Going Solar: Panel Installation to Electric Payback
A California homeowner shares her first-hand experience.
Sitting atop the roof of the Southern California home she grew up in (and now owns), Elizabeth Chey can hear the birds ruffling in her yard's treetops, kids playing down the street, and even the traffic rumble of the 5 Freeway in the distance. Yet her solar panels, which are generating ample wattage, are absolutely quiet. No buzz. No hum. They're simple, clean, and mute, just as she hoped.
To leave a smaller global footprint, Elizabeth has made many green improvements to her home, such as installing floors made of sustainable bamboo, landscaping with fruit-bearing plants, watering her yard with grey water, and buying a compost bin. However, she admits that her decision to "go solar" wasn't primarily motivated by her drive for living greener, but for securing a more sound financial future.
With the cost of energy only expected to rise, turning sunbeams into enough surplus power to spin her electric meter backward just made sense. And she believes it's that very practical need to save money that, in the long run, will encourage many people to invest in greener forms of energy.
If you're thinking of going solar in your own home, we hope her candid answers about her first-hand experience of installing solar panels on her own sunshined abode will help you get started. Learn the hurdles and benefits for one way of going green to earn green.
Q&A With Elizabeth Chey
- What made you decide to go solar?
- Elizabeth: I could say I went solar for environmental or political reasons -- global warming, energy crisis rhetoric. But my prime motive was financial. My electric bill was high, and only getting higher.
- Solar is still widely perceived as being unaffordable to the average homeowner. So if you don't mind me asking, how much did your solar panels cost?
- Elizabeth: It's expensive, no doubt. It dents the pocketbook pretty hard. But companies are getting really smart about giving you financing options that make it affordable for the average homeowner. I went with a lease that cost me about $8,900 for a 25-year lease. I can't say I got the most efficient panels, or the best system, but I got what was right for me.
The company owns the panels, maintains them, and monitors them until the end of the lease. They insure them too. I think what they insure them for is for more than what I insure on the house.
But it was important to get solar panels installed in my neighborhood, which is best known as a low-income, Latino barrio in southeast Los Angeles County. I wanted my neighbors to see that it's doable. Two of them have already asked me about how it worked.
Unfortunately, energy efficiency can have a "holier than thou" tone, posing an "us" and "them" divide about who's a better earth-friendly, global citizen. In reality, I think if low-income communities look at these alternatives, they might find that an upfront expense on solar panels might be a long-term solution to the ever-creeping cost of utility bills.
- So leasing your solar panels was more affordable for you? What was your primary deciding factor?
- Elizabeth: Leasing for 25 years and paying the full lease amount rather than monthly financing. Like I said, there are a lot of options, especially when it comes to financing. Buying panels would have cost me at least $20-25K, and I couldn't do that.
There are also a lot of options when it comes to solar panel products too. But the deal I got was simple: Lease until the panels reach their lifespan and pay for the lease in full so you don't pay for financing. My system is sized to my electrical use, so it came out less to lease.
- Did your solar panels qualify you for any tax credits? Federal, state, or local?
- Elizabeth: If I had purchased them, yes, I would have gotten federal and state credits. But because I leased, the company gets that and applies it to their installation fees, costs, etc. I didn't get it. They did. And I think they benefit by selling carbon credits to companies who want to buy what I saved in energy.
- Solar companies catering to homeowners are relatively new to the marketplace. Which did you choose for your installation, and why?
- Elizabeth: SolarCity. I should have done more shopping before I decided. But they worked fast, made choices simple, and I went with them for that.
- What kind of solar panels did you install? Are there different sizes with different energy outputs?
- Elizabeth: Very heady question. There are a gazillion different types: some far more efficient than others, some designed without wires to increase surface area where the sun hits, some less expensive. And it's not just the panels. There are different parts and machinery to capture the energy and convert it to what we use in homes.
- How did you determine how many solar panels to install and where to put them? Did you have options to install solar panels elsewhere on your property?
- Elizabeth: It was laid out and designed for me based on my electrical use over 2-3 years. All I had to do was to review the plans and sign the papers. Because of that, it might have been the easiest home upgrade I've done after four years of intensive remodeling, tearing walls out, digging up dirt -- you name it.
- What kind of permits did you need? What kind of paperwork was involved?
- Elizabeth: Again, the company handled all the paperwork. Another reason to find a professional. There are several layers, lots of different agencies to contact, and these folks know the laws, how to work in the system and get your work through. One hitch that was very unexpected was that because the electric company is getting more requests for permits, solar-panel installs and electric meter credits, there was at least a 5-month delay from the time the panels were installed to when they were clocking in the credits.
- How long did it take for the system to be installed?
- Elizabeth: Crews came in for two days, and they worked fast. The panel and system install was done by a great crew. The foreman was a man who grew up in my neighborhood, so I was very happy to see him joining the green revolution. He was pretty excited to be installing a system here, because most other systems he worked on were in higher-end neighborhoods.
The system was up in August, but I didn't get a meter that could go backwards and forwards to adjust for my contributions to the grid, well into January. The actual credits (meaning that I was recognized by the electric company as putting electricity back into the grid) didn't appear on my bill until March.
- What's the projected cost of maintenance and repair?
- Elizabeth: All inclusive in my lease. Hands-down, the best bet.
- Can your system be upgraded in the future?
- Elizabeth: When the panels are done for, I'm sure I'd want to lease an upgraded system again. There's no telling what kind of efficiency the industry will reach, if this whole thing takes off -- for the companies. If it doesn't, it will be like those Carter-era solar panels that still sit on roofs in Albuquerque, N.M. I'll have a relic on my roof for the next 25 years.
- How much energy will your system generate?
- Elizabeth: As much as I use, because it was designed that way.
I'm not sure how helpful it is to give you the actual wattage because different systems are designed based on the roof structure, the positioning of the whole system to the south, whether you have trees nearby or not, or where your roof is slated toward a place where the sun hits. There are too many variables to make information about the energy my system makes useful to anyone else thinking about getting one for their situation.
- How does your system work? Does the electric you generate flow directly into your home, or out to the grid?
- Elizabeth: I'm connected to the grid, for sure. But I think it flows first through my home and then what's lefts spins out to the grid.
- Does your system store any of the power you generate? Can you use it if there's a brown-out or black-out?
- Elizabeth: No power for brown-outs or black-out because I don't have a back-up system. There are some for lease by the same company I lease from. But overall, energy back-up systems are still very pricey and not totally at optimal performance in terms of how much these devices can store.
- What kind of paperwork did you have to do to get credit for the electricity you generate? How long did it take before you actually saw a reduction on your electric bill? And by how much?
- Elizabeth: Southern California Edison sent me consent forms and sent out a guy to change my meter so it goes backwards when I'm generating energy for the grid. It took a while for them to give me the credit. I used to get bills for $105 to $120. Now they are -$48. So I think I'm getting a credit. I haven't been sent a check from Southern California Edison yet, so who knows what it means yet. As a solar customer, you get your bill at the end of the year that has actuals. What you get every month is a report on the credit you received, but no payments are collected until the end of the year.
- How many years were you told it would take before the solar panels would pay for themselves?
- Elizabeth: If I used more, it might be a faster payback. I think it was estimated that in 7 years I'd get back my lease amount, and then have another 18 years of living on still lower electricity bills. The equation is based on the assumption that energy bills will skyrocket in the next 5 years.
- Do you know how much your carbon offset will be over that time period for the green energy you'll generate?
- Elizabeth: No clue. Like I said, I think I am still using what I used to use. The solar company gets the benefit of calculating the carbon offset by the number of panels they install and selling it to bigger customers who can benefit from such carbon offsets. I get the good feeling of knowing I'm not wasting free sun.
- From the day you initiated the necessary paperwork to the day you first received credit for the electricity your solar panels generated, about how long did the entire process take?
- Elizabeth: Around 9 months. It took longer than expected.
- Is there any advice you'd give a home owner who's thinking of going solar?
- Elizabeth: Just do it! Shop around, but don't get bogged down. Do it soon, because these credits don't last. Not many things in life are free anymore. But putting a sun ray into a panel that spins out into the grid is working for me.