Install Solar at Your Home?

By Russell Lowes, Sierra Club Rincon Group Energy Chair, August 4, 2014

    A year and a half ago my wife, Lhasha, and I took the leap! After 17 years since buying our house, we finally installed solar panels.

Some of the crew members that installed our solar panels, picture by R. Lowes

    This article shows how solar is affordable now. Prices have come down even more, since we installed our solar panels. The costs of owning a solar array to power your home are now far cheaper than buying power from your utilities.
We had done a number of things to get ready for solar. We thought it would be best to first reduce our energy needs, so we engaged in a number of energy and water-saving techniques:

  • Added an evaporative cooler onto our air conditioner, so that we could switch back and forth with this piggyback system – we also put in a barometric damper between the AC and cooler so we would not have to do anything but turn one off and the other on (no getting up on the roof or putting metal sheets in place);


“Piggyback, or dual, evaporative cooler/HVAC system” picture by R. Lowes

  • Had insulation blown in to our attic;
  • Installed insulating blinds;
  • Installed double-pane windows (the noise reduction alone was worth it);
  • Replaced our lawn with desert landscaping and put in a grey-water system on our clothes-washer (with a Watershed Management workshop more water than energy-saving);
  • Replaced our A/C system with a much more efficient HVAC system; and
  • Insulated behind the cabinets on our kitchen cabinets.

    We did all these efficiency things first, to save energy and to reduce the panels we would need to buy. After saving up for solar by late last year, we decided to get three or four quotes. We received quotes from Sungevity, Technicians for Sustainability and Net Zero Solar, and a ballpark quote from Geo Innovation. These quotes were for similar products, and had similar contracts.

    I was hoping to go with Sungevity, because they linked with the Sierra Club in donating $750 to the Club per installation. However, Net Zero Solar in this instance provided the best bid. Their cost, pre-tax reduction and rebate, was $8925 (without the utility rebate, which we signed over to them). Technicians for Sustainability gave a $11,029 quote, and Sungevity gave a $16,910 quote (gross cost, pre-tax benefit reductions).
    So, you might ask, how quickly does solar pay for itself? How good of an investment is it?
    Here is a breakdown of how I would answer this question.
    First, it largely depends upon how you pay for the system. If you are buying the system and are comparing the cost of the system to what you would pay in electric bills, that would require a projected interest rate for a loan, and an electric price prediction.  
    If you are borrowing to buy the system, and are borrowing money at say 6%, it will be different than buying with cash. For my personal approach (after all, it is a personal approach), I do not think that investments will yield very much in the future, as the stock market is very high, so here I focused instead on the electric grid comparison. I also believe our U.S. economic foundation is weak and that we are likely to go into hyper-inflation in several years, similar to the early 1980s. I believe this will increase electricity bills substantially.
    It is important for me to emphasize to you: once you invest in solar, there is a good chance that your investment will be good for well over 25 years. Some solar panels are now still in use after 40 years. Your solar investment is not likely decrease in value like stocks or bonds during an economic downturn. It will keep its value and maybe increase in value if the cost of electricity does what I think it will do.
    This is how I personally approach it. If you are borrowing or leasing, you could come up with a different approach, or you could modify the table below. If you have positive equity in our house, home equity loans are a good way to go. The positive impacts on the environment are matched by the positive impacts on your wallet. Solar energy is economical now.

 


 

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