This is part 1 of “Is Solar Right For Me?” from Neil Kaminar, author of Solar Basics. Part 2 will appear next week.
The answer may be no. There are many factors that determine if solar is right for your home, including your motivation, how much electricity you use, the cost of electricity in your area, financial assistance available, local climate, aesthetics, roof orientation, and shadowing.
First question to ask yourself is “what is my motivation?” Are you dedicated to renewable energy regardless of the cost? Or, are you concerned about the environment but want the solar system to pay for itself? In most cases, over the life of the system, the cost of solar is actually lower than paying the electricity bill, but not always. Your motivation might be a purely financial one. Even if you are going to install a solar system regardless of the cost, you still don’t want to be wasteful with your money.
To find out how much electricity you use, gather up your utility bills. If you have not saved them, you can call the utility company or go online to get copies. Because electricity use varies year to year, multiple years are best. Find the electricity use on the bill in KWh (Kilowatt-hour). Add up all the KWh and divide by the number of months to get the average use per month. Multiply this by 12 to get the average use per year. In the same way, total all the cost and divide by the total KWh to get the average cost in cents per KWh. It should range between about 12 and 30 cents per KWh depending on where you live and your rate structure.
Look at the rate structure. If you cannot find this, call the utility company. If you have a tiered rate structure, the more electricity you use the more the utility company charges you. It may be very economical to just install enough solar to get rid of the most expensive part of the bill.
If you have a new construction or are planning a solar system for a house or cabin without a grid connection, you will have to calculate the electricity use. Add up all the Watts that each appliance uses multiplied by the hours they are used each day. This will be the Wh (Watt-hours) used each day. Multiply by 365 and divide by 1,000 to get the KWh used over the year.
Now look at the energy efficiency of your house. Is it old with many leaky windows, an inefficient heating and cooling system, many incandescent lights, inefficient appliances? Even the most efficient house can stand some improvement. Why is this important? Because it is much less expensive to reduce energy use that to install more solar. It is also better for the environment because less resources are used. Some estimates are that for every dollar spent in efficiency improvement, four dollars can be saved in the solar system. Make an estimate on how much you can reduce your electricity use by improving the energy efficiency of your house. It may pay to get a professional energy audit.
You can get financial assistance from the Federal government, your state government, and your utility company. The assistance takes the form of tax breaks and rebates. Every state and every utility is different. Using rebates, you may be able to reduce the cost of your solar system by half. The best source for information about financial assistance is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, DSIRE for short, brought to you by the good folks at North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, see http://www.dsireusa.org/. Regardless of the name, the site covers Federal incentives too. Notice that incentives for energy efficiency improvements are also shown. You can get paid for saving money. The amount of incentives available to you can make the difference between your solar system being cost-effective or not.
As an example, lets take Phoenix, Arizona. The utility company is APS, http://www.aps.com/. According to the DSIRE site, at this writing, the following assistance for residences in Arizona was available:
Green Building Incentive
Personal Tax Credit
Property Tax Incentive
Sales Tax Incentive
Utility Loan Program
Utility Rebate Program
Not all of these apply. Lets look at one for further detail: the APS – Renewable Incentive Program. Clicking on the link we find that the program pays for grid-tied photovoltaic systems up to $3 per Watt, not to exceed 50% of the total cost or $75,000. It also pays for other solar systems such as day lighting and solar hot water. The photovoltaic system has to be installed by a licensed contractor. A web site and further contact information is given. Go ahead and contact whoever is giving the rebate to get the ball rolling early. You will likely have to use a licensed contractor, and can usually sign over the rebate as part of the payment. The contractor will also help you get the paper work started. Get a minimum of three quotes. Make sure the contractor factors in your energy saving from the efficiency improvements. Search the web for solar contractors and installers in your area.
To take full advantage of the tax benefits, consult a tax professional. Point them to the DSIRE site for reference. They can use the contacts from the site to obtain further information.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Is Solar Right For Me?” from Neil Kaminar, which will appear next week.
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