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Residential solar energy is no longer just for the early adopting environmentalists in Berkeley, CA or for cabins so far out of town that they're completely off the energy grid. Its time has come, and residential solar energy is now being adopted by the masses. A majority of the people who go solar are still mostly motivated by environmental concerns, but now financial goals are playing into their decision as well. Namely, homeowners want predictable energy costs, and going solar can provide just that. On the environmental side, going solar can reduce pollution, slow global warming, reduce your carbon footprint, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and can generally make you feel good about the energy you're saving. Just read what Andrew Kin had to say about having solar panels on his townhouse in Los Angeles. It's inspired him to use less energy too. Better yet, your friends may follow your lead and switch their homes to solar energy. Federal, state, and local solar rebates are bringing the price of residential solar energy way down such that it is getting competitive with the heavily subsidized coal energy that makes up much of the grid energy. In some states like New Jersey, the incentive programs are so aggressive that a system will pay for itself in 3 or 4 years, and will end up saving a homeowner a tremendous amount of money over it's 25+ year life, all the while supplying clean energy to their home. In other areas, like San Francisco, it may take closer to 7-10 years for a system to pay for itself if you buy it outright from the start. You'd pay a larger lump sum up front, then have an extremely small energy bill for the next 25 years and the savings from the energy bill will pay for the system in 7-10 years. Beyond that the savings are all upside and home owners often end up saving tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands over the life of the system. However, if you don't want to pay for a system up front, there are several ways to get around that. Solar leases and Solar Power Purchase Agreements (SPPA or PPA) are both gaining in popularity and availability. In both cases it's similar to leasing a car. You could pay $20,000 up front for a car, or you could pay a much lower monthly lease price, then either buy the car once the lease is up, or turn it back in effectively only having paid for the time you used it. With a solar lease your solar provider actually owns the system after they install it on your roof, but you pay them a set monthly fee to lease the system. That least payment combined with your new, much smaller energy bill will generally be lower than your current electricity bill. If you go with a solar lease you will have a predictable energy bill and predictable, stable lease payment and you'll be getting clean, green, renewable solar energy. You'll also be protected from rising energy costs. Solar lease payments do increase around 2.5% to 3.9% a year, but that's a lot less than the annual 6% or more increase in the price of grid electricity. A solar power purchase agreement is very similar in that your solar provider owns the panels, but

in the case of an PPA you only pay for the energy produced rather than a flat rate for the lease. A lease payment is fixed, but a PPA payment fluctuates with how much power your system produces each month. But at the end of the year a lease and a PPA cost about the same. In both cases the solar provider owns the system so they handle and any all cleaning, maintenance, warranty issues, replacement parts, etc. Generally residential solar energy systems require very little maintenance - maybe spraying them with a hose or hiring window washers to clean them once or twice a year. However inverters (the part of the system that turns the electricity from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC), which is what our homes can use) do only come with a 10-year warranty and generally only last 10-15 years. Whereas solar panels come with a 25+ year warranty and generally last even longer. Therefore if you do buy your system, you'll likely have to spend $2,000 or so after 10-15 years to replace your inverter. Whereas if you go with a lease or a PPA, the solar provider will cover the cost of that for you. If you're looking at it from a purely financial perspective, getting a home equity loan at a low rate and writing a check for your residential solar energy system will give you the greatest financial savings/income over the life of the system. But some home owners are willing to have it be slightly less financially advantageous over the long run (lease or PPA) to not have to deal with any maintenance of the system. As a quick aside, some homeowners have recently started asking about whether the energy & materials used in making the solar panels off-set the good that the panels do by creating clean energy. In other words, how long do the panels need to produce energy for them to offset the amount of energy it took to build them in the first place. The short answer is that it only takes about a year. On top of that many facilities that make solar panels have enormous solar arrays on their rooftops so the panels are often made with clean energy from the start. How about DIY? The DIY (Do It Yourself) movement is gaining momentum across many industries since in many cases you can save quite a bit of money by doing something yourself. Unfortunately we do not recommend the DIY approach for residential solar energy unless you happen to be a professional roofer or electrician. In most cases federal, state, and local solar rebates are only given if the system is installed by an approved, certified solar installer. So while you may save on some of the installation costs, the lack of rebates (often about 50% off) negates the savings. Your power company must approve the installation before it can be connected to your power box (circuit breaker) and if their inspector find that your installation does not meet their standards, you may have to pay for them to be reinstalled properly. If you install the panels your self, you'll still need to hire an electrician to connect them to your circuit breaker (once the power company approves it), and some electricians will not work on DIY installations due to the risks involved. Working on your roof is dangerous. The risk of falling is real and without proper safety gear it's a risk not worth taking. Professionals are trained, insured, and have all of the proper safety gear to ensure a safe installation. If you've read this far you are probably wondering where to start. Going solar is easier than you think. We recommend getting solar energy quotes from several installers, then following our guide on

how to compare solar quotes. Also take a look at our list of 10 things to know before you go solar. Aka how to prepare for a residential solar installation. The quick summary is that you want to: Get a year's worth of energy bills together Spend some time thinking about how you want to pay for the system - Finance, Solar Lease, Power Purchase Agreement, etc. Know what your motivation is for going solar Think about your roof. Is it in good shape, or will it need to be replaced shortly? If so, it's probably worth doing that first so that you don't have to remove the panels in the next few years go work on the roof. Check to see if your roof has clear sun on it all day. Ideally you want a south facing roof with no shading and a clear view of the sun all day. (the way panels are hooked up, if shade gets on one of them it greatly reduces the efficiency of the entire system. Although recently developed microinverters can help in that situation) Once you have selected an installer and figured out how you want to pay for the system the rest is extremely easy. The installer will handle all of the paperwork around permitting, federal, state, and local rebates, then they'll deduct those rebates and incentives from the price of the installation. That way you get the rebate savings instantly rather than having for the federal government to send you a check. Once the paperwork is taken care of the installer will come out and install the system over the course of a day or two. Here's a short write-up on a volunteer solar installation we did back in 2009 as part of a volunteer day with Grid Alternatives. 90% of the work is on the outside of your house. The installers will put up a metal frame on the roof, attach the panels to the frame, the wire them together. They will also install conduits through the house or along side the house to route the wires down to your utility panel / main circuit breaker. Next to the circuit breaker they'll install an inverter and will connect the wires from the panels to the inverter. The inverter is what "inverts" the power from DC to AC, which is what is used by home appliances. Depending on where you live either the installer will do the final connection to the utility panel, or you may have to have someone from your utility company come out and inspect the installation, then make the final connection. Then voila! You'll get to watch your meter spin backwards on sunny days. We haven't yet addressed how to size your system. Many (but not all) utility companies offer net metering for home solar energy systems. That means that instead of looking at your energy use (and production) on a month to month basis, they look at it on a yearly basis. That way your solar energy system can product more energy than you use in the summer months, then less than you use in the winter. That way it averages out that you'll be producing slightly less energy than you actually use over the course of a year. The reason for that is because utility companies that offer net-metering will give you credit for the energy you produce, but many won't pay you for energy that you produce in excess of what you use. So you could in theory zero out your energy bill for the year, but very few utility companies will actually write you a check at the end of the year. And actually, there's usually still a very small monthly or annual "connectivity" fee to stay hooked up to the grid. So why stay connected to the grid? Because the power rarely goes out, and if you were to install enough batteries to store a few days worth of energy it would almost double the cost of the system. When you're on the grid (ie. hooked up to a utility company like you are now) the grid acts

as your battery. When you produce more energy than you use it gets pushed into the grid. Then, at night, when you're using energy but not producing any energy you can get it from the grid. Hopefully that's a comprehensive introduction to residential solar energy. If you're ready to get started, we'd love to put you in touch with a few top local installers who will give you free solar energy estimates to get you on your way!

David Belden is a solar energy entrepreneur and most recently he is the co-founder of Residential Solar 101. He spend his days figuring out how to make solar energy more accessible to home owners across the country.

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Good information about solar energy, and how to get the most from residential solar equipment.