Solar Solutions

Your rooftop real estate can help you harness the sun’s power at home.

By Jodi Helmer

March 2012


It’s been three years since Doug and Cathy Sheafor built a new home in Cornelius, North Carolina, but the neighbors just started asking for tours. The recent curiosity is a result of the solar panels the couple installed on the roof last fall.

“Nothing has changed in terms of how things operate inside the house; the only difference is that our energy comes from panels on the roof and decreases our reliance on coal power,” says Doug Sheafor, 46, a diagnostic radiologist. “The transition was seamless.”

A growing number of homeowners are using the real estate on their rooftops to generate their own energy. In fact, the demand for residential solar power in North America is forecast to grow 101% in 2012, according to market research firm NPD Solarbuzz. California and New Jersey boast the largest number of solar projects in the nation.

Serious interest in solar energy began during the 1970s energy crisis, but the price put it beyond the reach of the average consumer. That has changed over the past few decades. “Residential solar power used to be viewed as a space age technology and now it’s available to homeowners very cost effectively,” explains Johnny Weiss, cofounder of Solar Energy International, a Carbondale, Colorado, company that trains people in how to power their homes or businesses with solar energy.

Finding the Right Fit

While solar power for residential use is more popular than ever before, there is no one-size-fits-all photovoltaic (PV) installation. Weiss says solar installers assess factors such as overall energy use as well as the size and orientation of the roof to design an effective system.

Sheafor approached the installation of solar energy panels like he would any other home renovation project: He invited several local contractors to bid on the project and assessed their choices for materials, design and budget. He chose a local solar contractor who handled all aspects of the project, including securing permits and scheduling inspections. (The Solar Energy Industries Association maintains a searchable contractor database on its website, www.seia.org.)

“There are a whole bunch of different options to consider and we found it a little intimidating,” admits Sheafor. “Our installer walked us through the entire process and answered all of our questions.”

The completed project is a 6 kilowatt system comprised of 24 rooftop solar panels. The panels are installed on the back of the house to take advantage of its south/southwest orientation, which means the system is not visible from the street.

Cost Conscious

The total cost for the installation on the Shea for home was $28,000. While the initial price may seem steep, federal and state rebates offer significant reductions, bringing the Sheafors’ total out-of-pocket outlays down to $9,000.

Sheafor estimates that it will take approximately five years of lowered energy bills to recoup the cost of the PV installation. After that point, the family will benefit from free solar power.

“The main reason more people don’t install solar is because they don’t know all the incentives in place to encourage the adoption of a clean energy source,” explains David Hughes, president of Affordable Solar, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, solar installation firm, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Solar Power for Your Home (Alpha).

PV installations garner a federal tax credit of 30%, Hughes notes. In addition, most states offer local incentives to switch to solar power. While the time it takes to see a return on investment depends on utility costs and weather patterns—even in areas of the country where energy rates are high and sunshine levels are low—Hughes notes the system will pay for itself between five and eight years after installation.

“Solar is an investment that is safer than the stock market,” he says.

Of course, PV also reduces or eliminates utility bills. If the solar installation provides 100% of a residence’s energy, homeowners will not receive a monthly bill; those who generate half of their energy from their solar panels will get bills that are 50% lower than normal. In cases where the panels generate more energy than the household can use, utilities will send a bill showing a credit.

Expanded Options

To help make solar power accessible to more people, many installers offer lease options.
Companies such as SolarCity of Hartford, Connecticut, and Sungevity of Oakland, California, offer 10- to 20-year leases that include design, installation and maintenance services in exchange for a monthly fee. According to SolarCity, leasing a 4 kilowatt solar system for a three-bedroom home will cost $110 per month and help reduce electricity bills from $200 per month to $60 per month, for a total savings of $30 per month.

Solar leases are only available in states that offer rebates and tax incentives for solar energy, including California, Oregon, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Colorado. Consult local solar installers to ask about the availability of solar leases in your area.

Utility companies offer solar energy options themselves in certain parts of the country. The providers build PV power plants and broker the power they generate to customers who sign up for the program.

Weiss notes that it often costs more to use utility-provided solar power. However, these utilities offer a renewable energy option to renters and those who lack the resources to purchase or lease solar panels.

“We’re saving on our energy bills and helping to make the world a better place,” says Sheafor. “As a family that is very environmentally conscious, this decision made sense for us.”

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