What’s new in solar power innovation for homeowners
For those of us who aren’t completely up to date on recent solar power innovation and options for homeowners, I thought it was time to check in with an expert who can give us the rundown on what we need to know about solar power today.
Keir Zemaitis is a solar consultant at Apex Solar Power, and resident of the Hudson Valley of NY. He is passionate about renewable energy and has spent the last five years helping homeowners and businesses save money and reduce their environmental impact through solar energy, lighting upgrades and more. Keir has had a lifelong interest in sustainability and spends his free time tending to his garden and fruit trees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are some of the biggest changes in solar in the last five years?
One big change that has happened in the last five years is that solar energy systems are a lot cheaper now – the cost of solar has dropped about 70%. This is because there are more solar manufacturers globally and more solar installers locally, which has created a more competitive industry for solar power innovation and also economies of scale. Since 2012, solar actually became cheaper than most retail electricity. State and federal tax credits, which are being phased out, have helped solar grow and become radically affordable.
What can we expect from solar innovation in the near future? What do the next five years look like?
Some of the exciting things that are here now and will only become more common in the future include emergency backup in the event of power outages, and the ability to go completely off-grid – there are a few battery storage solutions already out there. I predict that in the next five years we will see even more exciting advancements and competitive pricing in battery options for homeowners.
The new generation of electric cars also has the potential to revolutionize how we look at energy. With a home electric car charger and a solar energy system, you’ll never have to go to the gas station again. I love the idea of making your own transportation fuel at home – so cool!
Solar, batteries, and an electric vehicle will become the trifecta for homeowner resilience, independence and sustainability.
Back view of Universidad Politecnica de Madrid house at the Solar Decathlon 2007, by Jeff Kubina
What solutions are most viable for homeowners from both a cost and installation perspective?
For cost, typically the solar systems with the fastest return on investments are installed on south-facing roofs for customers whose electric needs are under a 10,000kW system (the average size system is 7,000-8,000 kW), and for customers who are already conscious of cost-saving measures like LED lights and energy efficient appliances and heating/cooling sources.
For installation, there can be advantages in having one company provide a package for you that includes design, permitting and installation and can even help you with financing. There are a few moving pieces to the puzzle, which can be confusing.
How should a homeowner be calculating return on investment for solar?
First, you want to take a look at your electric bill and calculate what you pay on a monthly basis over the course of a year, minus your monthly basic service charge. Then, multiply this number by your specific utility rate increase per year – should be something like 2.9% – compounded over 20 years. For example, if you pay $100 a month today, that will become $177 or more in 20 years.
Next, take the total cost of the solar solution. For example, an 8,000kW system quoted at $28,000 can wind up costing only about $13,000 after all federal and state rebates and tax credits are applied. Then, you want to divide that number by the number of months over a 20 year period – 240 – and come up with the monthly cost.
That will give you a good sense of the type of savings you can expect. Keep in mind that a solar energy system will produce for much longer than 20 years. There are no moving parts in solar panels and they are not prone to failure so your savings can be far greater over the system’s lifetime.
Photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of a house near Boston Massachusetts, by Gray Watson
How long does it take for the average homeowner to get a return on their investment?
There are so many factors involved that I can’t give a blanket answer. Heat type, appliances, and electric usage habits as well as local utility rates all play a big part. For an 8000kW system I mentioned above, this would provide 100% utility offset for most homeowners, and often have a 100% return in investment within 8-11 years.
What are some barriers for homeowners in adopting solar?
The first barrier is physical – is their roof large enough to install enough panels to offset their utility bill? Is it too shaded by trees? Do they need a new roof? Is it a type of roof that we can install on? For example, we install on traditional shingles, corrugated metal, standing seam metal and flat roofs, but not slate and terra cotta. If you have a situation where you can’t mount solar on your roof, there is another option: dual–axis trackers. This is a ground mounted solar array that rotates and tilts to follow the suns path. It’s a bit more expensive, but the most efficient.
The second barrier can be financing, but there are now more options available than there used to be, luckily. A few years ago, leasing or paying with cash or home equity was your only option but now there are a few companies that finance your solar installation, though qualifying requires a high credit rating and low debt to income ratio. Most companies finance anywhere from a five to 20 year period to keep monthly payments in line with what you are used to paying the utility company.
What are some mistakes that homeowners make when either buying solar energy systems or having solar installed?
Paying too much. It can be hard to compare options between companies, but I’ll show you a really simple way by finding the price per watt. Let’s say that you get a proposal for 20 panels at 300 watts each, for a total system size of 8,000kW and a quoted cost of $28,000. Just divide the total system cost by system size and get your price per watt. In this case it is $3.50, which is a reasonable price today.
If you get a quote that is significantly higher than $3.50 per watt, you may want to shop around more. After all, there’s no such thing as premium solar electrons! Solar panels have been commercially sold for over 40 years and are an extremely reliable technology with little to no maintenance cost. Although there are many panel manufacturers offering a range of prices, they all provide you with the same quality of energy (no different than electric from the utility company) so beware of being up-sold on a solar power system.
Another mistake homeowners make is in calculating the overall cost of solar and the return on investment, such as not understanding that utility rates escalate at 2.9% (conservatively) annually, whereas solar locks you into a rate that doesn’t increase and then goes to zero once the system is completely paid off.
How should a homeowner go about assessing solar options? What process do you recommend?
I recommend finding someone who is a qualified solar consultant who can properly assess your situation. First, they will assess how much electric you use in an average month and yearly basis, and all you need to get started is typically your street address and a hard copy or picture of your utility bill. With that info, most solar companies will be able to give you an initial assessment of your solar potential. Then, a more detailed site visit is scheduled to assess shading issues and answer all of your questions.
Keep in mind that some shading will not disqualify you for solar. Tree removal or trimming is always an option, as is upsizing your system with more or higher wattage panels. Too much shading will affect your electric production and may impact your local incentives, but even a solar system that gives you a partial electric offset will significantly reduce your energy bill and carbon footprint. Keep in mind that any roof, electrical or tree work that is required to go solar is also eligible for a 30% federal tax credit.
Also, if you cut down a tree, plant another! I recommend dwarf fruit trees to my clients as they do not grow too tall, are very beautiful and will give you fruit!
Trees near solar panels, Oregon Department of Transportation
What should homeowners look out for in terms of obsolescence? Is the industry moving so fast that they should worry about selecting a solution that will become obsolete?
I think that the worry about obsolesce is a flaw in our mindsets. Yes, we make incremental, steady advances in panel efficiency but I don’t see power output/efficiency of residential solar taking a quantum leap. A new technology may mean that you can put a couple less panels on your home, but that’s about it. If solar today is cost effective, putting it off means delaying energy savings.
Also, keep in mind that most state and federal incentives were put in place to help offset the high costs of solar. As solar prices have come down, the incentives are being phased out. By delaying putting in a solar energy system based on a worry of obsolesce, you miss out on these incentives altogether.