Interested in Solar Panels? Here are some tips.

Thanks to technological and manufacturing advances, solar panel costs have plummeted in the past decade, making solar power more popular with homeowners. But figuring out how to add a solar power system to your roof can be daunting.

Workers installed a solar and battery system this winter at my home in a suburb of New York City. It was a big investment, but it’s already starting to pay off in lower utility bills and gives us peace of mind that we’ll have at least some electricity during power outages, which are common here because storms often bring down lines. electrical.

Interest in rooftop solar systems is high and growing as energy prices rise and climate change concerns mount. Many people are also concerned about blackouts caused by extreme weather related to climate change. A 2019 Pew Charitable Trust survey found that 6 percent of Americans had already installed solar panels and another 46 percent were considering it.

“Most importantly, solar energy is much cheaper than it used to be even in places like New York City and Boston, where it tends to be more expensive than in the suburbs,” said Anika Wistar-Jones, director of affordable solar energy at Solar One, a New York City environmental education nonprofit that helps affordable housing and low-income communities adopt solar energy.

If you are interested in solar energy, here are some things to consider.

This question may seem simple, but finding the answer can be surprisingly difficult. An installer told me that my roof was so shaded by trees that the solar panels would not generate enough electricity to make the investment worthwhile. It was worth hearing another opinion: the installer I hired allayed those concerns and recommended trimming some trees. On sunny days, my system often generates more power than my family uses.

It can also be difficult to find out what your local government and utility company will allow because the information is often not available in plain language. I learned that lesson at my previous house.

When I lived in New York City, it took me months of research to find out that I couldn’t install panels on my roof. Turns out the city requires a large clear area on flat roofs like mine for firefighters to walk through. And I couldn’t install solar panels on a canopy – a roof frame that raises the panels — because it would violate a city height restriction for houses on my block.

The best approach is to cast a wide net and talk to as many solar installers as you can. You can also check out neighbors who have put solar panels on their roofs: People in many parts of the country have joined in what are known as solarization drives to buy solar panels together to secure lower prices from installers.

“That has been very successful in neighborhoods and communities across the country,” said Gretchen Bradley, community solar manager at Solar One.

You should look for proposals from various installers. Price comparison services like EnergySage and SolarReviews make it easy to contact multiple installers.

When reviewing proposals, pay attention to how much the system will cost per watt. This tells you how much you’re paying for the system’s electricity generating capacity and allows you to compare offers.

The average listing for new rooftop solar systems is $2.75 per watt, according to EnergySage. That works out to about $26,125 for an average 9,500-watt system before factoring in a federal tax credit. For tax year 2022, the credit amounts to 26 percent of the cost of the solar system; it is scheduled to drop to 22 percent in 2023 and end in 2024. Many states, including Arizona, California, New York and Massachusetts, also offer residents incentives to install solar systems, such as rebates and tax breaks.

Prices can vary widely due to location, local labor costs, and other factors, such as the type of home you live in and whether other work is needed prior to installation. If your roof is old or damaged, for example, you may need to replace it before you can install a solar system.

Rooftop solar systems can lower monthly utility bills, depending on electricity rates, the amount of energy a home uses, and state policies. The systems that save the most money will help buyers recover their investment faster. Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage, said that ideally, solar systems should pay for themselves in 10 years.

Excess electricity produced by rooftop systems is sent to the power grid, and utility companies typically compensate homeowners for that energy through credits on their monthly bills. The value of those credits varies by state.

If you can afford to buy a solar system outright, you’ll get the best deal by paying cash. Systems purchased with loans or leases tend to cost more, especially over the life of the contract. Shopping is your best protection against falling prey to dodgy deals or predators.

The main advantage of leasing a solar power system is that your costs are generally fixed for the duration of the contract. But experts warn that leases can be difficult to break and could become a burden when you sell your home, since buyers may not want to accept your contract.

Mr. Aggarwal noted that leases “make sense” for some people who may not earn enough to claim the federal tax credit. He suggested that people interested in solar leases get three or four quotes from different installers.

Adding a battery to your solar system will allow you to store some of the excess electricity you generate for use during a blackout or during the evening and night. A solar system without a battery won’t keep you supplied with power during a blackout because most home systems automatically shut down when the grid goes out.

Batteries can be expensive, especially if you want to run large appliances and provide power for many hours or days. A 10- to 12-kilowatt-hour battery, which can store about a third of a typical home’s daily electricity use, costs about $13,000, according to EnergySage.

But another reason to buy a battery is that the federal tax credit for rooftop solar systems applies only to the costs of batteries purchased with solar panels, and not to batteries added in a different tax year. About 28 percent of residential solar systems installed in 2021 included batteries, up from 20 percent in 2020, according to an EnergySage survey.

The Wirecutter, a product recommendation service for The New York Times, has a detailed guide to buying solar and battery systems.

Most electric cars cannot provide power to homes. Only a few models, like the Ford F-150 Lightning and Hyundai Ioniq 5, have that capability, and they’re incredibly rare.

But many energy experts believe it will eventually become commonplace for car batteries to power homes and the power grid.

In many parts of the United States, extended power outages may occur only once or twice a year. As a result, Aggarwal said, it may not make sense to invest in an expensive home battery, which typically packs much less power than electric car batteries. “Everyone is starting to talk about using your car to run your home.”

You may be able to join a community solar project, which is usually installed on open land or on the roofs of warehouses and other large buildings.

While the rules vary by state, community solar programs generally work in a similar way. Members receive two bills a month: one from the community solar project and one from their utility company. Projects sell electricity at a discount off the rate charged by your utility, and each kilowatt-hour of energy you purchase appears as a credit for one kilowatt-hour of energy on your utility bill.

New Yorkers who join a community solar project, for example, can save about 10 percent on their monthly electricity bill, Ms. Bradley said. “It doesn’t cost anything to join or drop a project,” she added.

While most states allow community solar, most of these projects are in just four states: Florida, Minnesota, New York and Massachusetts, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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