsheet behind black solar cells, the black coloring absorbs light so even though it’s more expensive, it’s less efficient and differences [in looks] are only noticeable if you stand a foot away.”

Performance difference between products is minimal, but costs can be tremendous where black-on-black models may be 15 to 20 percent more expensive than blue-on-silver, says Haim Vagas, CEO of ArtGreen Construction in Los Angeles, Calif.

Effects of solar panel design on curb appeal and home value

Contemporary black-on-black monocrystalline panels look sleeker and blend into roofs more easily than polycrystalline silver and blue panels to increase curb appeal, which may tend to stick out and look bulky. Also, if the panels must be installed on the street-side roof, although curb appeal can be affected, the blending ability of the black-on-black installation is a positive over silver and blue panels, which may be more noticeable.

“Over time people go with what the Joneses are doing and more people are seeing solar on roofs so homeowners see the solar system in general as a positive thing,” said Ruben Ugarte, senior director of business development at Horizon Solar Power in Temecula, Calif.

If two, virtually identical homes in a cookie-cutter neighborhood were for sale, and one had black-on-black solar panels and the other, silver and blue, there’s a good chance the black installation would sell first because of better curb appeal, explains Thomas Rendon, chief executive officer/managing partner of Victoria, Texas’ Sweetwater Energy Services.

For home value, Sarai says homes with solar have more demand because for buyers, it’s a turn-key system that’s already installed and working. In fact, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found homebuyers have consistently been willing to pay more, approximately $4 per watt or $15,000 dollars extra, for homes with seller-owned solar systems. Simply having a solar array installed, regardless of looks, increases home value.

Homes with black-on-black solar panels
A home with black-on-black panels will likely sell faster than a home with blue-on-silver panels (Credit: Pingo Solar, Inc.)

Are better-looking solar panels worth the investment?

Should you pay more for better-looking solar panels, and do these panels offer good return on investment? Solar experts are split.

“Those black panels are typically already premium panels that can produce more power and come from more reputable brands like SunPower, Panasonic and LG,” said Sarai, “But it depends on the household’s goals and objectives when it comes to going with solar energy.”

For Rendon, drawbacks are serious. “An all-black panel with a black backsheet typically is going to degrade quicker because it’ll absorb more heat over a black panel with a white or silver backsheet,” he explained, “The all-black panels are more attractive, but the black panels with white or silver backsheets will increase the panel’s lifespan.”

Vagas agrees that black panels look better on roofs; however, homeowners need to ensure every component installed is black because when aesthetics are important to you, getting the matching package helps make the system look as good as possible.

3 ways to go solar if you live in an apartment

Solar panels on the roof of a skyscraper
It is possible to switch to solar energy even if you live in an apartment (Credit: ssuaphotos/Shutterstock)

By Mirela Niculae

These days, it makes sense to switch to solar energy: The equipment is cheaper and more efficient than ever. However, if you live in an apartment, a lack of private roof space and building-wide electrical systems can make the conversion to solar much more complicated

But, despite all the difficulties, the clean energy revolution is in full development. For instance, at the end of 2017, 20 American cities had over 2 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaic capacity, with Los Angeles strongly in the lead. Considering this trend and the number of apartment communities larger cities, manufacturers have had to adapt. As a result, there are several great solutions for apartment-dwellers interested in switching to solar.

Below are three options you can try.

1: Solar panels on the roof

In this situation you will have to purchase a specialized solar system from a reliable solar energy professional who can help you calculate the general level of energy consumption in your apartment, recommend the right system and install it for you.

What you need to know is that there are two main types of solar systems: Off Grid and On Grid, and each requires some re-wiring.

The On Grid system provides solar energy as long as sunlight is available and doesn’t require a battery because it is directly connected to the main electricity grid. This way, when you don’t have sunlight or your energy consumption exceeds what the solar panel can provide, the main grid will supply the rest. If you produce more solar energy than you can consume, it will be sent to the main grid, and you’ll see a lower electricity bill. Additionally, if you own the panels, you could be eligible for a tax credit.

This means that the solar panel will have to be connected to the building’s main grid, which is a job for a professional electrician.

The Off Grid system is not connected to the grid and features a battery (or a battery bank) that stores the energy produced during the day. In theory, you could get off the main grid and live only on solar power with such a system, but if you are surrounded by skyscrapers, sunlight can be unpredictable. Not to mention, this type of solar system costs more and requires more maintenance than an On Grid one.

With the Off Grid system, you have to connect the entire apartment to the battery bank in order to get power to the appliances and fixtures. Again, you should hire a professional to do this.

But before moving forward with either system, you should check the with your landlord if you are renting, or your building’s management if you own your unit. Otherwise, you risk getting fined or even evicted.

A smartphone plugged into a solar charger
Installing a solar charger on a window or balcony will allow you to charge your devices and save on your energy bill (Credit: Adam Radosavljevic/Shutterstock)

2: Portable Panels

Also known as solar chargers, portable panels are small- to medium-sized panels that can be easily moved and don’t require advanced installation. Most people use them outdoors (on camping or hiking trips) but if you have a sunny windowsill or balcony, they can be used to provide power to your apartment. Some even have suction cups, making them easy to install directly on the window.

But it’s important to understand that they are called chargers for a reason. Portable panels are specially designed to work with a wide range of devices (phones, tablets, generators and laptops, among others) so you won’t be able to hook up the panel to your electricity network to power up the house. Still, if you have lots of devices, this may be a way to reduce the electricity bill.

3: Solar Communities

If none of the options above are doable, there is an alternative: joining a solar community.

The idea is simple: you pay to install one or more solar panels in a remote location (most likely a solar farm), and for the energy produced by your panels, you receive credit on your electricity bill. Basically, it’s an investment in solar power, and it doesn’t require any permits, approvals or extra equipment.

A Few Final Words

Overall, the trend towards solar energy is growing each year, but there may be a while until we get to have entire solar cities. But, if you want to make an investment in the future, the best way to do so is by either installing your own solar panels on the roof of your building or investing in a solar farm. In both cases you help reduce the use of the grid and create more space for clean energy.

What you need to know about California’s solar mandate

In January 2020, California's new solar mandate will require all new homes to have solar power.
In January 2020, California's new solar mandate will require all new homes to have solar power. (Credit: Sundry Photography)

By Mandy Ellis

With the recent passing of California’s statewide solar mandate, consumers may be unsure of how future home purchases will be affected. To help you understand the ups and downs of the new legislation, here are explanations on the mandate, pros and cons, and why it’s a good thing in the long run.

What is California’s solar mandate?

The new mandate requires solar systems of 2 to 3 kilowatts (kW) to be installed on all new homes, plus apartments and condos up to three stories high, starting January 1, 2020. Builders can attach the panels to each single-family home, or build a shared solar system that provides power to a group of homes.

As California averages about 80,000 new homes per year, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, this mandate impacts thousands of homebuyers looking into new construction.

“This has already been implemented in some municipalities for three years so the mandate just makes it statewide,” said Tim Broughton, energy specialist at Los Angeles, Calif.-based AWS Solar, “The system mandated isn’t going to cover 100 percent of energy needs of many homes, but it’ll make an impact.”

Pros of the solar mandate

One positive of the solar mandate is that consumers can secure a 30 percent tax credit by owning the system, the system is installed prior to move-in, home values increase, utility bills decrease by about 50 percent, carbon footprints and reliance on fossil fuels decline, and consumers skip the solar shopping experience. The system does raise the price of buying a home by an average $9,365, states the California Energy Commision, but savings hover around $19,000 over the course of 30 years.

“It gives consumers validation they’re purchasing a product that’ll be a long-lasting part of our society,” said Ruben Ugarte, senior director of business development at Horizon Solar Power in Temecula, Calif., “New homes look great with new flooring, granite countertops and top appliances, and if solar is included, it’s being put in that realm of things homeowners want when buying a new home.”

The solar mandate also relieves homeowners of the stresses of going solar, such as comparing prices and evaluating installers, he adds.

New home construction in Los Angeles, Calif.
California averages around 80,000 new homes per year (Credit: Rachid Jalayanadeja/Shutterstock)

Cons of the solar mandate

The biggest issue is California’s housing market already has a low amount of inventory, particularly of affordable housing, and the mandate increases new home prices. Although there are savings over decades, the higher initial purchase price will put new home ownership out of reach for some potential buyers.

Additionally, Haim Vagas, CEO of ArtGreen Construction in Los Angeles, Calif., notes that homeowners have no choices in the installation process: “Customers don’t choose components, and can’t negotiate prices or products so developers can install whatever they want.”

Experts explain that lack of customer choice and developer flexibility are drawbacks plus if homebuilders install lower quality systems, customers won’t get as much from their solar. “I’m not sure if it’s in the mandate, but there should be a minimum performance guarantee of 80 percent energy production at year 25; par for the course for quality panels,” said Broughton, “Cheaper ones don’t reach that so their faster energy production degradation means consumers with minimum installation from the get-go will be looking to replace or supplement going forward.”

This disadvantage – that most mandated systems may be too small to power homes 100 percent – means homeowners who want to source all of their energy from solar have to have additional roof space and hire an install to add more panels, which could mean hefty fees.

“Developments installing near me are extremely small, six to eight panels, just to satisfy the law,” said Vagas, “Homeowners will want system expansion because the developer goes with minimum requirements, and we charge more money to expand systems because it’s not cost efficient for us, so the consumer is now paying more for solar.”

Meanwhile, homeowners who choose to lease panels at a more manageable cost will lose the 30 percent tax credit. “If the installer owns the system and leases it, the installer gets the credit; only the system owner gets the credit,” said David Yoo, founder and CEO of Pingo Solar in Buena Park, Calif. If the system price is $20,000, for example, the homeowner misses a tax credit of $6,000. Additionally, the Solar Energy Industries Association says the tax credit drops to 26 percent in 2020 and decreases until it hits zero in 2022, unless Congress renews it.

Why the solar mandate is good in the long run

Despite cons, the mandate is a positive push forward for renewable energy and the environment by reducing carbon footprints and pollution, improving air quality, diminishing reliance on power grids and providing homeowners lower-cost, green energy.

“Renewable energy is always preferable and it’s the direction most of the world is going,” said Broughton, “To rely on old technology that causes environmental damage is foolish; even countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, is heavily investing in solar energy.”

Should You Buy or Lease Solar Panels?

Close-up of solar panels
Close-up of solar panels (Credit: Slimdandy/Flickr)

By Mandy Ellis

Switching to solar energy can seem like a confusing process where homeowners may not understand the implications of their two financial options: buying and leasing.

To choose, you need to know your financial outlook, property situation and what you hope to receive out of the system.

“If you’re educated, you’ll feel empowered,” says Ruben Ugarte, senior director of business development at Horizon Solar Power in Temecula, Calif., “Consumers with quotes who aren’t educated, don’t move forward or save money because they can’t make a decision.”

Before deciding to buy or rent solar panels, review the pros, cons and financial commitments to see which direction is ideal.

Buying solar panels

Pros

If you purchase solar panels, you own the system and increase home value while enjoying tax credits and rebates, power overproduction credits, stable monthly payments and consumer-friendly financing. Buyers also see a return on investment while cutting their monthly expenses.

“The system is yours, typically lasts longer than it’s warrantied, and in Texas, the value of your array is added to your home’s value, but you’re not taxed on it,” said Lucy Stolzenburg, executive director of the Texas Solar Energy Society in Austin, Texas.

Cons

Micah Breeden, chief financial officer at Allterra Solar in Santa Cruz, Calif., says even though the prices have decreased, upfront cash costs of solar energy systems could still be a shock to homeowners. Additionally, some agreements offer incentives and bonuses, but they’re not consumer friendly, plus you want options since there are different rates and terms.

“There are some scummy contractors out there, and the repercussions for doing poor work are slim,” said Stolzenburg, “If the utility offers a rebate, there’s some oversight on the contractors, but if they don’t, there’s not a lot of protection for homeowners.”

Financial Analysis

“The big thing is getting the tax credit, which can be 30 percent of the cost of the system,” said Breeden, “And there are many financing options with good interest rates, no pre-payment penalties and you can pay down your loan to reduce monthly payments.”

Although solar system costs have decreased, they’re still expensive investments that can set cash buyers back $15,000 to $20,000. However, customer-friendly financing is making solar energy more affordable, with zero money down, terms of 10 to 20 years and interest rates of around 3 to 6 percent. After the loan is paid off, the system is yours, and through the process, you’ve cut utility bills and improved home value.

Solar panels on the roof of a home
Before deciding whether to buy or rent solar panels, talk to your solar installer about the financial implications (Credit: Chris Kantos/Flickr)

Leasing

Pros

Leasing provides a more hands-off solar experience where the installer handles insurance, maintenance and performance. The only cost is the monthly payment, which means signing a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to buy power at a fixed rate or a lower rate over 20 to 25 years. If the system doesn’t perform as anticipated, the installer will sometimes compensate you, and if you’re not eligible for the tax credit because you rent instead of own your home, leasing may work better, says Breeden.

Cons

“There’s a lien on your home, and any refinancing or selling of the property means having the lien temporarily removed, transferring the lease to the new buyer or buying out the lease,” explained Ugarte.

With leasing, you don’t own the system or receive tax credits for relying on solar energy, and the 20-year agreement includes monthly payments that typically increase annually. “In some leases, like year six or seven, you can buy out the lease, saving you about 40 percent,” said Breeden, “But you have to know when that is, notify the company within 30 to 90 days before the date and plan for buying out.” You can occasionally buy the system for fair market value at end of term as well, but that means more costs.

Financial Analysis

Lease payments may start out saving money, but since they typically increase an average of 2.9 percent annually over 20 to 25 years, the last payment years can be expensive, says Breeden. Although homeowners can buy out their lease or purchase their system for fair market value at certain points, those additional costs can be too high to take advantage of.

Bottom Line

Experts say get educated, secure different estimates, ask questions and, if possible, buy your solar panels rather than lease them. “Don’t lease unless you have to, as it’s not in your best interest,” says Breeden, “Buy the system so you own it and get the tax credit, and if you don’t have the capital, get solar financing, with good interest rates, no pre-payment penalties and the option to reduce monthly payments by paying down your loan.”

Does it need to be sunny for my solar panels to work?

Does it need to be sunny every day for my solar panels to work?

No. Solar panels will produce more power on sunny days than on days with clouds, fog or rain. But the solar panels will still produce power on days with clouds, fog or rain. Typically when you are provided with a solar proposal for your home a software program is utilized that takes into account the type of solar panels and equipment that will go on your home and factors such as azimuth (the direction the panels face — south, southwest, etc.), pitch (the angle at which they are installed), amount of sun they will receive (takes into account tree shading, location on globe, etc.) and typical weather for your region. All of these will affect the production of the system as a whole. So, typically the proposal outlining how much your system would produce is taking into account, or estimating, all of the factors that will affect the amount of electricity your solar panels will produce. Seasonal changes in weather can ultimately influence this number over time, but, a 5-percent difference would be considered high. – Micah Breeden, Chief Financial Officer of Allterra Solar in Santa Cruz, California

What happens if my panels produce extra energy?

This question has a two-fold answer, though each utility company handles this differently, so you will want to contact your utility provider for details on how they handle this.

If you produce more power on a Tuesday in the summer than you used at your home. Your utility company will apply credits to your account for the excess power that your system produced and sent out to their grid. For example, if you produce 20 kWh and use 10 kWh on a given day, your utility company will credit you for 10 kWh on your account. The rate at which they credit you is the same rate at which they would charge you at the time you are sending excess power to their grid. Typically you get credited at a higher rate than when you buy power back as the rates in the day time (when your solar system is producing lots of power) are more expensive than in the evening (when you have to buy power since your system is off).

If at the end of the first 12 months of your solar system being operational your system has produced more power than your home has consumed, then your utility company will likely pay you for that excess power. Some companies will pay you at the wholesale rate, rather than the amount they credit your bill. The wholesale rate is typically around $0.03/kWh, so, it is not in your best interests to install more solar power than you typically consume in your home. – Micah Breeden, Chief Financial Officer of Allterra Solar in Santa Cruz, California

‘Ask the Experts’ provides SolarStory.com readers with answers to their solar energy questions, as well as expert advice from top solar energy providers. Do you have a question about residential solar energy? Send it to [email protected]

When will I start to see the financial benefits of going solar?

How long will it take for me to see the financial benefits of switching to solar?

This amount of time is dependent on multiple factors. The short answer is two fold; 1) the first month after your utility has interconnected your system, and 2) typically within five to 10 years. So, part 1 is referencing the instant savings you will see on your utility bill. (Example: Invest $15,000 in solar. Month 1 your electric bill is $10 instead of $150). Part 2 is referencing when your initial investment will have been paid back in full. (Example: Invest $15,000 in solar. After seven years, the savings on your electric bill will equal $15,000, so, now you have had your investment returned to you, and the ongoing savings you experience is the ongoing benefit you get for making the initial investment). The number of years before your investment has been paid back will depend on how much you invested and how much you save on gas and electricity moving forward. – Micah Breeden, Chief Financial Officer of Allterra Solar in Santa Cruz, California

How frequently will my solar system require maintenance?

Traditionally the only maintenance on a solar system is the replacement of the inverter which comes between years 10 and 15. If you’ve bought the system outright the homeowner would be responsible for replacing, if homeowner is signed up through a lease, the system would usually be covered under the service agreement and be replaced at no charge to the customer. The annual washing of your panels could come into play if you’re in a dry, dusty region, but otherwise good ol’ rain will take care of that. – Ruben Ugarte, Senior Business Development Director of Horizon Solar Power in Temecula, California

‘Ask the Experts’ provides SolarStory.com readers with answers to their solar energy questions, as well as expert advice from top solar energy providers. Do you have a question about residential solar energy? Send it to [email protected]

How to Weatherproof Your Solar Panels

Thunderstorm, rain, weather
When it comes to weatherproofing your solar system, your roof should be your biggest concern (Credit: Tim Wilson/Flickr)

By Jennifer Lubell

Homeowners buying a solar system for the first time may worry about the sustainability of the solar panels and whether they can hold up to harsh weather conditions.

Experts say it’s not necessarily the panels you have to worry about – because all solar panels come with weatherproofing. “They’re made with the same tempered glass as the windshields on your car,” explained Ruben Ugarte, director of business development at Horizon Solar Power in Temecula, Calif.,  which means that they can handle rain, snow, hail and other extreme weather conditions. For the most part, these are very durable pieces of equipment. They have no moving parts and they can last for decades.

“I never hear of people complaining that water got into their panels,” he added.

A bigger concern for solar owners is their home’s roof, Ugarte says. Installers need to ensure that the holes they put in people’s roofs are weather tight. “That’s a big liability on your home. Nobody wants to save money on their electric bill with solar, and then have a leaky roof.”

Installing solar panels with minimal penetration has become a bigger priority as the technology has evolved. The process of mounting panels to the rafters is called “flashing,” and many types of systems exist to accommodate different roof types, Ugarte explains. The flashing is a piece of aluminum or steel that’s built in a way that allows no water to penetrate, either on the base of the roof or on the panel.

“Different types of flashings work with the type of roofing system you have,” Ugarte said. The most common type of flashing is for a shingle roof, but there are systems for flat, tile, slate and other types of roofs.

The goal is to install a solar system efficiently and do it in a way that the roof doesn’t leak. Companies these days use advanced technologies to use as few penetrations as possible.

“You want to make sure that an installer uses the right type of flashing system and quality products at every piece of the system,” Ugarte  advised. Homeowners shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions about these elements.

Most people want to know about the types of panels and inverters the installer is going to use, but it doesn’t hurt to find out about the flashing system, since this is the part of the solar system that’s going to prevent leaks. An installer’s salesperson should be able to explain how the flashings work, and answer any other questions about weatherproofing.

Any solar contract should address weather-related issues such as rain penetration or damage in the warranty. The bottom line is: The more you know about the key elements of a solar system, the more equipped you’ll be to get the best quality product.

Tax Incentives of Switching to Solar

solar panels, solar energy
A home with solar panels on the roof (Credit: anagh/Wikimedia Commons)

By Jennifer Lubell

The benefits of installing a solar energy system in your home extend beyond your electricity bill – you can save money on your federal taxes as well with solar energy tax rebates.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a solar panel tax credit known as the investment tax credit or ITC, which enables homeowners and businesses to deduct a certain percentage of the cost of their solar panel system from their taxes.

“Using the Section 25D residential ITC, homeowners can apply the credit to their personal income taxes when they purchase their solar system outright and have it installed on their homes. The tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction,” explained Alex Hobson, senior communications manager with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Initially, only systems installed between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2016 were eligible for the tax credit. However, a 2016 federal spending bill that extended the ITC for five years allows the credit to be used beyond 2016, according to Hobson. The 2017 tax reform legislation signed by President Trump maintains ITC’s current language.  

It’s important to note that the amount of money you can recoup with this tax credit will diminish over time. Through 2019, owners of solar energy systems may qualify for a tax credit that equals 30 percent of the cost of the system (not counting any cash rebates). Starting in 2020, the deduction falls to 26 percent, then 22 percent in 2021. In 2022 and beyond, the tax credit benefit ends for residential solar systems, although business may continue to deduct 10 percent of their solar system costs from their taxes.  

How does this add up in terms of savings? To give a specific estimate, a homeowner that installs a 5.2kW system costing $44,200 can recoup $13,260 using the federal tax credit.

Other opportunities exist to save money on your solar system. Depending on where you live, you might also qualify for a state tax credit, incentive or rebate program. In Arizona for example, homeowners can get a one-time tax credit for buying and installing a solar energy system. The credit is worth either  of the cost of buying and installing your system, or $1,000, whichever is less.

Colorado has several incentive programs, including Energy Smart Colorado, which offers rebates for solar systems in various counties. Oregon offers a Residential Energy Tax Credit program in which homeowners can earn either 50 percent of the total cost of their system or a $1,500 credit each year for 4 years. Credits range from $100 to $6,000.

Hobson advises owners of solar panels to consult with their tax adviser on specific matters regarding use of the ITC and state tax incentives.

“In any significant financial decision, it’s best to fully educate yourself with your options,” she said. “This applies to solar energy. A consumer should go in to their solar transaction feeling confident in their financial decision and understanding the terms of their purchase.”