Joining the shift to renewable energy doesn’t have to be a costly one. In fact, the price of solar power installation dropped by more than 70% from 2010 to 2019, according to the nonprofit Solar Energy Industries Association.
No matter the reason behind your switch, today you can save more than ever — and get rewarded.
How solar power works
Solar power comes in several forms, including photovoltaics (PV), concentrating solar power (CSP) and solar heating and cooling (SHC). PV and SHC are most commonly used for homes, while CSP is for bigger systems like power plants.
PV panels, commonly called solar panels, work by taking in sunlight through two layers of silicon before converting it to electricity. The electricity is produced as direct current, which moves through an inverter that turns it into alternating current for household use.
Your options for powering your home with solar
It’s not just homeowners who can go green. Today, even renters have choices to join the move to solar energy.
When considering how to go about getting a solar power system, you may think about buying it yourself. This option involves going directly to a PV supplier to purchase and install the system. Your system is connected to your house when it’s installed, and in many cases it’s also connected to your local power grid.
Tax credits can offer a return on your purchase, if you qualify. And you may be able to sell any excess power you generate back to your utility company. On the other hand, you’ll have to front or finance the entire cost, and you’re responsible for maintenance and repairs.
Cost. Typically less than your traditional power costs each month with little to no upfront cost.
Leasing PV equipment requires paying a monthly fee to use a system that’s owned by another party. Under some leases, you can enter into an agreement with your utility company and sell off excess — much like you can if you buy a system outright.
Because you don’t own the equipment, leasing comes with the advantage of not having to maintain or repair the system on your own. On the other hand, you aren’t able to claim the tax credits you might qualify for if you buy a system on your own.
Invest in a shared solar program
Cost. Varies based on level of investment and type of program, but typically less than buying outright.
Community or shared solar programs are useful ways of getting solar when you face limitations related to rooftop space or renting. Rather than buying a system for yourself, you invest in a solution that fits your needs and the needs of your community.
Group purchasing at a lower rate, shared offsite systems, shared systems for multiunit buildings and community-awarded systems are some of the available ways to participate in a shared solar program.
Investing in one of these programs opens up solar options when aren’t otherwise aple to participate, and you won’t be on the hook for repairs or maintenance. But, as with leasing, you won’t qualify for tax credits that come with owning the system.
Sign up for a solar power purchase agreement
Cost. Typically less than your current electric bill.
A power purchase agreement (PPA) is similar to a lease in that a third party owns the solar system. Rather than letting you borrow the equipment for a fee, the company you make the PPA with installs it and sells the electricity back to you at an agreed-on rate.
While you benefit from reduced energy costs, you can’t sell excess electricity back to your utility company. Instead, the third party you work with controls what happens with it. Regulations around PPAs in your area may also be more strict, which could make other options more viable.
A Solarize program involves banding together your community. Like a shared program, the idea is to get a large number of people to purchase at once and work with a supplier to get a low bulk price.
Where it differs from typical shared programs is that you actually own the solar system. It comes with the same advantages as owning a system — like potential tax credits and selling any excess back to your utility company.
Some homes can switch to solar without any updates
Cost. Varies by area, but competitively priced due to deregulation.
If you live in an area with deregulated electricity, you may be able to buy solar power directly from a solar company. You don’t have to install a system or update your home to accommodate panels. Instead, panels are offsite and managed by the solar company you purchase from.
This option can be cheaper up front, and you may be able to lock in rates. But you won’t get to benefit from tax credits or the potential additional value to your home that a solar system can provide.
Weigh your budget against your energy goals and availability to find the option for your needs:
Upfront cost. Consider what you can afford to get started. An outright purchase, and even a Solarize program, can leave a significant dent in your finances.
Ongoing costs. Shared programs, leases, PPAs and purchasing solar electricity from a company without installing a system all come with monthly costs. Consider whether they are less than your current power bill — or if the benefits outweigh the difference.
Repair costs. Owning a system outright leaves you responsible for maintenance and repairs. However, many solar system providers offer warranties that can cover these costs.
Length of commitment. Leases and PPAs can last 20 years or longer. Consider whether you’ll stay in your home that long, or if you can transfer the agreement or lease if you move.
Effect on home’s value. A solar system can increase the value of your home, but it potentially affects your property taxes. If you’re unsure what the effect will be, talk to a tax professional before moving forward.
Availability. Not every home is fit for a PV system. If your roofing material isn’t suited to supporting a system, the right pitch or in good repair, you won’t be able to get a system installed without modifications.
If paying a lump sum up front isn’t in your budget, you can finance your solar panels to ease the upfront cost of purchasing a PV system.
PACE government financing. Property Assessed Clean Energy financing is provided by your county, local or municipal government. Once the funds are available, PACE-authorized lenders provide them to residential and business property owners. Use these funds for a variety of energy-efficiency projects, including the purchase and installation of solar panels, repaying the loan through property taxes.
Title I home improvement loan. This type of government-supported financing is a no-equity home loan. Interest rates are fixed, and it can take two months to receive the loan if you’re approved.
Home equity loan. You may be able to use the equity you’ve built in your home as collateral for a loan.
HELOC. A home equity line of credit is like a home equity loan, but it’s a revolving credit line rather than a one-time loan.
Personal loan. If you have good to excellent credit, you may be eligible for a general purpose personal loans at reasonable rates.
Company financing. Some solar system retailers provide in-house financing. You’ll also find companies that offer lease-to-own programs, which allow you to purchase your system after leasing it for a time.
What is the federal solar tax credit?
The investment tax credit (ITC) — also known as the federal solar tax credit — is designed to help the solar industry get its footing in the US. Established in 2005, it provides a tax credit to new solar energy system owners that can be applied to federal taxes.
Through 2019, the tax credit is 30% of the system’s cost. The credit decreases to 26% in 2020 and then to 22% in 2021, and it applies to both new residential and commercial solar system owners. Come 2022 and beyond, only new commercial solar system owners will receive the credit — and its worth will be reduced to 10%.
Pros and cons of switching to solar
A solar-powered home can provide a number of benefits, both ecologically and financially. But keep potential pitfalls in mind before investing.
Potential property value increase. Solar systems often increase the value of homes, meaning you could be building even more equity with your upgrade.
Reduction in energy cost. Many types of solar power buy-ins can result in a lower monthly power bill. Some include the ability to sell back excess electricity produced.
Lower environmental impact. Solar is a renewable energy source that can potentially lower your carbon footprint.
Tax credit available. Until 2022, you may get a portion of your purchase price credited to your federal taxes.
Long-term commitment. If you’re planning on relocating soon, a solar system may not be a good immediate investment. Lease agreements and PPAs are often long term, and not every potential homebuyer will be interested in taking over your contact.
Not every roof can support it. Roofing materials, roof pitch and the state of repair all affect whether your roof can support a system. Roof modifications will bite into any potential savings.
Purchasing it outright is expensive. Buying a system outright can run you about $17,000. Financing options and alternative purchase options, such as Solarize programs, are a way lessen your upfront costs.
Will my home be off the grid?
You may be able to go off-grid with your solar system. But most households remain on the grid when a solar system gets installed. Being on-grid means being able to get electricity from the utility company when your system doesn’t produce enough. And if your system produces more than you use, you may be able to sell the excess to the utility company.
In contrast, a system that’s completely off the grid has to store its excess electricity in a battery — a costly additional purchase. Off-grid systems also don’t allow for utility buy-back, which means you may not get as much of a return on your investment.
Frequently asked questions
Panels are just one component of a home solar system. Mounting racks, panel disconnects, a meter that ties to the grid and breaker are also necessary for many systems.
An off-grid system also requires a battery and charge controller to store extra electricity produced and regulate voltage.
Gather data about your power use and what you’re looking to get out of the solar system. From there, learn more about different panels through expert opinions, consumer reviews and efficiency ratings to find the best fit for your budget and lifestyle.
Solar batteries can cost $7,000 or more, with lower-end models running around $4,000.
Rhys Subitch is a writer and editor at Finder who tackles topics across the site. With half a decade of experience researching, editing and writing for a Fortune 500 company, university and several independent publications, Rhys brings readers the most up-to-date and curated info on all things finance.
Energy Finder: How to compare electricity & gas suppliersIf you live in an area of the US that has a deregulated energy market, you can choose your natural gas and/or electric suppliers. Switching can help you save, choose a greener energy source or find a provider with better customer service.
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