THE SOLAR TOWER OF BABEL: Many homeowners are lost in a confusing mix of information about solar panels and who can criticize them? Rebates vary by geography. Manufacturers have flooded the worldwide market with panels that often do not meet their printed technical specifications. Banks have differing terms about the loan programs that are used to buy solar arrays. Some utility programs are supportive of solar while others are diametrically opposed. It all sounds like information overload when trying to choose the right solar panel service company.
1. REFERENCES ARE NUMBER ONE! In spite of the mix of information, the last few years have been record breaking for rooftop solar. Solar is just like any other retail service and consumers should expect to get what they are promised but the fine print in contracts can be confusing. You should interview the solar installers that are under consideration and ask each one to provide you with a list of references of homeowners who live in your own community. Therefore, the most important item associated with your solar array is the testimony of the homeowners who are using it in real time. Contact the references provided by each company and ask specific questions regarding:
- How long did it take for the homeowner to experience a cost reduction in terms of the cost of electricity?
- How long did it take to receive any rebates and what was the application process like?
- What kind of maintenance plan is available?
- Do you own or lease? If you own the solar panels, then you are responsible for their upkeep. The equipment usually doesn’t require a lot of cleaning but your roof may attract birds which can become problematic if left unattended. If you lease the solar array or opt for a solar power purchase agreement, then the company that provides the financing is responsible for upkeep. The bottom line is that you need to make sure that you fully understand who is in charge of servicing the equipment.
2. LEASE VERSUS SOLAR POWER PURCHASE AGREEMENT: Some solar service companies offer leases while others offer solar power purchase agreements. In a lease, a homeowner pays a fixed amount each month regardless of how much electricity the solar panels produce. On the other hand, a solar power purchase agreement between the company and the homeowner provides a specific rate for each kilowatt of electricity that is produced and your payment will vary from month to month as the seasons change and the equipment ages. Local and state regulations govern the sale of electricity and this must be factored in, too, when making your final decision.
After you have nailed down the top three solar panel service companies based on positive references and your questions have been answered in a thorough manner, now is the time to look at the installed cost per watt. Notice that I have used the term: installed cost per watt. But to know this total cost you should also know what the cost per watt is of the solar panel.
3. THE COST PER WATT OF A SOLAR PANEL VERSUS THE INSTALLED COST PER WATT: A few years ago the cost of the solar panel was the major cost to consider when determining the overall cost of installation…..but my how things have changed! Prices still vary widely and there is a mind-numbing interplay that can be difficult to assess between the cost of long term maintenance and the specific cost of the panel itself. But what does “installed cost” really mean?
Other than the panel itself, the major cost to consider is that of the inverter. But you ask what is the difference between an “inverter’ and an “electrical generator,” and the answer is pretty easy. A generator provides electricity by turning a dynamo with a fueled engine, but an inverter is a series of coils that convert electricity into usable voltages. The most common use for an inverter is with a solar power system for conversion of the DC electrical power produced by the solar panels to usable AC. And this conversion makes up the BOS costs – Balance of System.
We don’t want to forget racking. The racking system holds the solar panel in place. Regardless of whether your racking system is roof-mount or ground-mount, it will all fly away with the first strong wind if your racking system is inferior. And big strides have been made in racking systems. The most effective racking systems have a built-in wire management raceway that gets the wire out of the way and allows your solar panels to connect solidly.
After you are confident that your choice of solar module, racking, and BOS will meet your needs, you have to make sure that you can accurately determine the voltage output in a simple manner. So your system of communicating these results right into your home becomes the last variable to consider.
As prices continue to fall, solar energy is increasingly becoming the preferred energy choice for homeowners. Still, the biggest hurdle to affordable solar energy remains the soft costs – like permitting, zoning, and hooking a solar system up to the power grid. Just consider — back in the 1960s the first commercially available solar cells cost $400 per watt. And today, bids for large-scale plants are in the range of $1.20 per watt. As we continue to push for innovation to drive down the cost of solar, it’s much easier to imagine a day in the near future when we will reach $1 per watt for a fully installed solar energy system.
In fact, solar is becoming competitive without incentives. Solar combined with batteries will likely be cost-competitive for millions of customers in the next decade. And new interconnection policies that put distributed generation on the same level as large power plants are turning homeowners into competitors in the energy market and the next generation of outstanding small businesses turning their ideas into multi-million dollar companies.
See You Next Time! Dr. Stripling