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General solar FAQs

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Why go solar?
- You increase your own, and our national, energy independence.
- You save money in the long term -- potentially lots of money.
- You reduce global warming and sulfur dioxide, mercury, particulate and other emissions!
- Through a direct purchase of an environmentally friendly vehicle for energy production, you actively and concretely grow the green economy, in the U.S. and worldwide.

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Going solar seems complicated. How difficult is it?
Going solar is no more complicated than buying a new car, though in many cases going solar is cheaper than buying a new car. In both cases, you need to do research, compare prices, companies and products, figure out how you are going to finance everything (ideally, with cash upfront if you have it), examine and reflect on the various long-term costs and benefits, work to get the best deal you can for yourself (while also not sacrificing quality). Finally, you make a well-informed, reflective decision about your “big-item” purchase.

If I’m considering going solar, where do I begin?
We’d recommend starting with some research -- with Internet research the most convenient form of research. Some possible places to start include:

Once you’ve done some research on solar and have decided you want to take the next step and track down a solar installer for an estimate, we’d suggest making a list of solar installers (some of the sites above offer you lists, though not complete ones) in your area. Then, check out their web sites. It’s always helpful to check the Better Business Bureau online to see what sort of BBB record, if any, the solar companies you're considering have.

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How much does going solar cost?
This varies widely, according to a number of factors, including, but not limited to:

  • your geographic location;
  • the amount of sun you get;
  • your roof size, orientation, and shading issues;
  • your electric utility and whether it offers net-metering -- pretty much a must in order to go solar except for adventuresome folks with very deep pockets;
  • the type of panels you buy and their watt output;
  • the size of your system, etc.

The short answer: If you go with a medium-to-large installed system that covers at least 50-percent of your annual home electric use, or more, expect to pay, out-of-pocket, thousands, and very possibly, tens of thousands of dollars up front.

It’s important to note that in virtually all cases, your solar system will save you money in the long run.

Isn’t solar more expensive than coal-produced electricity?
In the short term, maybe, depending on how high, or low, utility rates in your area are. In the long term, no. Solar is cheaper than buying coal-produced electricity, or gas-produced, or nuclear produced electricity from your utility. Depending on how high utility rates rise -- historically, they have always risen -- solar can become much, much cheaper than buying electricity from your utility. How long, is the long-term? The point at which you break even on a solar system is typically between seven to 10 years. After that, you will be getting your electricity for free.


Isn’t there a huge upfront cost for solar?
Typically, the upfront costs for an installed solar system are significant, meaning several thousand dollars at least. Of course, the upfront costs are dependent on a number of different factors. These include the size of the system, the availability and size of utility rebates where you live, the type of panels you install, the solar company who installs your system, etc.

How long will it take for me to realize savings if I go solar?
Although this varies according to many different factors – your roof size, orientation, the size of the system, utility rebates in your city or state, electricity rates where you live, how quickly these rise, how much electricity you use, the type of solar panel and system you buy, and whether you take out a loan to finance all, or some of your system – the typical time it takes for a solar system buyer to break even is between seven and 10 years.

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Will I lose money if I sell my home before the break-even point on a solar system?
The solar industry says no. You will be able to sell your house for more money: a) because a solar system, like any home improvement, improves your home, and therefore adds to its value; b) reduced energy costs for the next home buyer, perhaps even no electric bill whatsoever are attractive. That said, given the current housing slump, if you sell before the break-even/payback point on your solar system, it seems a bit more uncertain how much of your investment you will recoup.

Does it matter where I live?
Your solar system will provide energy no matter where you live. However, the same system will generate more energy annually in sunny Phoenix than in comparatively cloudy Seattle.

What sort of house, roof, and roof do I need in order to go solar?
First, you do need to own some sort of roof and/or land in order to go solar. An un-shaded, south-facing roof is ideal, with east and west facing roofs also possibilities for an efficient solar system, as long as they are relatively un-shaded. The size of the roof you will need depends on: a) your home electric use; b) how much of that electric use you want to cover with solar energy. A typical American homeowner who wants to cover somewhere between 50- and 100-percent, or more, of home electric use, will most likely need a 3 to 7 kW solar system, meaning you’ll need somewhere between 20 and 40 panels on the roof. In sum, most people will need at least 200-square feet of reasonably sun-efficient roof space to cover at least 50-percent of their home electric use. Of course, these are very rough estimates.

Will my homeowner’s insurance go up if I go solar?
Maybe. It depends on your insurance company. You definitely will want to contact your insurance company to ask them about what putting a system on your roof will do to your rates. If they threaten to give you a hard time for doing the right thing, economically and environmentally speaking, consider switching to an insurance company that treats you fairly, and treats solar panels, built up to code, like any other code-compliant addition to your home.

Can my HOA prevent me from going solar?
Unfortunately, this is a fuzzy area. Some HOAs do have covenants, many written in the 1970s and 1980s, that prohibit solar panels. But states are increasingly taking a hard look at these outmoded, anti-environment covenants – as they should!

For instance, the Colorado Legislature moved in the spring of 2009 to strengthen a law already on the books that prevents HOAs from stopping homeowners from installing solar systems.

However, even in Colorado, you will have to submit your solar system plan to your HOA for approval and they will have some ability to request changes, though, at least in Colorado, not ones that significantly increase your costs.

In worst case scenarios, specific clauses in HOA covenants could essentially prevent you from installing your system. One such scenario is one in which the HOA does not allow panels on a roof facing a street, or a “forward-facing” roof. If your non-street facing roof faces north, you’re going to have a problem as solar panels on north-facing roofs do not make sense.

Ultimately, if you are gung-ho about going solar, and have the will to do so, don’t let a backwards HOA stand in your way. You have a decent chance of forcing your HOA to allow you to install panels on your home, especially if you live in a state like Colorado, which has a law on the books that prevents HOAs from instituting blanket, no-solar rules.

Solar panels and solar installations have come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, when many HOAs sprouted up. Many are unaware of the big changes in solar aesthetics because so few homeowners in the U.S. have installed solar.

So, if you live in an HOA and want to install solar, you will likely be a pioneer of sorts. With most pioneering of any kind, come some challenges. However, if you succeed in pioneering solar in your HOA, you will also help do so for other homeowners in your HOA as well as in other HOAs around the U.S.

How large a system do I need?
If you want to power 100-percent of your home electric use, or even more so that you can partially or fully pump out enough annual kWh off your solar system to solar-charge your EV/PHEV, and you are an average American household, meaning you use somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 kWh of electricity per year, you will need to put up a system that is at least 5 kW, and probably larger, in order to do so. Of course, there are many, many factors that come into play, including your geographic and sun location, your roof size and orientation and shading issues, etc. that come into play and make this difficult to answer, except for the individual homeowner.

How long do solar panels last?
Most solar panel manufacturers advertise a lifetime of 25 years for their panels, although some people have estimated that some of today’s panels could last for two, three, or even four times that long. Time will tell…


How long do solar inverters last – and what does it cost to replace them?
The solar inverter is the linchpin of any solar system. It converts the DC electricity generated by your panels into the AC power needed to power your home’s electric use and to send back into the electric grid. A good solar inverter is supposed to last between 10 and 15 years. This is considerably shorter than the panels themselves and, frankly, not something solar companies typically advertise. Solar inverters are also expensive, typically running from $3,000 to $6,000 or more! Obviously, if you need to replace your solar inverter after 10 years (hopefully, 15), this significantly affects the long-term payback picture for a solar system. Unfortunately, it seems many solar companies fail to factor solar inverter replacement in when projecting your long-term solar costs. A short answer to an FAQ question is not the place to examine this in depth. However, SolarChargedDriving.Com plans to investigate this question further on its news features pages.

How strong are solar panels – can they handle hail?
Most panel producers claim that their solar panels can withstand a direct hit by a one-inch diameter hail stone traveling 50 mph. Obviously, hail can be bigger than one inch in diameter and can hit speeds greater than 50 mph. However, solar companies claim that a direct hit on a panel is unlikely, as solar arrays are usually south facing, while hail storms are typically accompanied by northerly winds. It’s anecdotal, but here’s a link to a story about an Austin, Texas homeowner with solar panels that is encouraging to those spooked by the specter of hail damage to their solar panels. Basically, a hail storm that dumped baseball-sized hail and totaled his roof, did not damage the solar panels on his roof.

What sorts of rebates and tax credits are available?
The Federal Government recently extended – and expanded -- the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit, which is a nonrefundable energy tax credit to help individual taxpayers pay for qualified residential alternative energy equipment, such as solar electric (PV) systems. The credit – which is no longer capped at $2,000 -- allows for a credit equal to 30 percent of the cost of an installed PV system.


What are the most solar friendly states in the U.S. in terms of net-metering, incentives, rebates, etc.?
Different sources have somewhat different lists, but generally, the most solar friendly states in the U.S. in terms of factors such as net-metering, rebates, etc. are, in alphabetical order:
  • California
  • Colorado (where SolarChargedDriving.Com is located)
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
(Notice that all of these states went “blue” in the 2008 presidential election!)


What are the least solar friendly states in the U.S. in terms of net-metering, incentives, rebates, etc.?
States without net-metering – net-metering allows homeowners to put up a grid-tied solar system that feeds extra power back into the electric grid when it is being produced by the panels on your home – are extremely unfriendly places to go solar. States without any mandated net-metering are:
  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee

(Notice that all but one of these states went “red” in the 2008 presidential election!)

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I’ve heard that solar could power America and the world? Is this true?
Yes, it is true. A report entitled “On the Rise; Solar Thermal Power and the Fight Against Global Warming” and put out by Environment Maine in the spring of 2008 found that America could generate all of its electricity from large central concentrated solar power plants.

According to Environment Maine, these plants would need to cover an area of 100-by-100 miles in the Southwest.

Skeptical of the source?

Then, how about the following source: The prestigious National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which has reached similar, though not exactly the same conclusions, in studying concentrated solar power potential in the American Southwest. According to NREL:

If excellent and good solar resources are included, the western solar generating potential is nearly twice the current electric energy demand [in the Southwest], but would only require 0.7% of southwestern land. This analysis shows that the Southwest’s solar generating potential is vast.
(for full report, go to http://www.nrel.gov/csp/pdfs/33233.pdf)

Another interesting study, this one produced in 2005 by the Energy Foundation, found that:

Residential and commercial rooftop space in the U.S. could accommodate up to 710,000 MW of solar electric power (if all rooftops were fully utilized, taking into account proper orientation of buildings, shading from trees, HVAC equipment, and other solar access factors). For comparison, total electricity-generating capacity in the U.S. today is about 950,000 MW.

This means that rooftop solar alone could cover 70-percent of America’s electric power needs! Add concentrated solar to the rooftop equation and you easily have more than 100-percent of America’s electricity produced by solar energy!


What are some of the environmental benefits of solar?
- reduces global warming
- reduces other emissions such as sulfur dioxide, mercury, etc. that coal-fired power plants spew into the air
- if you solar-charge your EV, you create a true ZEV, zero emissions vehicle
- reduces environmental damage associated with drilling for natural gas and mining for coal AND if you solar-charge your EV, reduces environmental damage associated with drilling for oil
- solar, unlike fossil fuels, whose supply is finite, is renewable

What is the environmental impact of solar panel production?
SolarChargedDriving.Com will look at this question in depth on its news features pages, most likely more than once. The short answer is that solar panel production does have an environmental impact: Raw materials must be mined, energy, much of it generated by fossil fuels (for now) is needed to produce the panels, and waste products are produced during the manufacture of solar panels. Like any product, solar panels must also be distributed around the world, almost exclusively by using vehicles powered by fossil fuel. However, the environmental impact of solar panel production is much less than the production of gasoline, coal, natural gas, etc.. For an excellent, easy-to-read, table-format comparison of solar to other forms of power, go to: http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/OIPP/docs/solar_panel_lifecycle.pdf.


What happens to solar panels after they “die”, what is the environmental impact of their disposal?
While there is toxic waste associated with the disposal of solar panels, it is not extreme. The solar industry is also working toward creating a recycling system to help take care of solar panels at the back end of their life, estimated to be 25 to 30 years (or more). According to the U.S. Department of Energy,

“Because solar modules (panels of PV cells) have useful lives of up to 30 years, the amount of waste generated by retired modules is currently very small. By about 2020, however, this growing industry will produce a growing PV waste stream. PV products are generally safe for landfills, because PV materials are usually encased in glass or plastic, and many are insoluble. Some modules, however, could be classified as hazardous waste, a situation that is prompting the PV industry to develop recycling processes for modules.”

For more on this issue from the U.S. Department of Energy, surf to: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/panel_disposal.html

SolarChargedDriving.Com will pursue the issue of solar panel waste and disposal in depth, in its news features section.

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