Home solar power is more popular than ever in the United States. Buoyed by a dramatic drop in costs over the last decade, solar installations have enjoyed a 50 percent year-to-year average growth rate – and it shows no signs of slowing down.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), solar currently produces enough electricity to power more than 12.3 million homes. In 2018, over 10,000 MW of solar was installed in the US – more than double the capacity installed just five years earlier.
Over 1.9 million US homes now feature solar installations, with that number expected to cross the 2 million mark this year. (For perspective, in three short years, home solar has nearly doubled in size – up from 1 million installations in 2016.) It’s expected to hit 4 million by 2023.
And thank goodness.
Solar now annually offsets more than 73 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. That’s equivalent to planting nearly 1.2 billion trees, or taking 15.6 million vehicles off the road. Now, imagine what those numbers will look like when we reach those 4 million home installations in 2023.
The even better news is, we’re only scratching the surface. To get a broader sense of solar’s true potential, consider this: More energy from the sun strikes the Earth in one hour than all of humanity consumes in a year.
Has all this awesomeness got you – like so many people across the country and around the world – thinking about getting in on the action?
Good! But first, you need to do your research. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place.
As part of a three-blog series, we’re going to get into the nitty gritty of home solar, from navigating financing and incentives to choosing an installer and what maintenance you should expect. But first up: Do solar panels even make sense for your home?
WHAT IS HOME SOLAR?
When we talk about “home solar” what we’re talking about is distributed photovoltaic solar (or PV solar). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory explains the name comes “from the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage), which is called the PV effect.”
More specifically, PV panels do so “by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity,” according to Live Science.
In a nutshell, if you have solar on your roof, the panels create electricity and the system’s electrical panel sends power to your lights and appliances.
And there’s never been a better time to think about making the leap: “An average-sized residential system has dropped from a pre-incentive price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $18,000 today,” SEIA reports.
We’re with you that $18,000 is no small chunk of change, perhaps especially to a homeowner balancing a mortgage, car payment, and kids’ piano and karate lessons. But that number also doesn’t take into account the many incentives available to solar customers or the multiple new forms of solar financing that have emerged in recent years.
Many of these financing options allow customers to put solar on their rooftops at little or no cost up front. (More on that in the next blog in our series.)
To say nothing of the long-term energy savings and increased property value a home solar system offers.
So, it’s clear: Installing a home solar panel system is a fantastic, fiscally-smart clean energy option. But none of that matters all that much if your home itself just isn’t a good or effective fit for the panels themselves.
SO, WHAT MAKES A HOME A GOOD FIT FOR SOLAR PANELS?
The direction your roof faces.
The position of your house in relation to the sun will determine how much solar energy you can produce – and thus whether it’s a worthwhile investment for you.
In the US, “south-facing roofs are the most productive for solar, followed by west-facing and then east-facing roofs. North-facing roofs are the least desirable for solar, and many people rule them out,” according to the Washington Post.
Be mindful of the total amount of sunlight hours your home receives, in general. Even a south-facing roof will spend a fair amount of the late fall, wintertime, and very early spring in more darkness than light if it’s located in a high northern latitude (think Alaska and perhaps even the most northern parts of states like Minnesota or North Dakota).
And while solar panels do still produce power on cloudy days, obviously the more direct sun they receive the better. If your local weather patterns tend to be truly dominated by very cloudy skies, solar panels will not be as productive for you as they might be for someone in the Great Plains, Sunshine State, or the Nevada desert.
The size and angle of the surface.
The average home solar system is five kilowatts, requiring 20 normal panels. To accommodate a system of this size, you’ll need 500 square feet of space, or about 100 square feet of area per kilowatt of solar capacity.
As for the angle of your roof, 30 degrees is ideal – but solar panels will work on roofs ranging from flat (though they may need to be installed on tilted tracks) all the way up to 45 degrees.
The roof’s construction.
What we really mean here is “age and materials.” How old your roof is and what it’s made of are important to whether solar panels are a smart investment for a few reasons.
Keep in mind that solar panels are built to last – many come with warranties of 25 years or more. If your roof is older or you expect it will need to be fully replaced (versus more typical, piecemeal maintenance or repair) inside that window, adding panels to it now will mean additional expenses because you’ll need to remove them before demolition of the old roof. Later, you’ll have to reinstall the panels on the new one. Best to replace the roof first then install a solar system.
As for materials, asphalt shingles or corrugated metal roofing make for the easiest installation of solar panels.
How long will this be your home?
Like your home itself, a solar panel system should be looked at as an investment.
While you’ll begin to experience energy savings as soon as your panels are up and running, it may take some time for your solar panels to “pay for themselves,” so to speak (for your energy savings to cover the cost of the system).
EnergySage reports that the average American family spends a little over $1,335 a year on electricity. And how much your solar panels will save you annually in any given place is likely to vary substantially because utility electricity prices differ from state to state and can be volatile in nature.
Average sunlight in your region and the scale of the system you install are other factors that will impact the amount of electricity your system produces and your attendant annual energy savings.
The final cost of a system is also likely to vary from place to place based on your state and local incentives.
All of which is to say, the length of time it will take for you to see a return on your investment is highly variable. There’s no one answer as to when your system will have paid for itself in energy savings. It could be as little as six or eight years – the “typical solar payback period in the US.” It could be several more than that.
You should keep this in mind before investing in a home solar system. If you do not expect to remain in your home long enough to enjoy the savings solar can offer, you should think hard on whether it’s the best option for you at this time.
(Maybe it still is? Solar panels often add considerable value to a home; you could potentially make up the difference there when selling!)
As you can see with that last one, once the talk turns to money, that’s when things get complicated – isn’t that always the way?
That’s why we’re saving the nuts-and-bolts discussion of solar financing and installation for next time!
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