How to go so­lar

Be­fore the pan­els go on your roof, make sure your feet are on the ground

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Ryan Maye Handy

SO­LAR power is start­ing to catch on in Texas. More in­dus­trial-scale so­lar farms are get­ting built. Smaller com­mu­nity so­lar in­stal­la­tions are go­ing up. And rooftop so­lar may soon be com­ing to a neigh­bor­hood near you.

The price of in­stalling a res­i­den­tial so­lar panel sys­tem has plunged 29 per­cent since 2015, and becoming a power gen­er­a­tor has be­come more at­trac­tive to home­own­ers across the coun­try. Hous­ton has been a bit late to the game, but at least four com­pa­nies that sell or lease res­i­den­tial so­lar sys­tems have en­tered the mar­ket in the past five years, of­fer­ing home­own­ers the chance to lower their elec­tric­ity bills and cut car­bon emis­sions.

The cost of leased so­lar pan­els varies greatly based on the size of the home, but buy­ing so­lar pan­els for the av­er­age sized home can cost $15,000. Depend­ing on the sys­tem, and amount of sun, so­lar pan­els can cut elec­tric bills by 50 to 70 per­cent.

But in­stalling so­lar pan­els is a bit more com­pli­cated in Texas, partly be­cause of the dereg­u­lated elec­tric­ity mar­ket and partly be­cause Texas lacks poli­cies used in other states to en­cour­age rooftop sys­tems. So, if so­lar power has been on

Pick­ing a so­lar com­pany and pan­els is like get­ting bids to re­place your roof or re­model your kitchen.

your mind, here are some things to con­sider.

Sim­ple so­lu­tion

You be­lieve in re­new­able en­ergy. You like the idea of get­ting power from the sun. You want to be en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.

The sim­plest way to do this is to buy a green power plan from re­tail elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies that of­fer such op­tions. No muss, no fuss, no up­keep. But there’s also no guar­an­tee that green en­ergy is flow­ing into your wires. You’re get­ting the same elec­tric­ity from the same mix of pro­duc­ers that your neigh­bor gets.

The plans, nonethe­less, sup­port util­ity-scale so­lar and wind pro­jects in Texas. As peo­ple de­mand green power, re­tail elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies will pay re­new­able en­ergy com­pa­nies for the value of the elec­tric­ity they add to the grid and help pro­vide the rev­enues they need to in­crease their gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity and pro­vide even more emis­sions-free power.

Do it your­self

OK. You want more. You want to know the sun is pow­er­ing your dish­washer. You want pan­els.

Con­sumer ad­vo­cates and so­lar in­dus­try of­fi­cials say there are sev­eral steps that home­own­ers should take be­fore or­der­ing so­lar pan­els.

First, check that the roof is in good con­di­tion, and if not, con­sider get­ting a new roof, said Tom Kim­bis, the pres­i­dent of the So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion, a trade group. If you in­stall pan­els and then have roof prob­lems, you’ll have to get the pan­els re­moved to ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing is­sues.

Next, you should un­der­stand the fac­tors af­fect­ing how much sun your roof gets. The pitch of the roof and shade from a chim­ney or tree might af­fect how much sun it gets. Roofs that face pre­dom­i­nantly to the north get less sun and may not pro­duce enough elec­tric­ity to make so­lar pan­els worth­while.

Home­own­ers should also take a look at their elec­tric­ity us­age and needs be­fore buy­ing so­lar. For ex­am­ple, most peo­ple use more en­ergy at night, when so­lar pan­els can­not off­set power costs.

An­other fac­tor to con­sider is how long you plan to stay in your home. If you ex­pect to move in a few years, leas­ing pan­els, rather than buy­ing them, might be the better op­tion.

Rent or own?

John Berger, CEO of Hous­ton so­lar com­pany Sun­nova, rec­om­mends against buy­ing pan­els, ar­gu­ing that leas­ing is the best op­tion for most home­own­ers. Sun­nova of­fers a leas­ing ar­range­ment known as a power pur­chase agree­ment. In this model, the com­pany in­stalls, main­tains and owns the so­lar sys­tem, sell­ing the power to the home­owner at prices be­low those of utilities or re­tail providers.

Cus­tomers get low-cost clean en­ergy with­out the headaches of main­te­nance and re­pair.

“You need to live your life and not live in the power busi­ness,” Berger said.

Sun­nova also of­fers a straight lease, in which cus­tomers pay a monthly fee to use the pan­els, much as they would pay a lease on a car or an apart­ment. Cal­i­for­nia com­pany So­larCity, which en­tered the Hous­ton mar­ket last year, also of­fers such a lease. For those ex­pect­ing to spend less than 10 years in a home, leas­ing might be the better op­tion, so­lar com­pa­nies said.

Tak­ing credit

Lease pro­grams of­fer an ad­van­tage to so­lar com­pa­nies; they get to keep the 30 per­cent fed­eral tax credit on the pur­chase price of the pan­els and any in­cen­tives of­fered by state or lo­cal gov­ern­ments. In turn, if home­own­ers choose to buy pan­els them­selves, they get to keep the credit and pay noth­ing for the elec­tric­ity they pro­duce. (For a com­plete list of both fed­eral, state and lo­cal so­lar in­cen­tives in Texas, check out the Data­base of State In­cen­tives for Re­new­ables and Ef­fi­ciency, at www.dsireusa.org.)

Own­er­ship has be­come more at­trac­tive as so­lar panel prices have fallen. Most home­own­ers pay be­tween $2.87 and $3.85 per watt to in­stall a so­lar panel, about $2 less per watt than four years ago. An av­er­age-sized so­lar sys­tem costs be­tween $10,000 and $13,400, after tax cred­its, ac­cord­ing to en­ergy website en­er­gysage.com.

In Hous­ton, Sun­nova, So­larCity, Texas So­lar Out­fit­ters and other com­pa­nies sell so­lar pan­els. Costs for the en­tire sys­tem will dif­fer depend­ing on a home’s size.

Texas com­pli­ca­tions

One of the ben­e­fits of home so­lar sys­tems is the po­ten­tial to sell ex­cess power into the power grid to fur­ther off­set costs and lower elec­tric bills. Some states, like Cal­i­for­nia, Mas­sachusetts and Ne­vada, have laws, known as net-me­ter­ing, that re­quire utilities to buy power pro­duced by res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial rooftop so­lar sys­tems. Texas isn’t one of them. As a re­sult, res­i­dents who want to get such a ben­e­fit need to work with so­lar com­pa­nies that have part­ner­ships with re­tail elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies that pro­vide cred­its on bills based on the amount of ex­cess power pro­duced. Green Moun­tain En­ergy, for ex­am­ple, launched a rooftop so­lar panel pro­gram in early 2017. It of­fers a bill credit for ex­tra en­ergy gen­er­ated. An av­er­age cus­tomer gen­er­at­ing 433 kilo­watt-hours of ex­cess en­ergy would get a credit of $44.52 a month, Green Moun­tain says.

MP2 En­ergy, which has part­nered with So­larCity, of­fers a bill credit based on a home­owner’s elec­tric­ity plan. If you pay 7 cents per kilo­watt-hour, you’ll get the same price back for ev­ery ex­tra watt of so­lar en­ergy you pro­duce.

Do your home­work

Pick­ing a so­lar com­pany and pan­els is like get­ting bids to re­place your roof or re­model your kitchen. Talk to a few com­pa­nies about what they of­fer, how much they charge and how much you’ll save.

As with any con­trac­tor, check on each’s rep­u­ta­tion. Start with the So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion. Its mem­bers must con­form to best prac­tices guide­lines, which the as­so­ci­a­tion posts on its website.

The Better Busi­ness Bureau is an­other place to check on a com­pany’s record. The Texas Re­new­able En­ergy In­dus­tries Al­liance posts a list of its mem­bers at Treia.org.

Michael Noble Jr. / San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle

SunRun in­stall­ers prepare to put a so­lar panel in place in Sun­ny­vale, Calif.

So­larCity

If you lease so­lar pan­els, the com­pany that owns them keeps the 30 per­cent fed­eral tax credit. If you buy them, you keep the credit. That’s just one of the is­sues to con­sider in leas­ing ver­sus buy­ing.

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