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Solar Electric: Renewable, Sustainable Energy For Your Home

Put simply, solar electric systems, also called photovoltaic (PV) systems, convert sunlight into electricity. PV panels, seen more and more often on Colorado rooftops, are composed of cells that contain a semi-conducting material, usually silicon. The semi-conducting material absorbs light energy from the sun and converts it into electricity. This electricity can be used to power most electrical needs in your home such as lights and appliances.

In order for it to work efficiently, a PV system must be exposed to the sun. Trees, roof overhangs and neighboring buildings are all potential obstructions. Some PV arrays can even follow the sun as it moves through the sky throughout the day.

The PV array is accompanied by a system of electrical wires and a box called an inverter. The inverter converts the energy coming in from the panels (DC or direct current) to the type of electricity that powers our lights, toasters, televisions and computers (AC or alternating current).

 

 

In a “grid-tied” system, excess power your system creates is contributed to a utility company-owned grid so that someone else may use that energy. You are credited for the energy you add to the grid. The grid-tied system also allows you to access electricity from utility providers at night and on cloudy days, when your system is not exposed to sunlight. Most homes and small businesses use grid-tied systems.

An “off-grid” system, in which converted power is either used immediately or stored in batteries for future use, works independently of utility companies.

To learn more about solar electric, consult the FAQ below.


Solar Electric FAQ

  • Is solar electric a good fit for me?
  • What is the right solar electric system for me?
  • How much does a solar electric system cost?
  • How much energy will my solar electric system produce?
  • How much money will I save?
  • Are there any additional benefits to solar electric?
  • What should I keep in mind if I’m hiring a contractor?
  • What rebates and incentives are available for solar electric?
  • Are there any laws or regulations I need to be aware of?

 

 

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Solar electric is a good electricity option for some people—but it won’t work for everyone. Consider the following requirements to see if a photovoltaic system is a good fit for you:

  • Is your home energy efficient? Reducing the amount of electricity your home uses through efficiency measures before you install solar will ensure your system size is as optimal as possible.
  • Do you have clear and unobstructed access to sunlight for most or all of the day, throughout the year?
  • Do you have a roof or area large enough to accommodate the adequate panels?
  • Can you make the investment—and does it make sense for you economically?
  • Are there any potential issues with local permits and covenants?

 

For more information:

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The answer depends on several variables. Your solar electric contractor should be able to help you explore these questions and arrive at a good decision for you:

Is your home energy efficient? Reducing the amount of electricity your home uses through efficiency measures before you install solar will ensure your system size is as optimal as possible.

  • How much sunlight do you receive?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much conventional power do you want to offset with solar electric power?
  • How much room do you have to mount panels on your roof or in your yard?
  • What are the specifics of your panel location?
  • Do you want a grid-connected or stand-alone system?

 

A grid-connected system has several advantages. It enables you to contribute to the grid when you produce excess energy and take energy from the grid at times when your system is not producing energy, such as at night or on cloudy days. Because you are credited for the energy you contribute, you will only have to pay for the difference between the amount you used and the amount you contributed, if any. This exchange eliminates the need to store energy for later use, thus simplifying your system by cutting the complexity and expense of incorporating energy storage devices. Most incentive programs require a grid-connected system.

 

Your local system supplier or installer should know about and be able to help you meet the requirements from your community and power provider.

 

In contrast, off-grid or stand-alone systems are not connected to the electricity grid. This may be cost effective in remote locations, where creating a connection to the grid is costly. It is also a good choice for those who wish be completely independent from the grid or make a complete commitment to non-polluting energy sources. Stand-alone systems must be designed to generate and store reliable power in order to consistently meet energy needs.

 

One simple way to begin to use solar electric power is with outdoor lighting. There are many products you can buy and install yourself. Some are self-contained, and simply require a sunny location in order to work. Others come with two distinct elements: the lights and the solar cell panel. In this case, only the panel needs to be placed in a sunny location. Units vary in size and style to meet most needs. Make sure the lights you choose offer replacement bulbs and batteries.

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Current rates average $5.50 to $7 per watt installed, but new technologies are bringing the costs down every year. Incentive programs give consumers tax credits and rebates for the purchase of a solar electric system; these are a major consideration when calculating the cost of solar electric.

Some vendors are now selling the systems at “after-rebate” prices and completing all the paperwork themselves. Before rebates and tax credits, the average 2-kilowatt (2,000-watt) system will cost between $11,000 and $14,000. However, the cost per watt usually goes down as the system size increases, so a 5-kilowatt system may be installed for $27,500 ($5.50 per watt). Depending on where you live, after rebates and tax credits, the cost for a 5-kilowatt system may be reduced to $2.50 per watt or $12,500.

In addition to rebates and tax credits, there are also many financing options available to help pay for the upfront cost of installation. Check the GEO’s Energy Action Planner for a financing program near you.

If you are thinking about refinancing your home mortgage, consider adding the cost of solar into the new loan. With today’s historically low interest rates there’s a good chance that your new payment will still be less than what you are paying now, even with a solar system included.

It’s important to work to reduce your energy usage first, as this may enable you to purchase a smaller system or empower your system to meet more of your energy needs.

For more information:

Estimate the cost of your system.

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Solar panels are rated in watts based on the maximum power they can produce under ideal conditions. These ratings are designed to help you determine your needs. However, the exact amount of energy produced by a solar electric system also depends on roof orientation and tilt, as well as other factors such as shading, dust, panel conversion and wire losses.

Many solar vendors now sell 2 to 3-kilowatt package systems for homes and can tell you how much energy will be offset by a system depending on your home’s energy use, roof orientation and other factors.

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Your total savings will depend on the size of your solar array, the type of array you have installed (a “fixed array” does not follow the sun’s movement through the sky and receives less solar energy while a “rotating array” follows the sun throughout the day), how much direct sun exposure your system gets and how much electricity you actually use. For comparative purposes, with a 2 kW system, you can save, on average, $280 per year in electricity costs.

First and foremost, it’s important to reduce your energy usage through energy-efficiency measures. This is always the best way to save money on energy costs. From there, calculating your true savings can be complex; you may need to take into account several factors.

For example, solar electric will raise the property value of your home ($20 for every $1 in utility bill savings) in addition to providing savings on your monthly utility bill. And, as energy costs continue to rise, financing a solar electric system can give you security in knowing their energy bills will remain virtually the same for years—your energy costs will essentially equal the monthly payment on the system. Most systems pay for themselves within 5 years after rebates and tax credits, which allows you to enjoy free energy for years to come.

 

For more information:

Calculate your estimated savings here.

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Yes. Installing a solar electric system will enable you to:

  • Take advantage of rebates and incentives for low-cost solar installations.
  • Reduce your exposure to rising energy costs in the future.
  • Have confidence in your energy source; solar panels are low maintenance and weather resistant because they’re made with high-impact tempered glass that can withstand ¾’’ hail at 60 mph; they typically last for 30-40 years.
  • Obtain reliable power even on cloudy days, thanks to a connection to the utility grid or battery reserves.
  • Increase the real estate value of your home by $20 for every $1 in annual utility bill savings.

 

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For general tips, including what to ask a potential contractor, how to compare bids and how to monitor quality, please visit the GEO’s How to Hire a Contractor page.

In addition to the general tips on our How to Hire a Contractor page, you may need to consider some specific issues when hiring a contractor for this particular kind of work. Here are some additional things to keep in mind:

Proper installation and maintenance are essential for maximizing solar electric energy performance. There are many factors you should take into consideration when choosing a professional solar contractor.

  • Make sure all bids are for equivalent materials and services. For example, bids for ground systems will be very different than a roof system. In addition, bids should clearly state the maximum generating capacity of the system in watts (W) or kilowatts (kW).
  • Request that the bids specify the system capacity in "AC watts" (alternating current) under a standard set of test conditions or specify the output of the system at the inverter. Also request an estimate of the amount of energy that the system will produce on an annual basis (measured in kilowatt-hours). This amount will vary based on the sun exposure, but the contractor should give an estimated range.
  • Confirm that bids include the total cost of getting the PV system up and running, including hardware, installation, connection to the grid, permitting, sales tax and warranty.
  • A system warranty is crucial in comparing bids. Your local incentive programs may require a written installation warranty.
  • You may wish to ask if your installers are NABCEP certified (National American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners); if they belong to any solar trade organization, such as the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association; if they are experienced with handling zoning, electrical requirements and codes, and whether they are able to handle the paperwork for rebates and incentives.
  • Ask your contractor how they will ensure that the work is compliant with the incentive program requirements you may qualify for.
  • There aren’t any required certifications or licensing by law in the state to do this work, but you should check with the industry certifications page familiarize yourself with the types of industry certifications you may see when you are doing your search.
  • Make sure the bid includes details about the design and size of the system and includes a clear description of where the panels will be located, at what angle they will be installed, and assurance that they won’t be blocked by shade throughout the day.
    • Your contractor should ask to see your utility bills to understand your energy consumption in order to size the system properly.
    • If your installation will be roof mounted, your contractors should go up on the roof to measure properly.

For more information:

To search a list of contractors in your area provided by the Better Business Bureau, visit the Energy Action Planner, right on this site.

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There are a number of financial incentives and programs for PV. See the GEO’s Energy Action Planner for additional information on financial incentives in your area.

If you are refinancing your home, you may want to consider adding the cost of your PV system into your new mortgage.

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Before installing PV, your contractor should be able to tell you what permit requirements exist in your area. Your city or county may require a building permit, an electrical permit or both. Your contractor will typically take care of this, rolling the price of the permits into the overall system price. Make sure the permitting costs and responsibilities are addressed at the start with your PV provider before installation begins.

Colorado state law states that Homeowners Associations (HOAs) cannot prevent a homeowner from installing a solar system. Click here to see the language of the legislation.

For more information:

See codes and requirements.