Solar Power is Finally with Reach, but Not for Long


Solar panels used to be something you only saw in fancy neighborhoods or that one nice house down the street. But in the last 10 years, the cost of solar has fallen by more than half. In 2019, installing solar is starting to look like an areally smart investment for millions of homeowners. But that might be about to change. As of a couple of weeks ago, I’m one of the couple million homeowners who invested in solar.

When I dug into the research, there were some clear benefits. Not only would it be better for the planet, but it also turns out to be a good investment overall. Installing solar was more affordable than I thought. It would instantly increase the value of my home, and after crunching the numbers, I realized Id recoup the cost pretty quick, too. But we’ll save that math for later. The real motivation behind my decision to do it now, though, was knowing that the federal tax credit was expiring.

Solar panels

If you install solar before the end of the year, the US government will repay you 30 percent of your total cost. Next year it’ll be a little less, and in 2022 this credit will be gone. And that’s not including state, city, and county-level incentives, which in 43 states let you deduct your sales tax, reduce your property tax, or even give you a tax credit after you’ve produced a certain amount of clean electricity. That’s on top of the federal credit. So what’s the actual cost of installing residential solar? With the federal credit, your average 6-kilowatt setup can set you back about $16,000, which, yeah, is the cost of a cheap car.

And how long it takes to recoup that cost really depends on the individual homeowner. For me, I average around $100 in electricity per month, plus gas to heat in winter. But I just got AC and switched to electric heating, both of which can be huge energy hogs. So lets double the number to account for all that. When you do the basic math, it looks like I’ll make my money back in a little over five years. For me, that’s a 5-kilowatt system at $18,200minus $5,460 in tax credit. That’s $12,740 divided by $200 estimated monthly electric bill for 12 months, gives you 5.31 years. But that’s assuming electricity prices don’t go up. And an idea called time-of-use net metering might help me recoup costs even faster.

So here’s the thing with solar, you’re not always generating power and using power at the same time. Your panels pump out energy during the day when you might be off at work, but you’ve got to buy electricity from the grid at night.

solar system

With net metering, your utility gives you credit for the energy you contribute to the grid. You spend those credits on the energy you need and it mostly balances out. But many utilities also charge you more for electricity during peak hours when there’s more demand for power —usually in the afternoon or evening when people get home from work. But because my solar panels are still producing electricity in the afternoon, I don’t need to buy as much pricey peak power as I would without solar.

Now you might ask, why don’t I just buy batteries to store all that extra energy my panels produce during the day? I wondered that, too. Tesla has a very Tesla-looking battery that costs $7,800 and there are other options as well. But several installers I spoke to say the storage tech isn’t worth the cost unless you live in a blackout-prone area. That’s partly because the batteries are expensive, partly because they’re expected to become much better and far cheaper in the next five years, and partly because even with batteries you can’t easily ditch the grid.

Right now batteries are an upsell that help your local utility more than anything. When Google surveyed 60 million US buildings in 2017, they found out that 79 percent of our rooftops have enough sun hitting them to generate power. It depends on the size of the roof, how steep it is, which direction it’s facing, but Google found that even less stereotypically sunny states like Minnesota have 60 percent of rooftops viable.

For me, solar made a lot of sense. It’s sustainable, readily available, it took them a day to install on my roof, and I’m contributing to the grid, which puts more money in my pocket. Should you get solar for your home? Well, that’s a loaded question. For me, the math worked out. As for you, break out the calculator. And if its something you want to do, maybe think quick, because some of the perks of installing residential solar are starting to sunset.

So my question is, how is climate change going to affect all of this? Also, Verge Science is back, they’ve got a whole slate of new videos you’re going to want to check out.