Why Go Solar?Whether you are interested in making an investment into solar for economic, environmental, or personal motivations, here are the top reasons why solar energy is more popular than ever in the United States.
#1 Reduce or even eliminate your electric billsElectricity costs can make up a large portion of your monthly expenses. With a solar system, you’ll generate free power for your system’s 25+ year lifecycle. Even if you don’t produce 100% of the energy you consume, solar will dramatically reduce your energy bills and you’ll still save a lot of money.
#2 Return on InvestmentSolar panels aren’t an expense – they’re one of the best ways to invest, with returns rivaling those of more traditional investments like stocks and bonds. Thanks to substantial electricity bill savings, the average American homeowner pays off their solar panel system in five to seven years and sees a return on investment (ROI) of more than 20%.
#3 Increase your home valueMultiple studies have found that homes equipped with solar energy systems have higher property values and sell more quickly than non-solar homes. Appraisers are increasingly taking solar installations into consideration as they value homes at the time of a sale, and as homebuyers become more educated about solar, demand for properties equipped with solar panel systems will continue to grow.
#4 Protect yourself against rising energy costsIn the past ten years, residential electricity prices have gone up by an average of 30% annually. By investing in a solar system now, you can fix your electricity rate and protect yourself against unpredictable increases in electricity costs. If you’re a homeowner with fluctuating cash flow, going solar also helps you better forecast and manage your expenses.
#5 Protect the environmentSolar is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Buildings are responsible for 38% of all carbon emissions in the U.S., and going solar can significantly decrease that number. A typical residential solar panel system will eliminate three to four tons of carbon emissions each year—the equivalent of planting over 100 trees annually.
#6 Create jobs and help the local economyAccording to The Solar Foundation, the solar industry added jobs at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall U.S. economy in 2015, representing 1.2 percent of all jobs in the country. This growth is expected to continue. Because solar-related jobs tend to be higher paying and cannot be outsourced, they are a significant contributor to the U.S. economy.
#7 Boost our country’s energy independenceThe sun is a near-infinite source of energy and a key component of achieving energy independence in the United States. By increasing our capacity to generate electricity from the sun, we can also insulate our country from price fluctuations in global energy markets.
Isn't solar expensive?You're not alone in thinking that solar is expensive. In fact, from our experience in talking to people, most people assume solar panels for their average-sized home (think 5 kW or 20 panels) would cost over $20,000. The reality is closer to $10,000, less than half of most people's guess. The combination of the sharp drop in solar panel prices and government tax credit of 30% has made installing solar to be a rational investment for many. In fact, the payback period in Hawaii is just 5 years, California 6 years, and Texas 7 years. Any electricity generated after that is free energy.
What happens when it's cloudy?As long as there is light, solar panels will be still be producing power, albeit at a fraction of their peak capacity.
What happens if it hails? Or if there are high speed winds?Solar panels need to be able to withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at them. In fact, most manufacturers put their panels through rigorous testing, shooting 1" metal balls at high speeds at the panels to simulate severe hail conditions. Solar panels are also designed to be structurally sound. In the southern coast, solar panels are built to withstand the pressure of 150 mph winds. Anything more and home insurance would have to cover the damages. At that point, the house would probably have bigger issues than just the condition of the solar panels!
What happens when the power goes out?Unfortunately, even if the panels are producing energy, your home will not be able to use it. The solar panel system would get disconnected from the grid so that any energy that is produced does not backfeed into the transmission lines and put utility workers at risk. Backfeeding is when power runs in reverse. The solar panel distributes the power to the rest of the house but it also feeds power out through the main breaker to the transformer, which then converts it back to thousands of volts and attempts to energize all neighborhood utility lines.
Do I need to get insurance on the solar PV system? How much would it cost?Just as with any other additions to the house, like a pool or a deck, as long as the damage doesn’t exceed the home coverage, the insurance premium should not increase much, if at all. However, every insurance plan is different and we encourage look into your policy before going solar. Solar panels usually have a warranty up to 25 years.
Do I need to get approval from my Home Owner's Association?While a Home Owner's Association (HOA) cannot "prohibit or restrict homeowners from installing a solar energy device", they can stipulate "where the solar device should be located on a roof." Every HOA is different, so we recommend you contact your HOA before making a solar purchase as a precautionary measure.
Will my home’s property taxes go up with solar panels?In 29 states including California and Texas, solar installations are property-tax exempt. This means that installing solar panels will increase the resale value of the house without costing an extra dime in property taxes. The same cannot be said for other home investments such as swimming pools, a new deck, etc. For a full list, take a look at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).
How much does my property value go up with a solar PV system installed?A good rule of thumb is that every $1,000 saved in annual energy expenditures increases a home's value by $20,000. For most homes, this is about 50-75% of the system cost before incentives!
Solar Power BasicsSolar power is energy derived from the sun’s radiation. The amount of available solar energy is incredible -- 10,000 times more than the entire world can consume presently. Merely 0.02% of incoming solar energy captured would replace every other fuel source presently used. The sun provides the Earth with as much energy every hour as we collectively use in a year worldwide. Furthermore, it is reliable. According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the sun’s output will remain fairly consistent for the next 50,000 years.
As the global demand for energy grows and conventional energy resources become increasingly costly to extract, the risk of energy dependence on foreign oil and natural gas production continues to rise, leading to people turning to renewables – particularly solar energy. Though the mainstream media has barely mentioned this trend, solar installations (both commercial and residential) grew exponentially for the last two decades, while the price of photovoltaic (PV) cells (the building blocks of solar panels) has dropped dramatically over the last decade. PV cell prices are 99% lower now than they were in 1976, making it no longer the cost-prohibitive energy source it once was.
Distributed SolarYou have probably seen pictures of giant solar farms -- rows and rows of solar panels in the middle of nowhere. Distributed solar is different and much closer to home. Distributed solar energy can be located on rooftops or ground-mounted, and is typically connected to the local utility distribution grid. Rooftop solar panels are easier to install and less expensive; they are the most common form of distributed solar.
All solar power is not the sameThere are three basic types of solar PV generation systems for use in small and residential applications: autonomous or off-grid, hybrid, and grid-connected. Each system is unique in how it applies solar power, but they share the common characteristic of using solar PV systems to generate the electricity.
The Autonomous System of solar PV is used as the only means of generating electrical power for small devices. This is often the choice when powering a specific appliance or process that does not need to be active 100% of the time, such as night lights, road signs, water pumps, etc. Autonomous systems are used in everything from the simple LED patio lights you buy at your local store to automatic livestock water trough pumps and electric fencing. This is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to set up a solar PV system. Whole home solar power systems which are autonomous – meaning they usually employ some kind of battery back-up - are known as off-grid systems. Though battery-backup systems are gaining traction, we don't recommend it for most people because batteries drastically increase the cost of the system and require more maintenance than a regular grid-tied system. Until battery prices come down in the coming few years, a grid-tied system is the best way to go solar.
The Hybrid System is a system that relies on solar PV generation as the primary means of generating electricity for the application, but has a backup generator for ensuring the system is powered as close to 100% of the time as possible. This is typically the setup for remote cabins, recreational vehicles, and some security applications. The backup generator is usually gasoline- or diesel fuel-powered and will automatically start up whenever the power in the system reaches a specified low point or when a bank of batteries for power storage reaches a low charge.
Let’s go to the next section to learn about grid-connected, or grid-tied solar!
The Electric GridElectricity comes into a home from the utility via a transformer. The transformer lowers the voltage (electromotive force) from thousands of volts down to 240 volts before it enters your home. In the home, the voltage passes through the main circuit breaker and is distributed through branch circuit breakers to various appliances and convenience outlets.
In the United States, the typical small appliance such as your stereo or radio is between 110 - 120 volts. Nominally, the voltage provided to the appliance is 120 volts, but due to transmission losses, it can drop to as low as 110 volts. The maximum amperage (amount of electricity used) is between 15 - 20 amps. Some larger appliance outlets for electric ranges or electric dryers supply 240 volts at 30, 40 or even 50 amperes.
Grid-Tied Solarthe grid-connected system is the most commonly used in residential solar PV. As a homeowner, your use of a grid-connected system will allow you to cut down your utility bills. In this application, the house or building to be powered by solar is also connected to the utility power grid, which supplies the electricity not supplied by the PV system. In most residential applications, the solar PV does not supply enough power to run your entire home, but instead provides a significant supplement to the power purchased from your local utility company. In times of peak production, excess power from the solar panels not utilized by the home can be returned to the power grid and credited, while in times of low production (such as at night), power is mainly derived from the grid while the PV system lies dormant. Grid-connected systems do not require batteries to store excess power for later use. Since batteries can often make up nearly half the cost of the solar PV system itself, it's no wonder they are left out when they aren't necessary.
Your HomeThe US Energy Information Administration estimates that the average home in the United States uses ~900 kWh a month, or the amount of electricity 25-30 solar panels provide in one month. Louisiana had the highest annual consumption at 15,046 kWh and Maine the lowest at 6,367 kWh. You can use your electric bill for the last year to determine the average monthly bill. In the southern states, the energy consumption in the summer time for cooling can drive up the energy usage and thus costs, significantly. Understanding your current electricity usage is a necessary step to understand how much energy is consumed.
Every particular device uses up a certain wattage. An estimate of the wattages of common devices can be seen below.
Equipment Wattage Baseboard Heater 1,600 Clothes Dryer 4,900 Dishwasher 1,200 Frost-Free Deep Freeze 500 Frost-Free Refrigerator 615 Furnace 500 Garbage Disposal 450 to 950 Oven 4,000 to 8,000 Range 4,000 to 5,000 Room Heater 1,350 Standard Deep Freeze 400 Equipment Wattage Standard Refrigerator 325 Washing Machine 500 Water Heater 2,000 to 5,000 Blender 300 Box Fan 175 Clock Radio 70 Coffee Maker 1,200 Food Processor 200 Hair Dryer 600 Heating Blanket 200 Heating Pad 65 Equipment Wattage Iron 1,100 Microwave Oven 1,450 Mixer 130 Sewing Machine 75 Toaster 1,150 Toaster/Toaster Oven 1,150 Two Burner Hot Plate 1,650 Vacuum Cleaner 750 to 1,350 Computer 300 Stereo 1,200 Television 150
Energy SavingsSo how much can I save by installing solar, you say? This really depends on your home’s consumption and how many panels you can fit on your home - every home is fundamentally different - but, the average Solar PV system can save between 20-50% of an average home’s energy bills. Depending on your house’s roof size and availability, you could potentially install a system that would offset most of the home’s energy consumption. A small home of about 1500 square feet needs 4 kilowatts (kW) which is 16 panels to offset up to 50% of electricity usage. Each panel can provide about 250 watts (W). An average-sized home can require 6 - 8 kW which are 24 - 32 panels. We do not anticipate most homes to have enough roof space to support 10 kW which is 40 panels. Please note that solar panels in the northern latitudes (which include the US) are only installed on the south-facing or southwest-facing roof(s) to receive the most sunlight possible.
Net MeteringNet metering allows consumers who generate some or all of their own electricity to use that electricity anytime, instead of when it is generated. The extra energy is fed into the utility grid and you as the homeowner are either paid the full amount per kilowatt-hour (which is how much you pay for the utility rate) or a partial amount. Depending on your utility provider, net metering may or may not be possible.
How to Maximize SavingsBefore you go solar, we highly recommend cutting down on energy consumption. Going solar before making the home more efficient is like pouring water into a bucket that has a giant hole. To reduce the size of the hole, here are some suggestions for a more energy efficient home. They include:
Immediately! As soon as the system is installed and hooked up to the grid, electricity will be generated saving you utility costs immediately.
- Replace old appliances with new energy-efficient models.
- Replace older water heaters with new ones.
- Insulate the home if it has no insulation.
- Caulk doors and windows.
- Replace incandescent lights with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs.
ComponentsA typical grid-tied solar PV system includes the solar panels, an inverter (to convert direct current generated by the solar panels into the alternating current that your house uses), a racking system (to attach the panels to your roof without causing leaks), an AC disconnect (a safety measure to ensure that when the power goes out so the system will not back feed into the grid), the wiring, and other smaller components. These other components are called the balance of system (BOS). Let’s take a look at each of these.
Solar PanelsAn average solar panel is 65 " x 39 " within 2 inches’. In other words, about 5' x 3'. The area is roughly 17.5 square feet. Solar panels installed today are made of silicon and are either monocrystalline or polycrystalline. The typical monocrystalline solar cell is a dark black color, and the corners of cells are usually missing as a result of the production process. Polycrystalline, on the other hand, is identifiable by its signature light or dark blue color. Historically, monocrystalline solar cells have historically had a higher peak efficiency, and were more readily available than polycrystalline solar cells. The blanket statement that monocrystalline panels are better than polycrystalline cells, however, is not accurate. Each panel and its manufacturer should be considered on a case-by-case basis. At Simplify Solar, we offer three packages with the Gold and Platinum packages both being monocrystalline cells.
InvertersInverters take the direct current (DC) output from the solar panels and convert that into alternating current (AC) which can be fed into the grid and used by the home. There are two main types of inverters – Micro-inverters and String Inverters. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. String inverters work by converting a string of solar panels strung in DC wiring to the inverter, usually located next to the electrical service panel that it would then tie into. String inverters are usually less expensive, and don’t require any additional equipment to be installed on the roof. But in instances where there is potential for shading and/or many roof faces, a string inverter will not enable the system to produce at its highest rated capacity as shading on any part of the array will reduce the system electricity output. In these situations, though they are more expensive, a micro-inverter setup is recommended. These devices are installed under each solar panel and convert the output from DC to AC directly on the roof. In addition to these two types of inverters, there are also hybrid systems – a string inverter with panel optimizers which are installed under the panel like micro-inverters and maximize the output for each panel independent of the output of the rest of the string but don’t convert the electricity to AC.
RackingThis is how the panels and any other equipment which needs to be on the roof are attached. The main pieces of racking equipment are the flashing, rail, L-feet, and mid- and end-clamps. Roof penetrations are made into the house’s rafters and are sealed up by water-tight flashing. Then a screw connects to an L-foot and when a number of L-feet are placed in a row, this allows a section of rail to be attached to them. There are two rows of rails for every row of solar panels installed on the roof. The panels then slide in to the rails, and there are mid- and end-clamps which hold them down with structural integrity.
AC DisconnectWorkers attempting to restore power to the neighborhood may unexpectedly encounter high voltage on the utility lines and suffer a fatal shock. This is why an AC disconnect is needed so that in case of power outages, the home’s solar PV system does not back feed.
What about batteries?Nearly all modern solar panel systems are grid tied which means they’re connected to the conventional electricity grid. When a home uses more than its panels can provide, the home draws power from the grid like all grid-tied homes, i.e. homes which pay a utility company. Batteries are an option for those who really want them, but they’re expensive, bulky, and have to be replaced every five to ten years. From an economic perspective, we do not recommend going with battery backup unless you are really concerned about having backup power.
DesignIn addition to using quality components, quality design is also critical to make sure a solar power system produces the maximum possible energy.
Panel PlacementIn the northern hemisphere, the highest energy production comes from panels which face south. Any roof face extending up to due east or west would also yield good production due to higher peak demands in the mornings and evenings, but anything north of east or west is not recommended.
Site SurveyThe site survey and the pictures that we ask you to submit will help us determine how the panels will be attached to the roof, while making sure that we maintain the structural integrity of the roof and meet wind load requirements. Most jurisdictions which require permitting also require a structural engineer's stamp of approval to be able to install solar and these pictures will help speed up the process in which we can get approved. In addition, they will also help us get a better idea of how to tie in the solar panels to the home’s current electric system. Based on these pictures, we can design a full electrical diagram to gain utility interconnection approval, pull electrical permits from the home’s local jurisdiction and make sure the installer understands the full scope of the installation before bidding for a project.
InterconnectionThis term refers to the process of tying the solar system to the grid. The local transmission and distribution utility will usually require some documents to be filled out by the customer and installer and need to inspect the system once it’s completed to approve interconnection. The utility is usually looking to ensure the materials used are industry-approved, the integrity of the system design is according to local and/or NEC code, and that all signage is clearly labeled and visible.
PermittingThe process of applying for permits varies widely across jurisdictions, but, depending on the type of permits needed, usually requires submitting stamped structural and/or electrical designs and a letter from a Professional Engineer, in addition to any other documentation. The timeline as to how long the permitting process takes varies as well, ranging from within a day to in excess of a month, depending on the jurisdiction and complexity of the install.
Solar Myths Debunked
Solar photovoltaic systems are expensive!Much of the cost of solar PV systems are due to the balance of system (BOS) and not the solar panels themselves. This BOS not only includes physical components such as inverters and racking systems but also includes installation costs, permitting, zoning, and connecting the system to the grid. The Energy Department SunShot Initiative works to aggressively drive down these soft costs – making it faster and cheaper for families and businesses to go solar.
Simplify Solar simplifies the entire process for you by providing a unique turnkey solution which no other company provides. We can provide a 5 kW system (an average house) to you for less than $10,000 even without federal incentives.
But my HOA doesn’t allow me to put solar on my rooftopThis shouldn’t be an issue. You will need to get approval from the HOA, but your installer will take care of most of that paperwork. It wouldn’t look good for an HOA to say no to solar, and some states, including California, have laws against HOA’s turning down solar for aesthetic reasons.
Solar photovoltaic systems are too new of a technology:The solar photovoltaic system is NOT a new technology! They were first invented in 1954 by scientists at Bell Labs for satellites in space. In fact, on the front page of the April 26, 1954 edition, The New York Times proclaimed the milestone, “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams -- the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels constitute a mature technology. Today, over 60 years later, not only are they still the most reliable power source in space, they are now widely used on Earth. Just in the US, solar panels have been installed at over 500,000 homes. More than 100,000 homeowners installed solar panels in 2013 alone.
Solar panels are growing tremendously but only outside of the United StatesGreen Tech Media research shows that there’s a residential solar system installed every 4 minutes in the US. If trends continue, the United States will have 1 million residential solar installations by 2016, which is 10 times the number of installs that existed in 2010. Germany leads in solar energy though it has the same sun potential as Alaska; they don’t get much sun in other words. Yet, though Germany is smaller than Texas and have little solar exposure, the country still produces more than four times as much solar power as the United States. In terms of solar energy output, Germany currently produces 34,558 megawatts of solar power, while the U.S. currently produces just 7,962 megawatts. In terms of total solar power capacity per capita, Germany crushes every other country. At the end of 2012, it had approximately 400 MW of solar power capacity per million people, considerably more than #2 Italy at 267 MW per million people, #3 Belgium at 254 MW per million people, #4 Czech Republic at 204 MW per million, and #5 Greece at 143 MW per million people. The US came it at #20 with about 25 MW per million people (quite pitiful when put into this perspective). The top solar state (per capita) in the US at the end of 2012 was Arizona, which had about 167 MW of solar power per capita (and would have ranked #5 if it were a country).
Solar panels aren’t even that much more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.Solar panels produce no pollution, although they impose environmental costs through manufacture and construction. These environmental tolls are negligible, however, when compared with the damage inflicted by conventional energy sources; the burning of fossil fuels releases roughly 21.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.
A 10 kW solar panel installation (under certain conditions) is estimated to generate about 17,000 kWh in a year. In environmental terms, this is equivalent to avoiding the emission of 11.7 metric tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. This is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 2.3 cars in a year or burning 27.3 barrels of oil.
Solar panels won’t work if there’s not much sunlight.Many people wonder if where they live is sunny enough for solar. This really isn’t an issue if you’re a homeowner. Most places in the U.S. that aren’t particularly sunny are still just fine for installing solar panels. It’s true that the more sunlight there is, the more electricity the solar panels will produce.
But, residential solar is really about saving money and the sunniest places don’t always have the highest savings levels. How much money you will save is largely dependent on how high your electric rates are and what kind of rebates and incentives are available to you. This is why consumers located in northeastern U.S. can have significantly higher savings from solar power systems than consumers in sunnier states such as Florida.
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