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Pros and Cons of Solar Energy

Pros of Solar Energy

Availability

“Satellite surveys show that 80% of homes could get at least a decent amount of energy from solar electric panel systems on rooftops,” explained Hannah Wiegard at Ipsun Solar, a residential and commercial solar panels installer. If you want the most accurate projection of your home’s solar potential, Wiegard recommends contacting a local installer for a free consultation.

Versatility

Weiss explained that there’s more than one way to use solar roofing. “One example of this is a direct application of solar panels to a roofing surface, and some solar companies utilize a CIGS panel technology that is lightweight and flexible.” He said this technology allows direct application to the roofing membrane.

“If a roof has a low slope, the solar can be invisible from ground level, and this appeals to people that may not like the look of solar,” Weiss said. Additionally, some solar panel companies use an aluminum frame that produces more energy when there is low light or poor weather. “In addition, the lightweight panels don’t require any additional structural blocking, and since they are direct applied, do not require additional uplift engineering.”

Bi-facial solar panels are another good use of integrated solar. Weiss explained these panels can be used for building projections, overhangs, and patio roofs. “The bi-facial nature of these panels can allow them to produce energy from sunlight captured from the sun above, but also additional energy from the reflection off of lower surfaces,” he said.

Convenience and protection

Depending on your location, solar power can handle the majority of your power needs during the day, according to Ramon Rosquete, senior project manager at CREADIS, an engineering consulting firm that specializes in renewable energy. “Also it’s set and forget – the maintenance of this system is next to none, and the warranty is great, as long as the labor is warranted as well,” Rosquete said.

And although solar roofs are maintenance free, they’re providing a lot of benefits to your home. “Solar protects the roof investment by shielding the roof from the harmful UV sun light and weather elements that can deteriorate the roof and shorten it’s life expectancy,” said Andrew Carr at Harvest Power, a solar energy design and installation firm. In addition, he explained that solar helps to insulate your home, and this can make it a little cooler in the summer and slightly warmer during winter months.

Sustainability and security

The sustainability factors are another advantage of solar rooftop. “You can help the world out by providing energy to your family and your neighbors that is clean and nearly maintenance free, no more coal or peaking plants needed with wide adoption,” said Abe Fouhy, who teaches Renewable Energy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, OR.

“You can help power your electric vehicle cheaper and provide clean energy to your car, helping the world out on the transportation side, which makes up 25% of our energy usage, and is the main component in the USA for air pollution.”

And that’s not all. Solar rooftops can even aid in national security. “You can help stabilize the utility grid and provide energy security for the nation,” Fouhy explained. “Our grid is old, consumers are increasing the need for more power, with your solar you help bridge the gap between choosing to install larger more vulnerable powerplants to attack versus small decentralized power systems.”

Financial savings

Of course, one of the primary benefits of solar rooftops is cost-savings. “You can think of a solar rooftop as a low-risk long-term investment that generally provides a high return on investment (ROI),” said Joshua M. Pearce, PhD, Professor of Materials Science & Engineering in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Director of the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab at Michigan Technological University.

“Solar photovoltaics (PV) produce electricity silently, last 25 years under warranty and require almost zero maintenance – and building integrated solar even eliminates the need for a roof.”

And since the cost has come down so much, almost everyone will save money compared to the normal charges for grid electricity – and some households will do really well.

“On my home system, my ROI is greater than 10%, and if you live somewhere sunnier you could do even better.” Pearce has even done a study on this for his state.

Homeowners can also get federal tax credit dollars, and among those that do, Wiegard said the system tends to pay for itself in about 11-14 years (depending on space available and energy use patterns).

And when you sell your home, you’ll likely get a boost. “In general, the value of the home is slightly higher with solar panels,” said Rosquette. “Depending on the study the percent changes but it hovers around 3% premium when compared to a similar home without solar.”

Cons of Solar Energy

Solar rooftops may not work on every home

There are various factors that determine if your home is a good candidate for a solar rooftop. If it doesn’t meet these criteria, you may be out of luck. “The best homes for rooftop solar are south-facing, flat roofs, without obstructions like chimneys or vents, and without blockages like trees or shade from neighboring homes,” says  David Amster-Olszewski, founder and CEO of SunShare, one of the country’s first and largest community solar company in Denver, CO.

“There are many reasons a rooftop may be unsuitable for rooftop photovoltaic panels, for example, the pitch of the roof may not catch enough of the solar energy to make it viable.” It may also depend on where you live. “The location of the home within the country may factor in with flatter roofs in warmer climates with greater amounts of sunshine versus angled roofs in colder climates.” So why is this important? Amster-Olszewski explained location can affect how many hours of sunshine the home receives at different times of the year.

And since the panels need to be placed together, the size of your roof also matters. “If you have a small rooftop or one with limited space, putting solar on the roof is impractical,” said Andrew Carr at Harvest Power, a solar energy design and installation firm. And besides trees or shade from neighboring homes, there are other factors that can determine viability.

“Rooftops are heavily shaded by obstructions such as water towers, chimneys, elevator shafts, etc., won’t allow the solar to generate sufficient power to make the economics of the solar pay off,” Carr explained.

In addition, there are two additional factors to consider. “Roofing materials or strength of support could impact the suitability,” Amster-Olszewski said. “Frequency of hail should also be considered when taking maintenance into account.”

A hefty upfront investment

According to Joshua M. Pearce, PhD, Professor of Materials Science & Engineering in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Director of the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab at Michigan Technological University, there’s a reason why large mega corporations are buying huge amounts of solar.  “You need access to capital, since you need to make the investment up front,” he explained. “This is why companies like Walmart, Prologis, Apple, Kohl’s, Costco Wholesale, GGP, IKEA, Macy’s, Amazon, etc. are buying huge amounts of solar – they have the money and the ROI is really good.”

However, Pearce says there are programs in many states that can help. On top of installation fees, there are other costs associated with solar rooftops as well. “Expect charges for the inverter, batteries (if you want to store energy), and of course, all of the wiring needed,” says Kershan Bulsara, Manager of Roofmaster.

“You may have to upgrade your electrical panel, not a huge deal, but just know that you may have to upgrade your service panel to allow for the solar system,” said Abe Fouhy, who teaches Renewable Energy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, OR.

“You may need to pay for the meter, so your bill may have a balance of $0 for electricity but connection charges will be $5-10/month for the meter connection charge,” Fouhy says.

Financial incentives may vary

On a federal level, financial incentives are available for anyone. But on a more local level, Fouhy explained the costs can vary greatly. “In Oregon, a system that costs $20,000 is normally about $9,000 – but in Portland it is closer to $3,000 with a community run funding source – to the consumer and we have some areas that provide 30 year, 1-2% interest loans wrapped up in your taxes, which is less than $30/month to OWN a solar system that will save you $100-200 a month.”

Compare this to Montana. “Some regions in that state only do the 28% federal incentive, but still give you a whopping $5,600 tax credit. In most cases you can get your solar system for $0 down in all states,” Fouhy said.

Other drawbacks with solar rooftops

Availability is another potential issue homeowners should plan for. “During night time and low irradiance periods, there is typically low to no production of energy, so the grid or batteries are needed as back up, said Ramon Rosquete, senior project manager at CREADIS, an engineering consulting firm that specializes in  renewable energy.

Further, Rosquete says you can have long-term issues like water leaks and roof damage. “This is typically due to improper installation and shortcuts by a poorly trained contractor,” he explained. Another potential problem, depending on your taste: Rosquette says some homeowners don’t find solar rooftops aesthetically pleasing.

However, sometimes, it’s not up to you to determine if the solar roof is attractive or not. “It takes up some roof, and some HOA’s don’t like that,” Fouhy said. However, he admits that perceptions among HOAs and beginning to change since there’s more mainstream interest in solar.

Also, Fouhy pointed out another potential con. “In certain regions with a great deal of snow, your panels could be covered if mounted a few inches off your roof,” he said. “If you do have this system, ask for Bifacial panels and offset the distance, this reduces snow blockage by 70%.”

Community “Shared Solar” Alternative

If rooftop solar is not available, you may have other options for solar. “Many states allow anyone to subscribe to solar installed somewhere else instead,” Wiegard said. “Shared solar” is an option for customers who can’t have solar on-site. By subscribing, they can use a portion of the electricity generated by an off-site solar installation. Examples include renters and low-income residents.

“Rather than pay a premium, this actually allows for savings, because the rate is cheaper than their normal electric rate,” Wiegard said. She admits that if you use this option, you’ll lose out on the property value increase. “We’d only recommend that course if your home is much too shaded, or have no wide sections of roof to use, or have an HOA that bans solar, if you’re in a state where that’s lawful.”

 

Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

[Diyana Dimitrova] / Shutterstock