Is Solar Energy right for my house?

How to Know If Solar Energy Is Right for Your House

Is Solar Energy right for my house?By the end of 2015, solar panels will be on more than a million homes in the U.S. In over a dozen states around the country, you can go solar with $0 down and actually save money on your electric bill — and more states are coming online regularly.

Before you call a solar installer, how do you know if you’ll be a prime candidate for benefiting from solar energy? Here are a few things to know.

Is Your State Ready to Go Solar?

Solar energy only makes financial sense for your home if solar panels can make electricity for a lower cost than what you pay a utility for electricity. Not only does a sunny climate matter, high electricity costs are essential as well.

solar neighborhood

Solar Installations Are Performing Even Better than Promised

solar neighborhoodSolar is looking pretty resilient, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Lab. Now it’s time for international standardization to accelerate and protect investment and performance.

Crunching data from almost 50,000 PV systems pumping out 1.7 gigawatts from 2009 to 2012 — the infamous year of Hurricane Sandy — NREL’s report Reliability and Geographic Trends of 50,000 Photovoltaic Systems in the USA found that 85 percent of them performed 10 percent better than expected. The briefer version? Not even extreme weather events from America’s fearsomely changing climates can make solar panels seem like a dumb investment.

“Worldwide, trillions of dollars of capital are available for investing in photovoltaic systems, but technological and performance risks, among other barriers, remain limiting factors to investment in the PV asset class,” NREL’s study explained — during a market noticeably decoupling from fossil fuels. “Bankable PV that inspires investors’ confidence,” it added (using a three-legged stool as a symbol), requires internationally “consistent manufacturing, durable design, and system verification,” as well trackable durability and reliability in the field. No matter the superstorm.

In that respect, solar is a top performer in the field and the portfolio. NREL’s study found 90 percent of “normal” solar installations unaffected by lightning strikes, hail and wind storms, and even globally warmed events like Hurricane Sandy, still managed to outperform expectation. Divided by regional climates, solar systems in the desert Southwest and hot and humid Southeast United States slightly degraded over time, but of course that’s what usual happens to anything, like inverters, that soak up sun all day in the hottest parts of the nation. Similarly, so-called snowpocalypses like Sandy, blamed for a slim margin of underperforming systems studied by the NREL, can chill solar power down for a spell. But barely, and since underperforming modules comprised about 0.1 percent of all data, maybe not really.

“Considerable uncertainty exists due to the nature of the data,” the NREL concluded. “However, the loss in production is more likely to be associated with subsequent grid outages than with PV system damage.”

What needs to come next for solar to grow even more powerful are international standards and agreements.

“With manufacturers feeling pressure to lower prices, it is essential that quality be maintained and assured,” explained research fellow Sarah Kurtz, co-author of NREL’s Updated Proposal for a Guide for Quality Management Systems for PV Manufacturing (PDF). “The[se] new guidelines help to ensure that quality is not compromised for lower priced modules and make it easier for PV customers to assess the expected quality.”

With about $100 billion annual investment in solar on the table, NREL worked with American and international solar manufacturers to arrive at a global quality standard for PV module production for science and profit. The task force’s supplemental requirements for technical specification of testing, manufacturing and mounting — with respect to regional climate (change) — mandate that warranties for solar panels conform to their expected lifetimes, and that manufacturers are able to trace their products through their entire supply chains. The design product and process must consider potential failure modes, while product certification and reliability testing from China’s International Electrotechnical Commission is also a must.

Getting technical about it, these international standards are doubtlessly deemed important by Kurtz’s co-authors, some of whom hail from industry heavyweights like SunPower, Trina and First Solar. But more broadly speaking, streamlining global solar’s technical specifications will nevertheless greatly accelerate what is already a scorching market for Earth’s most resilient form of renewable energy. The more players we get to agree on the rules of the game, the greater the victories over 20th century energy system that is way past due for an upgrade.


roof repair

SOLAR POWER: Tips for homeowners considering solar panel systems

roof repair

With solar power growing as an option for homeowners, here’s some things to consider when shopping for a system.


Solar power installation on a home is a permit project. Mike Lara , the director of building and safety for Riverside County, has some tips for consumers:

Electrical service panel: Ask if the new system will require replacement of your current electrical service panel. That’s the box with the meter on it outside your home.

“You will be feeding additional electrical power through the panel, so it has to be sized properly” to handle inbound from the local utility company as well as the solar panels’ contribution.

Firefighter clearance: A rooftop panel array must allow space for firefighters to walk on the roof.

“If it’s a daytime fire the panel stays energized all the time,” Lara said. “We work with fire departments to make sure the panel layouts have a clear path.”

solar home sale

Leased solar panels can complicate — or kill — a home sale

solar home saleCan going green by leasing solar panels for your roof cost you money — or give you headaches — when you go to sell the house?

Possibly both.

Say you get pitched by one of the growing number of companies offering solar panels at no upfront cost that they claim will save you lots of money on electricity bills. Sounds like a slam-dunk. So you sign on.

Then a few years later you decide to sell the house. You assume that the presence of solar panels can only be a marketing plus, maybe even get you a higher price. Everybody goes for green, right?

But that’s when it gets weird. Some would-be buyers balk when they learn that they’ll need to qualify on credit to take over your solar lease payments for the next 15 to 17 years. Others say they like the house but won’t sign a contract unless you buy out the remaining lease payment stream — $15,000 or $20,000 or more — because they’re worried that the solar equipment will become obsolete or won’t save as much on electricity bills as advertised.


solar city google

Can Google bring solar power to the masses?

solar city googleIs there anything better than powering your home with solar?

The electricity generation comes with no air or water pollution. There are no carbon dioxide emissions to contribute to climate change, outside of the manufacture of solar panels. Because they’re on roofs, land use impact is basically nil. Solar power generates more jobs per unit of energy than fossil fuels, and those jobs can’t be outsourced because construction is local by definition. It also consumes much less water than sources like coal, natural gas, or nuclear, preventing strains on community supplies.

But there’s a big hurdle: The systems generally cost more than $10,000 a pop, an imposing chunk of change to finance or borrow for all but the luckiest Americans.


Portland Sunnier Than Houston?

solar-sunlightThe spring equinox is a fine time to celebrate the sun. And, for the solar power lovers among us, it’s a great time to take stock of how much sun is available for rooftop solar across the country.

When we do, we find that, over the course of the year, the sun for solar power generation is actually much more evenly distributed than sunny-Southwest-postcards-vs.-Northern-snow-scenes would suggest. It’s also more evenly spread than typical solar maps would lead you to believe. Here’s a better way to see how much you’ve got.

What does a better map mean for you?

A good solar map will allow you to get a ballpark sense, right off the bat, of how well solar panels might perform where you live.


solar: makers or takers?

Are Residents With Solar Panels ‘Makers’ Or ‘Takers’?

solar: makers or takers?One of the more recurring disagreements before the legislature’s energy committee Tuesday centered on whether residents with solar panels are really paying for all they get from the power grid.

It is called cost shifting, a phrase that echoed through the hearing room in the Legislative Office Building during conversations on bills that would expand residential solar and enable shared solar facilities in Connecticut.

Because residents with solar installations only pay for the sparse number of kilowatt hours they pull from the grid (along with a small monthly set fee), utilities argue, the cost to keep the poles, wires, transformers and substations up and running is shifted to traditional customers who consume, and pay for, more electricity in a more standard way.


SRP solar tax

Critics question SRP’s solar-energy payments

SRP solar taxSeveral critics of Salt River Project’s recent decision to charge higher fees to solar customers accused the public utility of “profiting” from the solar power it gets from rooftops and sells to other customers.

Several of the people who attended SRP’s public meetings on the rate changes asked for a full accounting of the surplus power SRP gets from rooftop solar.

It’s a little difficult to follow the logic from such complaints. If SRP were profiting from customers’ rooftop solar, wouldn’t it be encouraging more rooftop solar, not raising rates on those customers and likely discouraging the technology?

Utilities are targeting rooftop solar for higher fees specifically because they are not good for power companies’ incomes.

Figures from SRP show rooftop solar is not a profit center for the utility, at least not under its old rate schedule that 15,000 solar customers use. Solar customers who signed up since Dec. 8 will have a different rate schedule.


SolarCity DirectTV

SolarCity offers DIRECTV customers a new solar channel

SolarCity DirectTVSolarCity and DIRECTV are teaming up to make affordable solar power even more accessible for homeowners in major cities across the country. The two companies announced the first-of-its-kind program at DIRECTV’s California Broadcast Center facility today in Long Beach where SolarCity recently installed a one-megawatt solar system.

Under the new service relationship, DIRECTV technicians visiting customers’ homes will be able to offer those homeowners the opportunity to use solar electricity from SolarCity, making it possible for them to pay less than their current utility rates. With SolarCity, these customers can take advantage of clean power for no upfront cost and secure predictable monthly costs for years into the future. The opportunity will be offered to DIRECTV customers in every major market where SolarCity currently operates. The companies plan to offer this opportunity to even more customers as SolarCity continues to expand its operations into new markets. To celebrate the new relationship, qualified SolarCity customers who sign up to go solar between March 11 and March 18 are eligible for a special $400 rebate to be paid upon installation.

DIRECTV, with more than 20 million US customers, has long been at the leading edge of environmental sustainability in its industry. Its ambitious corporate sustainability goals include reducing the company’s carbon emissions by 40 percent and reducing its customers’ carbon emissions by 1 million metric tons per year by 2020. The new relationship with SolarCity is unique to the industry and allows DIRECTV customers to live more sustainably while saving money through the use of clean, renewable solar power.

DIRECTV’s new one-megawatt solar array in Long Beach provides power to the California Broadcast Center, one of its largest energy consuming facilities, which supports DIRECTV’s service in Latin America. The ground-mounted solar system is expected to generate enough renewable solar electricity over its lifetime to power the equivalent of over 1,400 typical homes for a year and deliver important environmental benefits to the Long Beach region and residents of Los Angeles County. It is expected to prevent more than 15.7 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere over its lifetime, which is equivalent to taking over 1,350 cars off the road or planting more than 678,000 trees. It is also expected to save nearly 73 million gallons of water that would otherwise be consumed in the production of electricity from fossil fuel or nuclear sources.*

Like the benefits its customers can now capture, DIRECTV’s solar installation will allow them to pay for the clean energy the system generates at a discount to utility power and enjoy low, predictable solar energy rates for the lifetime of the system.

What Is Holding Solar Back?

solarFor years, solar energy has been widely viewed as a promise of clean, abundant energy that simply can’t be kept because of its inefficiency expense. But research into solar panels has advanced to where their cost can be subdued and their efficiency improved.

Yet even if solar energy eventually becomes a major substitute for fossil fuels worldwide – and there is yet no guarantee of that – it still faces major hurdles.

First, the good news: Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems has come out with a new study concluding that solar power will become the most affordable source of power in many areas of the world in the next decade.

For example, the Fraunhofer said, the cost of generating electricity in central and southern Europe will decline to between 4 and 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2025, and as low as 2 to 4 cents by 2050. This is far less expensive than electricity generated by the newest, most efficient coal- and gas-fired plants, which cost between 5 and 10 cents per kilowatt hour and nuclear plants which cost up to 11 cents.


NREL interconnection

In-Depth Analysis Of Solar Project Completion Timelines Released By NREL

NREL interconnectionData from more than 30,000 solar photovoltaic (PV) installations throughout the United States has been compiled and analyzed by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as part of a new study to explore the relationship between interconnection regulations and actual project completion timelines.

The quick takeaway here? Interconnection process delays are fairly common — and generally range from simple of a couple of days up to several months. The study authors note that the streamlining of the application review + final authorization processes could benefit utilities as well as solar consumers, by reducing the notable time and costs currently accompanying the process of adopting solar energy.

We now have a clearer understanding of the different process elements associated with connecting a PV system to the grid, such as how long it takes to review and approve an application for interconnection, how long it takes to construct and inspect a system, and how long it takes to get final authorization from the utility,” stated lead author Kristen Ardani, a solar technology markets and policy analyst at NREL. “This report represents the first data-driven evaluation of how PV deployment time frames compare to state regulations in key solar markets.”

A recent press report sums up some of the key points:


residential solar

Why solar panels are becoming a middle-class commodity

residential solarThis was adaptated from a blog post first published on EDF’s Energy Exchange blog.

The price of solar panels has fallen by 80 percent since 2008, contributing to a surge in solar home systems in the United States.

Incentives such as net metering and solar “leasing” programs have also broadened the market. Today, middle-income and working-class homes are driving investments in roof-top solar systems in key states, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

After analyzing installations in Arizona, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York, the Center for American Progress found that in all states except Maryland, roof-top solar panels overwhelmingly landed in neighborhoods with a median household income of $40,000 to $90,000.

The benefits of these panels have multiplied.

New jobs for a diverse group of working Americans

We now boast an estimated 20 gigawatts of solar energy nationwide, enough to power more than four million homes, and the United States added more solar capacity in the past two years than in the previous 30 years combined.

In fact, as President Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address last month, “every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”

This is not all about electricity. The growth of the solar industry is also creating good jobs, and plenty of them.

The  industry added jobs nearly 20 times faster than the national average in 2014, and solar employment has grown 86 percent in the past five years. Solar installers make an average of $20 to $24 per hour, and solar salespeople can make up to $60 per hour.

This emerging industry is inclusive. As I have written before, solar and other clean energy jobs are generally more accessible to people of color and folks without advanced degrees.

A cleaner environment for people who need it most

Not to be overlooked are the environmental benefits of solar: The deployment of this clean energy resource helped avoid an estimated 20 million metric tons of harmful carbon dioxide emissions in 2014, the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off U.S. highways.

The fact that solar averts dirty, fossil fuel pollution has a critical equity aspect as approximately 68 percent of African-Americans and a similar percentage of Latinos live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of communities of color breathe polluted air.

Solar can reach many more homes

While all of this news is encouraging, there is still much more unrealized potential for local solar access and affordability for low-income people, renters and communities of color – constituencies that usually overlap.

Seizing this opportunity is a priority for many lawmakers and advocates – including Environmental Defense Fund – who are working to find solutions.

A community solar pilot project in Los Angeles, for example, will empower residents to own a share of a local solar garden without installing panels on their own roofs. This has the potential to reach 51 percent of the population in the city who rent, and large swaths of residents who can’t afford their own solar system.

These and other policies can create access and affordability for people who otherwise could not join the clean energy revolution – and we need to get policies right on net metering and other incentives that help every American benefit.

solar installation

By the Time You Read This, They’ve Slapped a Solar Panel on Your Roof

solar installationSolar is so cheap, the problem now is how to pay for it.

Prices for panels are down more than 65 percent in five years, to less than 70¢ a watt. What’s next?

One word, Ben: financing.

Building a solar generating facility—either a massive one in a desert or a tiny one on the roof—involves serious up-front costs. In extreme cases, the cost of capital can make power almost 50 percent more expensive than it would otherwise be, says a report released Tuesday, Feb. 24, by the independent German research group Agora Energiewende. These costs can even influence the ultimate price of electricity more than the amount of sunlight a region receives.
But the industry is growing up in ways that are leading to both lower costs overall and, as GreenTech Media has reported, faster installations. Solar developers, banks, nonprofits, and other industry players are creating tools that are standard in mature financial markets. These are the business practices that don’t make for dramatic headlines but need attention if the industry is going to reach adulthood: credit ratings, due diligence standards, and in general, cheaper ways to find and close deals. The easier these things become, and the more deals are done, the less risk investors face.


tax equity

Which Residential Solar Firms Have Raised the Most Tax Equity?

tax equityTax equity has been the primary way to finance solar projects in America. But it has sometimes proven difficult. There are a limited number of entities with enough tax liability to invest large pools of money.

Concerns over a tax equity bottleneck helped spur the creation of new financial tools, such as securitization and YieldCos. But it’s not as though tax equity is in such short supply that companies are struggling to raise money.

“Tax equity remains the most expensive capital in most solar projects today,” said Shayle Kann, senior VP of GTM Research. “But leading developers have consistently proven their ability to raise enough tax equity to sustain their rapid growth and build out their pipelines.”