Solar Power

Renewable energy has enjoyed a considerable increase in use as government programs and state regulations have mandated increasing use of these sources versus fossil and other fuel alternatives. Perhaps the most common option for home owners is the solar photovoltaic (PV) system that converts sunlight into electricity.

Solar PV systems can be mounted on the roof, if it is facing the right direction, or on the ground. Where possible, consider a ground mounted system. If a problem occurs with your roof under a roof-mounted solar PV installation, some or all of it must be removed to make repairs. In extreme cases this could equal the original cost of the entire system.

The concept behind a residential solar PV system is that using the sun’s energy reduces the use of non-renewable sources providing an environmental benefit. Most utilities will allow these systems to be interconnected to their distribution grid. This serves two purposes; first, your home can receive power when there isn’t enough sunlight to generate electricity (cloudy days and at night) and second, support the sale of excess solar energy to the host utility, where supported. This is called net metering.

Before doing anything that commits you to a contract to install or have installed a solar PV system on your home, contact your local utility and find out what their requirements are for interconnection. If your contractor does not follow their guidelines you run the risk of not being allowed to interconnect. There are reasons for this but the most important is safety. All such systems must have a “grid-tied” capability that disconnects the system from the grid in a power outage. This protects line crews and others from your system sending power into the grid and injuring or killing someone.

Own, Lease or Subscribe?

When considering solar power, you may have options related to ownership. The first is where you own the system, investing your own money into the installation and maintenance of the system. In this option, you receive any investment tax credits available, any revenue from the sale of green “tags” and receive the output of your system without a kWh charge. You will also be responsible for proper disposal of the system at its end of life, usually in the 20-25-year range (using a typical warranty as a guide).

If you prefer not to take the ownership route, leasing options may be available in your area. Companies that offer this option will design, install, and maintain the system for you. They receive the tax credits and revenues from green “tag” sales. They may also receive any revenue from excess power sales to the local utility. In exchange, you are free from all ownership risks and get renewable energy. In the lease situation, you may pay a monthly fee to the solar company, pay a kWh charge for the solar used, or both.

Participation in a community solar project is another option that has recently become available. In these situations, contractors build a large solar PV system in a specific area. They then solicit subscriptions from interested home and business owners. If you take this route, you can contract for a share of the solar garden output. These shares are often in blocks of power which allows subscribers to offset a part or all their typical electric use. This is an easy way to receive solar power but be certain to understand the contract details. There are generally penalties for early termination.

And, don’t forget your local utility. They may offer a renewable energy rate program. In these programs, the utility has customers sign up for power, again it can be for partial or full offset. There are likely to be penalties for early termination so like the solar garden option, read the requirements carefully.

Renewable isn't Free

One thing that seems to surprise homeowners is that renewable energy might cost more than power from the utility. The frequent refrain is, “The sunlight is free.” While the fuel is free, converting it into electricity is not. Solar is rather inefficient in this regard. So be prepared for a price premium is some cases. As technology improves, this is likely to go away but, in the meantime, it is a fact of the economics involved.