Making Home Solar Happen: Flipping the Switch and Maintaining Your System
You made it!
You decided that your home would look great with some shiny new solar panels adorning its roof – and that that roof was a great fit to support them. You secured some financing – whether through a loan, a lease or Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), or an outright purchase – and found an installer you trusted.
Now it’s the big day. The time has come to turn your home solar panel system on and start enjoying the benefits of clean, renewable energy that will save you money and help you do your part to fight the climate crisis.
But before you flip the switch, there are a few final things to understand about home solar. Things like net metering policies that can save you money, utility connection fees (big thumbs down), and what you should expect when it comes to taking care of your new system.
SAVING MONEY WITH NET METERING
First off, what is net metering?
It’s a pretty nifty way for your solar panels to save you even more money, that’s what.
More specifically, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “Net metering is a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid.” The credits can then offset the electricity you use when your solar energy system is not generating enough electricity to meet your needs.
Think about it like this: During the afternoon hours when your solar panels are at their most productive, they may generate more electricity than your home is using. This electricity is fed back to the overall grid, most often to support demand from other utility customers. If your home is net-metered, you’re credited for that excess electricity and can utilize it later when your panels are producing less (like at night). Which is pretty cool!
Net metering also helps utilities better manage peak electricity loads, particularly on especially hot and sunny summer days or clear and very cold days in the winter when folks are using a lot of electricity (on AC or heat, respectively). At these times, area solar panels are often also producing strongly, helping meet that increased demand.
Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have mandatory net metering rules on the books, though they can vary (sometimes dramatically) from state to state. You can learn more about your state’s net metering rules by visiting the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).
ARE THERE ANY ADDITIONAL UTILITY FEES I WILL NEED TO PAY?
That depends on where you are.
Some utilities across the country – seemingly worried about solar eating away at their profits – are engaging in attempts to nickel-and-dime some home solar customers, in an attempt to disincentive solar installation by cutting into the savings users enjoy. Most often, this has come in the form of a one-time, fixed, or connection fee for solar customers, though a very small handful of states have taken a more aggressive tack, working to impose demand-charge rates for solar users that might not be offset by net metering credits.
According to Consumer Reports, many utilities attempt to justify these fees by claiming a need to make up maintenance costs lost to solar panel use: “Utilities argue that because transmission costs – for line maintenance, tree trimming, and emergency crews, for instance – have traditionally been paid by the kilowatt-hour, solar customers aren’t contributing their fair share, even though they continue to use the lines (primarily at night).”
Unsurprisingly, this is mostly bupkis. Actual data shows solar use has numerous financial benefits for traditional utility providers – including reducing peak electricity demand and the attendant “tremendous expense of adding capacity.”
It also may be incredibly shortsighted on the utilities’ part, according to some solar experts: We’re closing in fast on the increasingly widespread affordability of long-term battery storage for solar users (for many, we’re already there), allowing more and more new and existing home solar users to disconnect from the grid entirely.
Perhaps these users wouldn’t feel as inclined to make the full leap as soon as they are able if they didn’t also feel like they were being unfairly targeted for doing something good for their families, their wallets, their health, and the planet (and again, in many ways, the utilities themselves)?
(Steps off soapbox.)
WHAT ABOUT SOLAR RENEWABLE ENERGY CERTIFICATES (SREC)?
Solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) are another way you can save money with solar, while actually helping your utility out.
The background here is that many utilities have to meet renewable portfolio standards (RPS). “Renewable portfolio standards are state laws that require utilities to produce a specific percentage of their electricity from renewable resources,” according to EnergySage. “Nearly 30 states and Washington, DC have an RPS, and eight states have a renewable portfolio goal.”
SRECs are part of this system because they show that a certain amount of electricity was produced using solar energy. Who in a utility’s service area produces the energy doesn’t matter – it can be a home (like yours), a business, a community solar farm, or even the utility’s own facility. All that matters is that the utility can demonstrate solar supplied enough energy to meet its goals.
This matters for solar operators like you because, as the Washington Post reports, for every 1,000 kWh (kilowatt hours) of solar power your home system generates, you earn one SREC. Your utility can buy it from you – “for as much as $480 in some areas” – to show it’s achieving its RPS-mandated goals.
(EnergySage is a bit more conservative, suggesting SRECs more typically go for around $300.)
SOLAR PANEL MAINTENANCE
Now we’re to a big question we’re sure you’ve been waiting for: What sort of maintenance does a home solar panel system require?
The good news is, not too much, really.
Your solar panels themselves can last for decades on end without much upkeep – maybe just remember to keep them free of debris, snow, etc. And because their parts don’t wear out easily, PV panels are well-known to continue producing clean electricity well beyond their often-lengthy warranties – though sometimes at slightly less efficiency as the years fade from one to the next.
A June 2012 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study investigating the photovoltaic degradation rates of about 2,000 solar installations over a period of 40 years found the median solar system lost just 0.5 percent of its power output per year. So, by the end of a typical 25-year warranty, the solar panels on your roof could still be operating at about 87 percent of their original capacity.
Not half bad!
Speaking of warranties: Even if problems do arise, you’ll be covered. Most home solar panel arrays come with guarantees covering 25 and even up to 30 years. That said, you will likely need to replace the inverter a few times throughout the life of your system.
Like the solar panels themselves, inverters typically come with a warranty – these can range from five to 15 years (and sometimes even longer). Unlike your panels, your inverter will not see its efficiency dwindle very slowly; instead, it may simply stop working and need to be replaced.
However, technological developments on this front are afoot too.
New “micro-inverters,” which are installed or included with each solar panel, are quickly replacing the more-common central inverters that handle the output of all your panels at once. These micro-inverters can have a much longer lifespan (all the way up to 25 years) than a central inverter, and if one does fail, it won’t shut your entire system down cold.
And that, frankly, is that.
If you’ve made it this far, we suspect you already know solar’s biggest benefit of all: It isn’t just the right choice for your wallet – it’s also the smart choice for the planet.
The advantages of turning to solar energy don’t end with lower power bills. Cutting carbon pollution? Check. Empowering communities? Check. Creating good jobs? Check and check.
In a relatively short period of time, it’s become very clear that an incredible future is ahead for this renewable source of energy. And as you might expect, the more prices fall, the more attractive it becomes to ever-more people.
(We’d make a joke about the snowball effect, but it seems ill-suited to the subject at hand.)
Learn even more about the benefits of solar energy by downloading our free new e-book, Things Are Looking Bright: The Facts about Solar Energy
In it, we take a much larger view of solar’s impact on the energy landscape, from the incredible number of jobs the industry is creating and the ways it can help us fight the climate crisis to how solar works just fine on cloudy and even very cold days (back to that snowball joke… err, never mind).