A Reader's Guide to Going Solar

Quest: Solar UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

A Reader's Guide to Going Solar

Solar panels aren’t the kind of home project that can be tackled with a Home Depot run and a free afternoon. The decision to get them – and then what kind, how many and more – involves lots of research and often, a big investment.

Solar panels aren’t the kind of home project that can be tackled with a Home Depot run and a free afternoon. The decision to get them – and then what kind, how many and more – involves lots of research and often, a big investment.

I’ve spent the past several weeks digging into some of the biggest questions folks have about the process.

Here’s a rundown of what I’ve learned.

The first step is figuring out if you’re even a candidate for solar. Toward that end, use this handy flow chart. Spoiler alert: Solar companies are most interested in candidates who own their homes and have electricity bills that hit at least $100 a month.

The next step is finding a solar company and evaluating the bids those companies give you.

Experts recommend getting at least three comparable bids – this worksheet can help – and making sure companies offer bids using the same energy production metric to measure output.

It’s also key to do your homework on the companies, particularly those that make unsolicited pitches. It’s best to seek out companies yourself and to make sure they’re certified to do the work, offering workmanship warranties and have on-the-job insurance in case something goes wrong.

Getting solar panels is complicated but maintaining them usually isn’t. Still, going with name-brand panels can pay off if something does go wrong or your solar installer goes out of business. (Yep, that happens.)

Most people who go solar are motivated at least in part by the potential savings. That slashed energy bill is possible because of a program known as net energy metering, which requires utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric to pay retail energy prices for the power solar panels produce. The end result often means solar customers get enough credits to dramatically lower their bill, or offset it altogether.

But the current arrangement won’t be around much longer. State regulators have put a cap on it and once it’s reached, customers who go solar will be offered a new deal – and it probably won’t be as favorable. Consumers who get panels before the current net metering program expires will be grandfathered in, meaning they’ll get to enjoy the program as it is for 20 years.

• Part of the reason net metering works out in solar customers’ favor is because of how energy rates are structured. That, too, is about to change. The current tier structure has consumers who use a lot of energy paying more than double the rate low users do, meaning solar converts can more easily offset their energy bills with higher-priced energy.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted earlier this month to knock out two of those tiers over the next few years and up the minimum bill customers must pay. That means solar customers will save less, and have a harder time offsetting their SDG&E bills. The new structure will give more incentive to go solar to people who use low amounts of energy, because their bills will rise.

The change to net metering is just one reason solar companies are pushing customers to go solar sooner rather than later. A federal tax credit that now shaves up to 30 percent off the cost of solar panels is set to expire at the end of 2016.

 There’s no denying it: You’ll get the best bang for your buck if you can buy solar panels outright. But more consumers these days are going with leases and power purchase agreements – which charge based on the power their panels produce – mostly because big solar companies are pitching them as a way to go green without an upfront investment.

Those deals may make solar pencil out for you but the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the federal government’s energy think tank, concluded in a study earlier this year that customers who get bank loans pay as much as 29 percent less per kilowatt hour of energy than those who go with a 20-year power purchase agreement.

• An increasingly popular loan program known as Property Assessed Clean Energy lets homeowners attach their solar payments to their property tax bills, but can make moving or refinancing a home more complicated.

Real estate gurus in San Diego are pointing to hiccups in Riverside County, where the program’s been widespread, as evidence of a ticking time bomb. The feds aren’t allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s two largest mortgage lenders, to lend or refinance properties with PACE loans, forcing some homeowners to pay out loans in full rather than transfer them when they try to sell their homes.

Admit it, you’ve wondered whether solar panels could break or create a fire hazard, or what might happen if you move or your solar company goes out of business. The good news is that many of those fears are overblown.

Many soon-to-be solar converts brag about disconnecting from SDG&E and their rate increases. Not many are actually doing it. Few make it off the grid because of the additional costs and gear necessary. Unplugging from SDG&E requires batteries, a backup generator, a controller and in most cases, a larger inverter system than a typical solar installation. Entirely offsetting your SDG&E bill, however, simply requires a bigger solar system.

This is part of our quest on whether solar will pay off for San Diego. Check out our previous post, Why So Few Solar Converts Actually Make it Off the Grid, here.

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