Install Solar Panels

If you own your home and have good sun exposure and a sturdy roof, you could generate your own clean power with solar “photovoltaic” (PV) panels.  New planning and financing tools make it easy to go solar.

Challenging
Households: 3 completed, 1 committed
3100
Points ?
$600
Annual Savings
$0 - $25,000
Upfront Cost
These are estimates
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Energy and water savings

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kWh Electricity
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Therms Natural Gas
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Gallons Gas
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Gallons Water
  • Save money on utility bills
  • Support green jobs and the growing renewable power industry
  • Improve community resilience by supplementing grid power
  • Independence and control over your home's energy
  • Significantly reduce carbon emissions and air pollution

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Overview

The Action
Install solar panels on our home to generate electricity.
Is this action for me?
If you own your home and have solar exposure, this action is for you!
When and Who?
This can be done any time and is best done by a professional.
How long will it take?
Longer - time to assess your solar capacity, decide on a system size and coordinate installation.
What is the cost?
Anywhere from $0 upfront if you lease to $10,000 - $25,000 or more for a purchased system, depending on the size of the system and your home.

Benefits

  • Save money on utility bills

  • Support green jobs and the growing renewable power industry

  • Improve community resilience by supplementing grid power

  • Independence and control over your home's energy

  • Significantly reduce carbon emissions and air pollution

Resources

Rebate/Credit

Receive a Federal Income Tax Credit of up to 30% of the total installed system cost.

Financing

Find loan options for home energy & water upgrades through Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Financing

The Basics

The cost of solar power has come down so dramatically in the past few years that it is now very affordable in many areas of the U.S. and a great home investment. By installing solar you can have the independence of generating your own clean renewable power, gain the financial benefits of lowering your energy bills and greatly reduce your carbon emissions. So it’s no surprise that solar panels are becoming increasingly common. It is a win-win-win! After you pay off the panels in 5-10 years, your power is free for the lifetime of the panels - which is usually 25 years or more. With the 30% Federal tax credit renewed through 2019 now is a great time to go solar!

Checklist

Find out if solar panels can work for you
Size your solar system
Financing Options
Choose an installer
Monitor your system

Can solar panels work for you?

A few simple questions will tell you if solar can work for you:

  • Do you own your home?

  • Do you have good sun exposure on your roof?

  • Is your roof in good condition?

If the answer to all of these is yes, you’re all set to explore solar options.  If you have a lot of trees or are unsure of your sun exposure, you can use Google’s Sunroof tool to do a quick check.  Just type in your address and it will show you an aerial view of your rooftop with the solar generating potential.  

Follow up with a commercial solar company for a complete and free assessment, including whether your roof requires any repairs before installation and what your generating capacity will be.  Solar systems last a long time, so if your roof is near it’s end of life, replace it before you install your system.

How much solar do I need?

There are a couple of ways to figure this out.  If you want to do a quick check yourself, for a basic assesment you can use Google’s Project Sunroof tool.  This tool computes how much generating capacity you need based on how much energy you use and how many panels can fit on your roof.  For example, a 4 kilowatt (kW) solar system would be an appropriate size for a home that consumes 500 kilowatt-hours per month.  Home systems usually range from 1-5 kW.

Before you move forward with plans to install, have a solar company provide you with a more detailed estimate.  Most commercial solar companies will offer free assessments to determine the right size solar system for you based on your home and a review of your energy use history (e.g. looking at past utility bills).  

When planning your system, think about any upcoming changes in power needs.  One important change is energy efficiency upgrades.  Before you install solar, it makes sense to do energy efficiency upgrades to lower the size and cost of your system.  Upgrading to energy efficient appliances and installing smart lighting and power strips can make a big decrease in your power needs.  

If you’re considering purchasing an electric car, you may want to increase your system by 2 kilowatts or more.  Also, replacing a gas furnace or water heater with an electric heat pump unit will increase electrical use.  Discuss all of your possible future energy needs with your installer.

Most solar home installs take advantage of a program called Net Metering where you can tie your solar panels into your utility through your electricity meter.  When your panels are generating electricity, anything you don’t use goes through your meter and into the grid.  Your meter actually runs backwards!  It’s pretty cool to watch.  Then at night, when the sun is down, you can draw electricity from the grid as you need it.  

This makes sense as long as you have the ability to tie into the grid and your utility provider provides reasonable compensation for the energy you generate.  If you are not in grid territory or if the economics of the grid access does not add up, another option is to install a backup battery on your system.  

Historically battery backup has been expensive and so it has only been used if there are no other options.  However, battery technology is improving and the costs are coming down dramatically.  Within the next 3-4 years home batteries will be very cost effective and pay for themselves in a few years.  Even if you are tied into the grid, a battery backup will provide your family with power if the grid and the sun both go down at the same time!

Big incentives

In addition to the big reductions in the costs of installing a solar system, there are also still big incentives, at least for a few more years.  There is no better time to install solar!  This is a win-win for your budget and the climate.  The cost of solar has been cut in half over the past few years, dropping to about $3.50 to $4.50 per Watt.  On top of this, there is a 30% federal tax credit available for all home solar system installations through 2019.  

In addition to the Federal tax credit there are also often state or local programs providing additional rebates and incentives.  For low-income families there are some programs that help to lower the cost of systems, installation or both.  Check the resources section for more information.

Financing your system

There are a few different financing options for your solar system: lease, power purchase agreement, outright purchase, or purchase with a loan.  Here’s how they work:

Lease:  You can lease solar panels for $0 down – just like a car lease. You pay a monthly fee for your panels, which is often more than offset by the decrease in your power bill, netting you savings each month. Also like a car lease, you have the option to purchase at the end of the lease.

Power purchase agreement:  A power purchase agreement (PPA) is a bit like renting the panels. The company installing the panels pays for everything and retains the ownership of the panels. You buy the power the panels generate at a set rate from the company who installed the panels.  This rate is usually lower than what you pay your utility. This lowers your bill.  At the end of the PPA, you can extend the agreement, have the company remove the panels, or choose to purchase the system.

Loans:  You can finance your solar panels with loans.  You can secure the loan yourself through a home equity line or other loan.  There are also some low cost loan options available specifically to help low income families install solar.  Check the resources section for options.

Purchase outright:  Finally, you can purchase your system upfront, resulting in dramatically lower power bills.  You may pay a fee for using the utility system, plus any electricity you use over what your solar panels generate. The initial investment might be expensive, but most systems pay for themselves within 6-10 years.

Determining the best purchase option for your home requires careful consideration. If you have the resources to pay for the panels outright or through a loan, this has the highest financial benefit.  However, if you don’t have funds to purchase or the ability to borrow, and you have no plans to sell your home, $0-down lease deals or PPAs could be the best way to go.

Choose an installer, install your system and start saving!

There are so many options with a solar installation, it’s best to get multiple quotes.  Choose an experienced installer, particularly if you have an unusual roof or are interested in non-traditional panels, like tiles.  Check for a valid license, online reviews and references before deciding.  Also, consider choosing a vendor that can guarantee the solar output.  

Solar installations require building permits. Before moving forward, make sure to check and see if you can meet the permit requirements.  In California, there is legislation that requires that cities issue permits quickly and at a reasonable cost.  The best option is to choose a solar installer that will check permitting requirements and take care of the paperwork as part of the installation.

Flip the switch on your panels and celebrate!

Congratulations!  Your new solar system is creating clean energy from the sun and helping to protect our future!   Maintenance requirements are minimal if any – your solar provider will review these with you.  Most solar companies will monitor your energy production and provide you with tools to watch your production such as an online program or app.  They should also flag any issues for you, such as replacing any parts if needed during warranty periods.  Some companies guarantee minimum power generation levels and reimburse for any under-performance.  

Celebrate!  Sit back and enjoy the quiet, clean power being generated on your rooftop every day!

Success Stories

I have been on the Menlo Green Challenge since it began in 2016, and have completed many of the actions on the website. 

One of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce Carbon footprints is to change eating habits. I cut red meat out of my diet since the carbon footprint for beef is 28 times its own weight and lamb has a footprint 35 times its weight. 

I also take alternative forms of transportation.  I’m a long-time bike rider and use a bike on most trips under 5 miles. Using bikes for short trips has enabled our family to share one car and save lots of money. Some folks say biking isn’t for everyone though; for two-car families, I highly recommend having one of the vehicles be electric!

I've installed solar panels on my home, which cut my electricity bill down to $10/month. That is the lowest bill a customer can receive from PG&E to support the electric grid. I work with a non-profit called SunWork, and they were able to help me install solar, with a 30% discount because our household was already energy efficient. If you’re efficient and your energy bill is less than $100 per month, you could also use Sun Work and their local volunteers to help install low cost solar.

I also installed a heat pump water heater in my house, replacing the gas one. After tax credits, the heater was $500. It is an electric heater, so together with solar panels, it’s great to use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels to heat our water.

I enjoy finding creative, innovative ideas that help my household become efficient and sustainable. I developed a system that delivers waste heat from solar panels back into my home, recycling the excess heat and making it purposeful. This solar heater is still a prototype; I’m still figuring out the best way to prevent leaks in the system.

Taking shorter showers is a great way to save water; you can save energy too, with lower water temperatures, starting by turning your water heater setting down. My shower has a covering that traps steam in, preventing drafts that makes you cold. The cover has the added bonus of allowing you to shower comfortably at cooler temperatures.  

Whether you’re handy at home or not, everyone can take actions to reduce their carbon footprint. Getting started is easy with this Green Challenge site.