How to go solar
Before the panels go on your roof, make sure your feet are on the ground
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.
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.
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.
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.
SunRun installers prepare to put a solar panel in place in Sunnyvale, Calif.
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.