Barry Floyd of Elkhart, Ind. loves his pool, but not the electric bills that come with it, or the cost of the utilities that he and his family rack up in the other parts of their home. So he's looking into solar power. "I am in the process of pricing and planning to install some [solar panels]," says Floyd. "I heard lot of bad things and not much good. I wanna hear some good stories."
Here is the good news that Floyd has been searching for: There are a growing number of resources for homeowners interested in investigating the costs and benefits of solar power.
And here is the even better news: Beyond the benefits of solar power saving the environment, solar power will save you money.
Determine Usage Costs
The first step is to understand your existing costs. Track your baseline usage by connecting your electric, gas, and other costly energy accounts to EarthAid. EarthAid is a free website that tracks month-to-month usage. A side benefit to being aware of and reducing your energy usage is that the site offers redeemable points, similar to airline miles, for products and services.
Anya Schoolman of the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative in Washington, D.C. suggests calling local installers first to ask about solar power incentives. "They should be able to help you figure out what is available in your locality. If there are not incentives available I suggest you organize with your neighbors and get your legislature/county to pass some incentives." If no group exists yet, start your own. That's how Schoolman, her son, her neighbor Jeff Morley, and his son joined efforts to start the Mt. Pleasant co-op.
Research Solar Incentives
Start your search at the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIREusa.org), which lists federal, state, and local incentives to install solar power. Also review the site of the newly-formed U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. It offers energy savings calculators and details on installing solar in your home. Be prepared to do additional research and paperwork if you want to sell your energy back to the grid (but in the end, your efforts are rewarded in cash-back incentives).
Schoolman says that "the payback time is totally dependent on what state you are in" and suggests that you review the summary on her co-op's webpage of how it generally works.
"The elements that determine viability of solar energy include the following," she continues. "First, a 30 percent federal tax credit is available to any resident that puts solar on their own roof. Secondly, the energy savings from solar depends on size of system and how much electricity costs in your jurisdiction. [It] also depends on local net-metering rules. Finally, local grants/tax credits, and Solar Renewable Energy Credits are available in states that have a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard with a carve-out for solar." She adds that a "feed-in tariff," payments for renewably-generated electricity, is available in a few places and may be the "wave of the future."
Overall, the upfront costs are generally high but are coming down in price. Years of savings as costs escalate, plus some financial incentives, sweeten the deal today.
Keeping current on solar news is also helpful. Check out sites such as Solar Nation or connect with Schoolman via her site.
"I keep a spreadsheet and am happy to connect people with others that I have heard from in their state," volunteers Schoolman. "In many states there is also a regional solar industry association. If we can raise the funds we will create an online matchmaker to help people find interested parties."
You can even click here to sign a petition for President Obama to place solar panels on the White House, too.
Since installing solar panels, Schoolman reports, "My energy bill has dropped from about $150 a month to $25. Many of our members have similar stories."
This sounds good to Floyd, who says, "I'm gonna start with my pool and the pool house and see what I think before going too far. My electric bill was too high last month. It's like that year-round for me."
Floyd may discover that this is just the beginning. Schoolman says: "Although the system itself is projected to save 30 percent to 50 percent of your energy, we are finding that solar is the first step. People then change their behavior, change their lightbulbs, insulate, and do everything they can to shrink their bill (and their carbon footprint). Solar inspires them and gets them started!"