I’ve always liked the idea of solar power. The thought of getting clean power from the sun just seemed so logical. But like many of us I didn’t really have the time to look into it in detail so I did nothing.
My wife got tired of hearing me mention it so when she saw a flyer for a solar energy talk at a big box home store she signed us up. We knew it would be mostly an advertisement but we figured we might learn something. Long story short, we did get solar installed…but it isn’t as easy (or as hard) as you might think.
Where to put them?
If you are thinking about installing solar panels the very first thing you should think about is where to put them. There are two options, on the roof or on the ground. Most people think of the roof first. In order to put them on the roof you need to have a house pointing in the correct direction. If you have a roof that points in a southern direction then you are in good shape. Even one that points slightly off from south is okay. If you’re good to go on the direction the second thing to look at is how old is your roof? If it is more than 10 years old you will need to install a new roof. Most installers want as new a roof as possible. If you are still okay with the roof mount, the last thing you will need is lots of space. If you’ve got a ranch style house then you are probably good to go. If you have angles or dormers on the roof then you probably don’t have enough space.
The alternative to the roof is to have a ground mount installed. For this you need a space that is in the open (no trees to block the sun). We had to go with a ground mount because our house did not point in a good direction and we have odd angles on the roof that limited the number of panels we could install. We have the space, but I was still surprised by the size of the installation. It is 88 feet long and about 10 feet high – that’s 3 rows by 16 panels with each panel 3.5’ by 5.5’.
You will probably have to get permits from your local municipality for the installation.
If you take the cost of new roof into account, the two installations are about the same cost.
Solar is not cheap. It is a significant investment but I believe the payoffs are worth it. Having said that, you do get help from the federal government and depending on where you live, you may get money back from the state. From the federal government you get a tax credit based on the cost of the system. The credit is about 30% of the cost. We live in Pennsylvania, so we also get a rebate from the state. The rebate is based on the amount of KwH we generate with a ceiling just over $17K. Even with this help you will probably have to cover the remainder of the cost with some sort of loan.
Paperwork, Paperwork, Paperwork
One thing we found out early was that there is a ton of paperwork involved with installing solar. And it doesn’t end when the system is turned on. You need to go over a site plan as to where the panels will be placed – this after someone comes out to look at possible locations and your latitude and longitude. More forms for the state rebate (which has to be approved before you can start installing – at least several months). Forms for the electric company, the township, the loans. And after all that is done, and the panels are installed, forms for getting yourself setup on one of the energy exchanges. From beginning to end it took us 9 months to get everything done.
I never liked the idea of being completely off the grid. We use too much power and all our appliances are designed to run on the grid. I also didn’t want to have to deal with batteries or to get a generator for when the sun just doesn’t produce enough to keep us going. So a system that lets us stay connected to the power grid was the logical way to go. This allows us to “sell” the excess power we generate during the day back to the power company.
Solar panels are Direct Current (DC) so in order to use the power or send it back to the grid means we would need an inverter. Our installation is actually two systems so in our case we would need two inverters. This is all part of the installation so we didn’t have to go out and investigate what to get, but we did have to pay for them. We have two Sunny Boys installed. They have displays that cycle messages that have the total power generated, total carbon saved, and other interesting facts.
From the inverters the lines run through a meter that measures how much total energy you make. This is used by the energy exchanges (more on that later). From there it runs through another box with a meter on it. This is the connection between the grid and our panels. From there it goes into the house. This box also has the meter on it that measures the amount of excess power going back into the grid.
When we built our house we had 400 amp service installed. In hind site this was a good thing because the panels generate 300 amps. Most houses have 200 amp service so an extra piece of hardware is required.
Obviously an electrician is needed to install this part of the system. It also needs a second electrician to inspect it and in our case another inspection from the electric company. It is a little frustrating to see the solar array sitting there ready to go but without the final inspections. Luckily the wait was only about 2 weeks.
The last piece of financial information has to do with Alternate Energy Credits (AEC) or Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC). For each 1000KwH you generate 1 SREC. We expect to make about 12 SRECs in a year. SRECs can be placed on an exchange and sold. We are using Flett Exchange to sell our SREC’s. The price for SRECs in PA is down due to an oversupply of SRECs from other states but we can sell them in other locations. With the current prices we should generate somewhere between $2400 and $3600 in SRECs per year.
So far we have had the system running for just over a month. We have gotten one electric bill. We don’t have electric heat so the cold doesn’t matter. It is a little early to tell but so far the bill is down about 30%. This is not counting the SRECs.
So is it worth it? I will know a lot more come summertime when the air conditioning is running but if the trend with the bill continues then yes. And although I’m not much of a tree hugger, there is also the feeling that I’m doing a little something for the planet.