Solar energy technology has exploded in popularity in recent years.
This has lowered prices, increased ease-of-entry for newer users, and improved the power generation of solar panels.
But with all these increases, many solar newbies have the same question.
“Is investing in solar power really worth it?”
In this article, we’ll be covering some of the different ways that solar users are applying solar technology.
We’ll be discussing the different ways to finance an on-grid solar setup, then we’ll discuss up-front costs like purchasing panels and other equipment, ongoing costs like maintenance, and finally what exactly solar users are getting in return for those costs.
Is On-Grid Solar Worth It?
In the following section, we’ll be covering on-grid solar power, solar power that connects your solar panels to the power grid of your city.
This is the style of solar power that door-to-door salesmen typically offer.
In theory, the costs of installation are offset by lowered electricity costs.
Do Your Own Research
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to do your own independent research.
While many solar installation companies are reputable, all of them have one profit motive:
sell you a solar installation setup at any cost.
It’s important to assess your own electricity bill, hours of sunlight, and a variety of other factors that we’ll be covering below.
Net Metering VS Net Billing
Solar users make money in two ways with on-grid solar setups.
They lower their electricity bill by drawing from their solar panels during daylight hours.
They also make money by pumping any excess energy back into the grid.
Depending on your state, users are credited for this excess energy.
On-Grid Payment Plans
Paying a company to install an array of solar panels on your roof can seem like an attractive proposition.
Instead of planning for hours, you can hire experienced professionals to climb on the roof and install panels, then wire everything for you while you sit back and watch.
From there, you can start saving money on your utility bill.
We’ll be discussing a few of the several ways to pay for this installation.
Cash is by far the best way to pay for these solar plans.
If your power bill is $100 each month and a solar installer charges $10,000 for your on-grid project, it’ll take ten years before your solar panels pay for themselves, and that’s if they completely offset your power bill.
Luckily, most solar panels are under some level of warranty for around 25 years.
Paying with cash means that you don’t have to worry about paying back interest on a loan which will extend the amount of time before your solar panels begin to turn a profit.
The next best option is to take out a loan.
As discussed in a previous section, the interest will increase the time before you turn a profit, but you’ll still likely be making money in the long term.
Third Party Ownership: PPA and Leasing
Some of the largest solar installers offer Third Party Ownership (TPO) plans.
In these plans you don’t technically own the panels on your roof.
While this may seem like an attractive proposition, (no upfront installation costs!) this option has several serious downsides.
One common TPO plan is a Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA).
In this agreement, the solar installer charges you for the energy produced by the panels in a similar way to a utility company.
They typically charge less than the utility company would for the same amount of usage, but many of these plans contain “price escalators” which increase your energy rates over the years.
When you lease your solar panels, you pay a monthly fee.
There are a variety of leasing plans, some which require no up-front costs, and some that involve significant up-front costs.
A good rule of thumb is this:
The more you pay up-front when leasing a solar setup, the more leverage you have in negotiating energy/monthly rent prices.
Price of Equipment Needed for A Basic Solar Setup
On the other hand, setting up an Off-Grid setup will be the right way to go for some solar DIY’ers.
We’ll be going over the basic pieces of equipment needed in even the most basic off-grid solar setup.
This is the style of setup that is installed in RV’s, remote cabins, and in other small-scale projects.
Because solar panels come in a wide variety of sizes and outputs, it’s a common practice to describe their costs as dollar per watt.
A $100 panel that’s rated at 100 watts would have a $1/Watt rating.
This price-per-watt has consistently fallen over the past few years and is currently around $0.40-$0.60.
That means that for a 1000 watt setup, you can expect to pay somewhere in the ballpark of $500 dollars in just solar panels, and is typically the largest single expense in an off-grid solar project.
SanTan refurbishes panels that are either aging or with cosmetic defects, tests them, then resells them at a fraction of the cost.
There are two main kinds of batteries recommended for solar:
Lithium-ion batteries and lead acid deep cycle batteries.
There are a few ways we can compare the two.
Speed of recharge, usable lifespan, ease of maintenance, etc.
Lithium batteries are superior in almost every way, but are far more expensive.
We measure the capacity for batteries in amp hours.
This represents the total amount of energy that a given battery can contain when it’s fully charged.
To illustrate this point, we’ve linked two batteries below.
Both have around a 100 amp hour rating, meaning that both contain nearly the exact same amount of energy when fully charged.
The Home Depot lithium battery is almost $1000 while the Deka lead-acid battery offered by SanTan Solar is only $220.
An essential component in every solar setup is your solar charge controller.
These perform several key functions.
They prevent damage to your batteries by limiting the incoming voltage, they prevent power loss by disconnecting from your panels during the night, and they can give the user important information about how much power is being pumped through the system.
There are two main solar charge controllers, Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) and Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT).
The difference between these two systems is that PWM controllers decrease the incoming voltage to a safe level while MPPT controllers convert this extra incoming voltage into additional current to improve charging time.
Not all charge controllers are created equal.
The larger your power load, the more expensive your charge controller will need to be to handle the increased voltage.
MPPT charge controllers are very effective and relatively cheap, but are still technically more expensive than PWM charge controllers.
We recommend MPPT controllers for this reason, unless your solar setup is very small.
Solar panels deliver their electrical energy in a direct current (DC).
Most appliances that plug into the wall use alternating current(AC).
Inverters are used to convert this DC current from the solar panels into a usable AC current.
Similar to solar charge controllers, not all inverters are created equal.
Depending on the draw from your appliances, you may spend as little as $40 dollars for a small 200 Watt inverter, up to $650 for a hefty 2400 watt inverter.
Depending on your installation, it might make sense to invest in a frame or racking.
There are several kinds of frames for purchase at hardware stores.
The fancier the racking, the more expensive it’ll be.
You’ll also need to spend money on fasteners to ensure that the solar panels are securely attached.
Each situation and solar panel is different.
While we’ve covered the major costs to setting up your own solar power project, we haven’t covered everything.
As with any project, there are a dozen or more small purchases that must be made.
These purchases range from extra length of wire, MC4 connectors that interface with your panels, circuit breakers, and other extra gear to keep yourself safe while working with dangerous levels of electricity.
Benefits of Buying Solar
So if those are the costs to start your solar journey, what are the benefits?
We’ll be discussing a few in this section.
We’ll be comparing and contrasting most of these benefits with gas-powered generators.
Reliability and Ease-of-Use
Each user will be incorporating solar energy into their own unique projects.
While initial installation can be a headache, solar has the distinct benefit of being set-it-and-forget-it.
Once your solar panels are on the roof of your RV, set up in your backyard, or charging your power tools, you’ll likely forget that they’re even there.
This relatively easy maintenance means that solar is perfect for long term projects.
If you want to provide energy to a homestead that’s off grid, your only other option is to run a generator or a wind turbine, solutions that require constant attention and upkeep.
Along a similar vein as reliability, you can rest easy knowing that your investment in solar power will be paying dividends for decades.
Most solar panel manufacturers have warranties that stretch out for 20+ years, which means that your setup will be reliably chugging for at least that long.
There are a vast array of ways to buy solar energy.
You can go the DIY route if you’re interested in powering a shed, RV, or remote homestead.
Going that route will mean you need to assess your energy needs and buy the panels to meet those needs.
You’ll need to ensure you buy enough solar panels, a solar charge controller that can process the energy from those panels, a battery or batteries large enough to store the load, and an inverter if you’d like to power household appliances.
Alternatively, buying solar power from reputable installers can be a good investment in the long term.
It’s important to do your own research into how much your house can potentially save before signing any contracts.
It’s also important to do extensive research into any company that you’re thinking about hiring.
There are plenty of review sites where you can hear reviews of local or national solar installers to see other people’s experience with them.