Considering Solar? Five Questions to Ask!

Posted on October 19th, 2011 by
   

The bankruptcies of Solyndra, Evergreen and other solar companies raise questions about solar energy in general. The market has seen a flood of new solar module suppliers in recent years, many from China — and a slew of new technologies with little or no field testing. Have we experienced a solar “bubble?”

On the surface, it seems we have and yet, established solar technologies have proven to be successful beyond any doubt – and the industry’s vital signs are stronger than ever. Consider these U.S. market facts from the Solar Energy Industries Association:

  • 5,000 solar energy companies now employ more than 100,000 Americans.
  • The U.S. has installed enough solar energy to power 630,000 homes.
  • Since January 2010, solar panels have dropped in price by about 30 percent.
  • The U.S. is expected to become the world’s No.1 solar market by 2014.
  • America was a net exporter of solar products last year, by $2 billion – even to China.

For the informed consumer, there’s never been a better time to invest in solar power. Here, then, are five questions to help anyone make the right decision about installing a residential or commercial solar electric generating system:

1. How long have the providers been in business?

This may seem obvious. However, before you consider any solar solution, investigate the installer – and check references. An installer with no references or track record will be a risky provider, regardless of the price. Moreover, solar panels are not a commodity like sugar or flour – there is a real difference in quality and reliability from one producer to the next. Can you trust a 20-year warranty from a manufacturer that just entered the market? Does lower price mean better value, or do you just get what you pay for? Trust your judgment. And remember, a warranty is worthless if the provider goes out of business. A manufacturer with a long history and sound financial position is more likely to be around in the event that a warranty claim is ever submitted.

2. Is my home or business close to achieving optimal energy efficiency?

It is always less costly to eliminate inefficient loads instead of buying more solar modules to power them. Technology is making all appliances and electrical devices more power-efficient. The planning stage for your solar electric system is an ideal time to identify any appliances that may be grossly inefficent and consider replacing them, since newer refrigerators and dishwashers can contribute to a significant reduction in total power demand. Lighting alone can account for up to 20 percent of a home’s electrical use; newer compact-fluorescent and LED lighting products can cut this by nearly half. Optimizing energy efficiency is always the best first step in the process of adopting solar power.

3. What is my current electrical usage, and how much do I want to offset with solar?

“Knowing a home’s energy usage helps us figure out the best system size to drive the highest rate of return for the owner,” explains Linda Strand, President and CEO of Independent Energy Solutions, a major solar installer in Southern California.

Your power bills contain all of the data you’ll need to calculate how many kilowatt hours you require per year. A qualified solar installer can use this data and the prevailing sun exposure conditions of your venue to determine how much peak generating capacity you’ll need to meet your goal – whether you want to offset part, or all, of your total demand.

Today, the vast majority of users seek “grid-tied” systems, rather than “off-grid” systems that incorporate batteries. The grid-tied system uses the power infrastructure as a virtual battery, providing a credit for the kilowatt hours generated and thereby offsetting your power bill. In this way, a grid-tied system can provide real benefits even if it is designed to offset only a portion of your total electrical demand. Commercial power rates generally rise over time; by installing solar, energy consumers can protect themselves from future rate increases.

4. Where is the ideal location for the system to be installed?

While solar electric systems are typically installed on rooftops, not every roof is ideally situated in a sunny, southern exposure unshaded by trees or other structures. If your roof is ideally situated, you must consider whether it will support the weight of a solar PV system. “Typically, we can determine the maximum pounds per square foot that the roof can support from the structure’s framing plan,” said Strand. For some structures, it may be wise to re-roof prior to installing solar.

If your roof won’t comply, you may consider other options. A solar carport structure or ground-mounted system can be an effective alternative that unlocks the value of unused space.

5. How will I pay for my solar electric system?

A solar energy system is a significant initial investment, but one that has the potential to offset rising energy costs for years to come. Whether you are a homeowner seeking to offset your residential energy needs or considering a larger, commercial installation, you may benefit from a range of financing assistance, including tax breaks, rebates, incentives, and grants. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency  is a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility and federal programs supporting renewable energy.

Many customers have found a creative solution to help offset the cost of installing and maintaining a solar array: entering into a solar power purchase agreement (PPA) with a provider who owns and maintains a solar electric system that they install on your property. PPA customers pay only for the power a system generates, at an agreed-upon long-term rate, allowing them to avoid the unpleasant surprise of annual utility rate increases. A solar PPA can help simplify the process of “going solar” while saving on energy expenses for years to come. According to DSIRE, as of July 2011, at least 21 states and Puerto Rico authorize or allow third-party solar PPAs.

In summary, solar power is an abundant, renewable resource that you can tap through proven products and technologies. With proper preparation to become an informed consumer, solar electricity can be a financially savvy and environmentally friendly solution for your current and future energy needs.

Written by Cecilia Aguillon, Kyocera Solar, Inc. Cecilia Aguillon is director of market development and government policy for Kyocera Solar, Inc., recognized as a world-leading supplier of solar electric energy products since 1975.

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