Here in upstate New York, where it’s cloudy half the time, solar panels have defied the odds and become increasingly popular. But the situation is not entirely sunny — and it’s time to take stock of where things stand.
Even though Congress extended the biggest federal renewable energy subsidy a few years ago, this major benefit is shrinking. Add to that a big “hit” in the form of the financial incentives from NYSERDA grants soon expiring, and there’s a sudden new impetus to “act now.” But this story has many different aspects, and every homeowner currently faces a happy plethora of new choices, some of which didn’t exist when we last explored solar energy in 2015.
Should you generate your own power?
If you do it right, it’s a win-win situation that may not cost you a dime. If you do it wrong, well…let’s make sure you don’t do it wrong.
Even deciding to think about solar requires a few first steps. If your electric bill is minuscule, like under $75 a month, it might not be worth it. If you live in the deep woods with your roof and property in year-round shade, forget about owning your own panels. And if you pay little or no taxes, you won’t be able to avail yourself of the enormous subsidies that can make the numbers add up for buying a system. In that case, the best option five years ago was leasing, which nowadays has morphed into something called “Community Solar.” If none of the major “stoppers” apply, and you like the idea of living more carbon-free, and want to slash or even eliminate your utility bills, and perhaps even be totally free of the grid, and maybe even produce all the power to operate an electric car — read on.
At first there are major decisions. Like whether to put panels on your roof or on the ground. Whether to “go Community” or to buy. Whether to finance by using the money you used to send to your utility company to pay off a bank loan. Whether to generate more electricity than you currently use so that you’re all set for electric plug-in vehicles. Or whether to go the other way, to a smaller and cheaper system, since you’re already replacing your home’s incandescent bulbs with LEDs that have brought down your annual electric consumption from what it was a few short years ago. And, as if all this wasn’t enough to ruminate over, whether to cough up an extra $8-$10,000 to accompany your solar set-up with batteries to provide power during blackouts. If you did that, you could skip that expensive “whole-house backup generator” you’ve been coveting.
First things first. If you have a sunny spot on your property or your rooftop and you don’t find panels horribly ugly, your initial step in 2015 was to call a company like Solar City that leased, or one of the many local companies that custom-builds solar systems in order to own one outright. Each set-up worked very differently, but it’s now all out the window because the situation has recently changed radically.
Leasing the sun
Leasing used to be easy. It required you to invest nothing. For our example in 2015 we used the largest company, Solar City, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, as an example. They’d aggressively begun focusing on New York a few years earlier, had installed many rooftop solar set-ups in our region, and people were generally happy with the results. They even planned to build a major solar panel plant in Buffalo. Remember that? We cut through the smoke and told you how to get their best deal, in which you could count on saving 20 percent off your electric bill, along with a written guarantee that your monthly utility price would not change for the next 20 years. And you would not have spent a dime. But, we cautioned, you had to be careful.
Although Solar City’s business doubled every two years, they overextended themselves, ran into problems, and finally got out of the solar-leasing business altogether. As for that highly-publicized solar-panel plant in Buffalo — it was totally abandoned, leaving no one happy.
Nowadays, a few leasing stragglers remain – companies that will still put their own panels on your roof and then sell you electricity under a 20-year contract. But essentially, that arrangement in no longer attracting people. The set-up always had sore points – like what happens if you need your shingles replaced or have some technical problem. Could you always count on the company to show up to fix things? Even ten years hence?
Moreover, some people accepted deals that were not great. One customer in our area was offered a system from Solar City where the electricity would cost the same as what’s charged by the local utility, Central Hudson. The 20-year contract also specified a 2.9 percent annual price increase. The selling point was that local electric utilities seemed certain to raise future rates far more than that, so that actual savings would eventually kick in. Honestly, not a particularly good offer. And as it turned out, Central Hudson’s rates have barely budged since 2015. They still charge around 16 cents per kilowatt hour.
Moreover, many worried what that long-term lease would do to their property value. After all, you were responsible for the lease so that anyone buying your home would be obligated to assume the remaining years of the contract. Would this make your home less attractive to sell, or limit the number of potential buyers?
On the positive side of the ledger, you didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket. And if that’s what you want, well, leasing may have gone away, but nowadays Community Solar accomplishes the same thing, and without the hassles of having someone else’s panels on your roof. The idea is that solar companies build huge solar “farms” in your region of the state, and you sign on to get at least part of your power from it. There’s no money down, no ongoing costs, and your electric bill typically gets a 10-15 percent discount. And you’re helping the planet.
But let’s talk about truly major savings – like paying nothing, zilch, for your power. And maybe even generating enough of a surplus to operate your electric car. And even perhaps charging batteries so that you’re not even connected to the grid.
Start by figuring out what you currently pay with your local utility company. You’ll see all sorts of things itemized, like fuel surcharge and so on. Just skip to the bottom line and divide by your kilowatt usage in that bill. For many in our region, it’s currently about 16 cents, although it varies from month to month depending on what the utility itself must pay for its power. With oil prices relatively low, our bills are nowhere as high as they’ve been at various times the past few decades.
Your utility company also itemizes a service charge, which has recently been reduced (supposedly permanently) and is now about $21 a month for Central Hudson and NYSEG. This will not go away even when you generate your own power, unless you have batteries and disconnect from the grid entirely. You still must pay this monthly fee. It’s fair enough, since your utility company has to maintain the lines and all the rest.
To find out about Community Solar, contact several solar-system companies in our region and compare prices. But expect to continue paying about 85 percent of your current bill. For the remainder of this article, we’ll focus exclusively on buying your own system and then paying nothing for electricity for the rest of your life.
One consideration is the condition of your roofing shingles. Are they worn, and likely need replacement in the next ten years? If so, or if you don’t like how solar panels look on a roof, or if your roof’s pitch is shallow (more about this a little later), or you have enough property so that siting panels on the ground is an option, then don’t feel glued to the “on-my-roof” type of installation. The author, for example, had a system installed on the ground and it has provided trouble-free electricity the past four years.
Owning a piece of the sun
If you have a typical two-month electric bill of at least $150, which means you’re using over 6000 kW per year, and pay enough taxes to be able to use the government write-offs, and have a sunny roof or a good enough spot on your property, you should know that the greatest financial benefit comes from owning a solar system outright.
Your system will probably cost around $25,000-31,000 whether it’s installed on your roof or elsewhere on your property. But with the current NYSERDA grants (roughly $3,550 but likely to disappear within a year), and federal tax credit (currently 26 percent of the cost of the system), and New York state credit ($5000, whose benefits can be spread out over several years) you’ll wind up paying just $12,000 out of pocket. That’s for a typical 7.5 kW system, which will generate about 9000 kW hours annually.
Despite the slightly reduced tax and grant benefits in the past five years, this out-of-pocket bottom line has actually fallen from $14,000 to $12,000 because panels have gotten cheaper and more efficient. But make no mistake, you must cough up real money. However, unlike with Community Solar, you’re not merely gaining a reduction in your energy bill. Rather, you’re generating all your power and keeping the entire savings. Your electric bill will go to zero. Except, again, for that $21 monthly service fee.
It all works through “net metering.” Meaning, during the long-sun months of March through September, you’ll generate far more power than you’ll use, and the utility is required to buy your surplus production. Your meter will actually spin backward, which is kind of fun to watch until you get tired of it. Then at night and during the cloudy low-sun winter months, you’ll buy power from Central Hudson or NYSEG, but you’ll do it by using up your credits with them. In theory and in practice, at the end of the year you will have paid nothing for power. And, by owning the system, you will indeed increase the value of your home.
Ah, but how long will it take to amortize that $12,000 or whatever your personal system costs? Figure around a decade or so. Also, while panels don’t wear out and are warrantied for 25 years, the inverter will eventually die, typically in around 15 years. That’s a big waterproof box, usually mounted outdoors on a basement wall, which converts the solar DC to alternating current. You’ll eventually need a new inverter for $2500. Add it all up and it’s probably something like 12 years before you get your money back. But from that point on, all your electricity is free.
Some might argue to wait, that solar panel technology will only improve. That’s true. Panels just eight years ago were each generating 260 watts. Nowadays they generate 400 watts. At least, the high-end “monocrystalline” ones do. These days, you’ll need something like 22-24 panels. However, once you have a system that generates all your electricity, you’re set and that’s the end of the story. It doesn’t matter how future technology improves. You’re already making all your power for decades to come.
Where to put them
If you don’t mind how panels look on your roof, and if it’s sunny enough up there, and especially if you have a south-facing slant, and if your shingles are in good shape and you don’t think they’ll need replacing soon, then the rooftop installation may be a no-brainer. Especially if your roof has a steep pitch. The snow will slide off slippery tempered glass panels whenever the pitch exceeds 20-something degrees. But if your roof only has a very gentle pitch you might end up snow-covered for a month at a time and be generating zilch. Do you want to go up there and clear off snow with a roof rake? Probably not.
If you have enough property, they can set up an array in any sunny spot, and dig a trench and run their cables to your home. Done this way, the panels are always sharply angled to maximize solar production, which around here are set an angle of 31.3 degrees. That’s also more than enough pitch to let snow slide off. Result: zero maintenance.
As to who to use, a growing number of solar companies serve our region. A few are national. Solar City used to be the most famous, and was willing to engineer and construct a system that you would then own, but their prices were 40- to 50-percent higher than local companies charged, and, moreover, they only did roofs.
If you do choose to buy, my research has garnered first-hand reports that include generally good reviews about two regional companies, but with insufficient information about three others. One that has earned consistently high praise is SolarGeneration. They’ve installed solar generation systems for the town of Woodstock, and deserve extra praise for doing charity work. They’re on Route 28 outside of Kingston.
This doesn’t mean that other companies are not good, too. A Red Hook colleague is thrilled with the system she bought a few years ago from Sungevity, a national outfit. Patty Livingston in Saugerties is very happy with the enormous 106 KW solar electric system installed five years ago by Hudson Solar. Do your homework and check references.
Huge tax break
Congress extended the original generous federal solar subsidies, but the breaks have decreased from the original 30 percent to the current 26 percent, with another drop to 22 percent scheduled for 2021. After that, their existence will almost certainly depend on which party controls Congress and the White House. As things now stand, they’re great and very easy to use: as a credit, you take the amount directly off your tax payment, rather than as a deduction from your taxable income. You can claim the credit for your primary residence, a vacation home, and for either an existing structure or new construction. The state credits can be taken over a period of up to five years, so if you don’t annually pay $5000 in state taxes, they’ll let you spread that benefit over several years.
So first see if you pay enough in state and federal taxes to avail yourself of the subsidies. If you pay no taxes, then all you’ll get is that 35 cents per watt NYSERDA grant. This still exists, but varies by region; Westchester County, for example, has totally run dry and has no more grants available. Your solar company knows about all of this and will help you navigate all the details. In a future worst-case scenario of no grants or tax breaks, you might face an out-of-pocket cost of around $25,000. Then the pay-back time may exceed 20 years and it may no longer make sense to do it.
We say “may” because if utility rates zoom sharply upward in the next decade or two, the numbers change and the pay-back is so hastened, a solar system may be rational even if you cannot avail yourself of government credits. Or you may care about the environment so much that personal economic benefits are secondary and you want to do it anyway. In any case, special fixed-rate loans have been set up so that out-of-pocket expenses can be spread out over many years, which, again, your solar-generating company would set up for you. One idea is to use your previous utility-company monthly or bi-monthly cost allotment to pay off your panels, given that that expense has now disappeared.
Totally off the grid?
As for the notion of totally cutting the cord to the electric utility and being off the grid entirely, it’s expensive but has recently become doable. Giant lithium batteries that take up a chunk of your basement but supply power to your entire home have now fallen to about $8,000-$10,000. Just a few years ago they were utterly impractical. But that’s changed so that they might make sense in either of two scenarios.
The first is if you’ve bought land in the middle of nowhere, a goodly distance from roads and power lines. Previously, the cost of putting up poles to get power was sometimes a prohibitive expense. Now, with solar power and batteries, you can truly be off the grid with no poles whatsoever. And you’ll skip that $21/month service fee too.
The second scenario is as an alternative to having a backup propane generator. Then, during power blackouts, you’ll still have power. For how long? This depends on whether you want your entire house’s load to be sustained by the batteries, including such big-ticket items as an electric clothes dryer, hot tub, and air conditioners, in which case the batteries will only cover you for several hours – still sufficient to get you through most blackouts in our region. But if your electrician wires up the batteries so that they merely supply power for the essentials like your furnace or boiler, water pump, TVs and lights, then your batteries will keep your house going for several days.
With or without backup batteries, generating your own power can mean a lot more than bringing your monthly electricity bill to zero. There’s satisfaction in knowing you’re helping the planet. And more satisfaction in watching your panels convert the Sun’s energy to a usable purpose without the slightest emission of carbon. Moreover, as electric cars become more and more popular, your array could easily generate enough to make your travel absolutely free.
Each square yard of your roof — every section the size of a wall poster — gets hit by a thousand watts of solar power that normally goes to waste.
Gathering this free vivacity requires a bit of determination. Still, it’s never been easier to join the growing group of homeowners in our region who are entirely energized — by a star.