Saving Energy: Does Solar Make Sense for You?

From The GOOD Guide to Saving Energy

Every three months, GOOD releases our quarterly magazine, which examines a given theme through our unique lens. Recent editions have covered topics like the impending global water crisis, the future of transportation, and the amazing rebuilding of New Orleans. This quarter's issue is about energy, and we'll be rolling out a variety of stories all month. You can subscribe to GOOD here.


Sure, solar energy is an abundant source of power for our electricity-intensive way of life, but those who are putting photovoltaic panels up on their roofs these days are truly pioneers. That’s because it’s going to take roughly a decade and a half for those panels to pay themselves off. It’s a tough financial decision—you’re essentially buying several years’ worth of energy up front at a cost of about $30,000. You may be willing to go solar just to save the planet, but financially that’s a lousy return on investment. Want some advice on whether to take the plunge? Here are a few things to consider.

Are you paying a lot for electricity?

“Most people’s goal with solar is to save on their electric bill,” says Carmen Smith, a marketing manager at BP Solar. If your monthly bill is running more than $100, you might want to consider solar panels, especially if you’re planning on staying in your home for a while. If you’re paying less than $100 per month, try more low-tech (and far less expensive) fixes, like sealing air leaks, weather-stripping, and installing more insulation.

Check out your roof

The next step is to determine whether or not your roof can accommodate solar panels. What’s its orientation? If one
section faces south, great. East- and west-facing roofs will work—but not north-facing ones. Also, make sure that nothing like telephone poles or trees are shading the part of the roof where the panels will go. (In the case of trees, keep in mind that they’ll keep growing—and will block out more and more sun—over the years.) If you’re overdue for a new roof, it’s an ideal time for a solar installation.

Does your state offer incentives for solar?

For most, this is the make-or-break factor. If your state offers tax rebates or the like for your system, they (added to the federal incentive) will likely cut the cost of a solar array by half. You have to do your research, as each state offers different programs: New Jersey, for instance, will pay up to $1.75 for each watt of power that your array produces. Head to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see whether your state offers incentives for solar power.

Does your utility offer net-metering?

One way to speed up the time it takes for your system to pay off is through net-metering, which is when your utility actually credits you for the electricity you produce beyond what it takes to power your home. “The question is, what do they buy the power back at?” says Smith. “Do they offer a one-for-one credit, or are they buying it from you at a wholesale rate?” This differs not only by state, but also by county, so make sure you’re clear on all the details



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