By Mark Hughes
You may have heard the news: San Diego leads the country in kilowatts of solar panels installed, beating out LA and Honolulu — and by a lot. What’s going on? It’s like cell phones all over again. At first, just a few wealthy cranks have them, but before you know it, everyone and their kid has one. Was there a memo?
Maybe this is you now: driving home from work, you can’t resist flicking a glance at the solar panel array on your neighbor’s roof and wonder yet again if they pay SDG&E anything. Or, you’re out for a walk and see that trim, shipshape house you’ve always admired now sports the increasingly fashionable blue/black panels. You put on a brave face, but it’s starting to eat at you: panel envy. The good news is that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and you’re far from alone. Pull up a seat, lie back, and let’s talk.
Sure, you know all the valiant reasons for putting panels on your roof: a heroic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, doing your part to make America energy-independent, and that little thing about helping save the world from the worst ravages of climate change. Yeah, yada, yada, yada. Let’s get real here. After years of paying the highest rates in California — heck, higher than almost anywhere in the country — you long for payback time!
Good. Now that you’ve spit those words out, how about we really let our guard down? Is this thought stirring inside you too: there’s maybe nothing quite so uplifting and airy as that pious feeling you’d get from admiring your very own solar panel array? You’re pulling your weight now, buddy, a CO2 footprint no bigger than a ballerina’s toe-point.
Let that sink in, relax into it like a warm bath on a winter’s afternoon. Don’t let that pesky voice, for a minute at least, kill the joy. Picture getting a bill from SDG&E just once a year—and smiling because they owe you money. Oh yeah, that’s payback.
Okay, drift down from the fantasy and let that other voice have its say now. The one that says you can’t have your own array because 1) it costs too much; 2) you live in an association with a common roof; 3) your roof faces the wrong way/or you’re an apartment dweller; 4) the project is complicated and daunting; 5) you’re probably not going to live in the house for more than 3 or 4 years; 6) your electric bill is small, meaning long or no payback; 7) other objections here.
Whew, what a list! How many wet blankets does it take to smother a warm, happy feeling? But maybe, just maybe, there are ways to dry those blankets out, fold them nicely, and put them on the shelf. Let’s go through them one by one.
Costs Too Much
Yes, it’s a chunk of money to install solar panels. But it’s a little like buying a car — except this “car” pays for itself and more. A solar array in Southern California pays for itself in 4-7 years depending on the price you pay, the loan interest, and how optimally the direction and tilt of your roof is for solar. That means 17-21 years of free electricity under the original equipment warranty. Make sure your system comes with a 25 year warranty — it’s the standard with quality equipment. But if you really want to get in on the cheap, then choose a solar loan. You can cut your bill in half and receive an attractive federal tax credit (the tax credit is unavailable when leasing). Many loan options are less expensive than a lease and are available for shorter lengths of time. For a small fraction of the cost (down payment), you can have that array on your roof. Okay, it won’t result in a zero bill from SDG&E, but it will be a nice reduction and it’s easy.
But if you really want to get in on the cheap, then choose a solar loan. You can cut your bill in half and receive an attractive federal tax credit, which is unavailable when leasing. Many loan options are less expensive than a lease and are available for shorter lengths of time. For a small fraction of the cost (down payment), you can have that array on your roof. Okay, it won’t result in a zero bill from SDG&E, but it will be a nice reduction and it’s easy.
Can’t Put An Array On a Common Roof
My wife and I live in a townhouse, one of seven in our building—and we have an array on the portion of the building’s roof above us. People are generally surprised when they hear that. Doesn’t the association prevent you from installing panels? Don’t you have to get approval?
This is what’s great about California: the Solar Rights Act was signed back in 1978. It strongly limits associations’ restrictions on solar panel installations. They can request minor adjustments but they cannot prevent you from installing solar panels — you have a right to the sun and its energy. So, work with your association, but know that you can do pretty much what you want.
Roof Faces the Wrong Way/Apartment Dweller
Okay, you got me with this one. Eighty-seven percent of the roofs in San Diego are solar-viable, according to Google’s Project SunRoof. The National Renewable Energy Lab agrees. If you’re one of the unlucky 13 percent (funny how that turns out to be the number) or you live in an apartment, then your other choices are RECs or SDG&E’s EcoChoice program (or, it’s hoped, Community Choice in the future). Definitely a second place finisher, but better than nothing.
The Project is Complicated and Daunting
I’ve talked to a few people who got the permits, bought their own panels, put the racks on the roof, wired it all to the inverter, and worked with SDG&E to put it on line. Yes, it’s a lot of work and complicated, but there’s also the route of hiring someone who’s done this for a number of years and has it down. Call a few of the highest rated companies and get some quotes. They are in the business of making this as easy for you as possible, and the best ones do just that.
Not Going to Live In Current House Much Longer
I have a friend who brought up this issue before he decided to put in an array. What changed his mind was this information. If a house sports an array that’s paid off, the house’s typical increase in value is at least equal to the after-tax cost of the array. It makes sense: the array reduces the cost of owning the home, by reducing or eliminating the electricity bill.
Now, that said, what if the array is leased, not paid off? That situation has been analyzed as well and found that homes with a leased array neither added to nor detracted value from the home. That means that something that cost you little or nothing to install also makes you little or nothing when you sell the home. No harm, no foul; even Steven, nothing to lose. If you go with a solar loan and decide to move before it’s paid off, you can pay off the loan early and add it to the cost of the home. Assembly Bill 1381 recently went into law, and allows homeowners to find a real estate appraiser who has taken a specific course that explains the value of solar and how it will increase the value of your home.
Electricity Bill Is Small
So was ours — around $35 per month when we put our system in two years ago. But we were also about ready to replace our two cars, so we bought a used Leaf (all electric) and a used Ford C-Max plugin hybrid. I’ve since replaced the Leaf with a Chevrolet Bolt (wanted the higher range). We use the C-Max for short trips, the Bolt for longer trips, and the C-Max again if we decide to go on a multi-state trip (which we haven’t).
The result is that we visit the gasoline station about once every six months—to put in ten gallons. So, if you considered only our electricity bill when figuring the payback time for our array, it was 10 years or so. But when you subtracted nearly all the money we were spending on gasoline, now it was a three to four year payback. And given the typical warranty for solar panels (25 years) that means 20-some years of free electricity and “gasoline.” Even better, it’s fun to drive on sunshine ….
So much that’s new and different is daunting and scary. But think back to the new and different things you did in the past — like getting your first smart phone. Does that trepidation seem almost funny now? How about buying your first home? Your first car? First credit card?
Everything is smaller and simpler in the rearview mirror, no? So, too, will be the decision to put a solar panel array on your roof. What won’t go away is the satisfaction of looking at it as you drive in each evening. Payback is not just measured in dollars.
Mark Hughes has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Kansas State and spent over 30 years in the power industry. Now retired, he has devoted a portion of his life to raising awareness about climate change, which he sees as the #1 threat to not just Mankind, but all life on Earth. He’s currently focusing most of his efforts promoting Community Choice Energy, which will likely offer San Diegans lower cost electricity with higher renewable energy content.