Going solar – my experience and how to do it for yourself

I’ve had… extensive experience with solar power, dating to my years building and racing solar powered cars with the University of Michigan Solar Car Team. One of the great things about having a home in Northern California is that I was able to take advantage of the weather to install solar panels and get to net zero energy use from the grid. This post is my story, and I strongly encourage you to check out switching to solar power for yourself. (Some of the details may be different in different states.)

Why consider solar power?

In short — why not? Solar energy is getting to your roof anyway – if the cost of panel installation (divided by the number of years they’re useful, generally 20+) is less than what you pay for electricity, then it makes sense.

More importantly, going solar means that (on net) you’re NOT taking electricity from the grid, which means you’re not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. That way by far my biggest motivation in going solar.

Federal tax incentives are also key to making solar power very affordable for many homes – because if your system is installed this year, you get 26% of the cost of your entire system back as a federal tax credit. (If you wait until 2021, it goes to 22% and then 10% permanently after that, unless rules change.)

Will solar work for me?

The quickest way to find out if solar power will work for you is to use Google’s Project Sunroof website. You’ll need just two things: your address, and a rough estimate of your monthly electricity bill.

Google takes a look at your roof, the trees around your home, and historical weather to figure out how much sunlight actually reaches your roof, and how much roof area is available for solar panels. What you’ll see (in addition to a heatmap of where sun hits your roof) is something like this:

You can see that 100% of this home’s electricity can be generated by solar power (upper-right box), and going solar is the equivalent of stopping 2.9 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Project Sunroof also gives you an early indication of the savings and payoff period for your investment. They offer options for Buy, Lease or Loan. And here’s the kind of savings a random home in Northern California might expect:

Buy

Loan

So installing solar on this sample house means you could save $12k-$22k over 20 years, in addition to being a very positive benefit for the environment.

How to get started with solar for your home

So there are a ton of different ways to get started, but I’ll recommend two: PickMySolar, and direct with Sunpower.

PickMySolar / Solar.com – PickMySolar / Solar.com is a portal that makes the whole solar process easy. Instead of having parallel conversations with a number of different installer companies, they help you define the exact system you want, and then the installers bid (compete) for your business. (Note, the link there is a referral link, but by using it you should save $250 on any system you install!) I know some people who have had great experiences with them.

Sunpower – Sunpower designs and manufactures their own solar panels, and has a network of installers in the US they work with. I’m partial to Sunpower because they were very supportive of solar car teams back when I was racing in university. (The link there is also a referral link – I’m not sure if there are any savings with it, though.) They build very high-quality panels, and also use an architecture (inverters on every panel) that have some advantages.

In the end, we ended up going through Sunpower to design and install our system. It’s a long story, but our house has a complicated set of roof panels and only Sunpower could design a system that met 100% of our home’s energy needs, that was within building/fire code, and at a cost that meant that meant we were still saving money. The exact installation company we used was All Bay Solar, who did a great job. (You can also just contact them directly.)

How to pay for solar

We only really considered two options for solar: Buy vs Loan. Leasing can get a bit complicated if you ever sell your home, and I personally prefer owning assets like this.

We ended up going with a loan, mainly to avoid a big cash payment, but we do plan on paying it off well ahead of time. And even though our solar installation was about as complicated (aka expensive) as it can get on a home, our loan payment is about the same or less than our average electricity bill. More importantly, that loan payment is locked in while electricity rates may very well increase a fair bit in the next 10-20 years. (And once the loan is paid off, electricity is essentially free.)

For those curious about these things, the loan is completely separate from our mortgage. The solar loan is backed up by the panels/inverters/etc. themselves. So if we ever stopped paying, they have the right to repossess the panels, but that’s it.

Living with solar

There’s basically no difference to life with solar power, other than an extra box or two near our electric panel. When you install solar, you change your contract with PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) and go to a Net Energy Metering (NEM) agreement. Instead of getting a bill every month, PG&E looks at your energy use across the entire year.

If at the end of the year you’ve taken more from the grid than you’ve put in, you pay the difference. If at the end of the year you’ve contributed more from the grid than you’ve taken out, PG&E pays you. (PG&E does calculate peak/non-peak rates separately.) That said, you’ll owe PG&E roughly 21 cents per kWh if you owe them, but if they owe you they are only required to pay 2-4 cents per kWh. They give you a running estimate of what your bill will be at the end of the year.

But where I definitely see a difference is when I log into pge.com. Here are a couple of screenshots of what we see now:

Monthly view

Even on some of the hottest days (while running air conditioning) we’re a net contributor to the grid
June has been pretty hot so far, and even with air conditioning we’re still generating more than we use.

Daily view

Distribution of power over the course of a day
This was a much hotter day (see the 90-degrees in purple?) – so more evening A/C use

Sunpower app

Sunpower has an app where you can see live and historical data for your home. (I believe other systems can do this – I’m just familiar with Sunpower.) I’ve essentially become an amateur tracker since I can directly see how clouds affect the power being generated by our system!

Today’s power – still generating at 8pm!

The other interesting effect I’ve seen is that I’ve become much more conscious of our electricity use at home. I’m much more militant about turning lights off, opening windows to get a cool breeze instead of using air conditioning, and more.

Summary

If you own a home – anywhere in the US – you owe it to yourself to at least check out Google’s Project Sunroof and see if solar is an option for you. And if there’s a chance to both save money and help save the environment at the same time – please take it!