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Look around nowadays and it seems like solar power companies are everywhere. But it wasn't always that way. If you've been around for awhile, you remember solar panels being just for the wealthy. If you're even older, you remember that solar panels used to be the obsession of Greenpeace-loving hippies, something to be eschewed and dismissed by conservatives everywhere. Currently, however, neither of these things are true about solar power. In fact, solar energy is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, a money-saving scientific breakthrough within the reach of almost any homeowner. But where did solar energy come from? And how did it get to this point where it could very realistically change the energy industry as we know it and become your primary mode for powering your home? It turns out the idea of solar energy predates hippies by a long shot, and it's undergone a roller coaster ride, in terms of public interest and skepticism, to get here. 1400s: Solar Power Goes Way Back Although the ancient Greeks and other cultures found ways to use the power of the sun for cooking, warfare, and amusement, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have designed the first solar water heater, this one built for all of Renaissance-era Florence. 1700s-early 1800s: Getting Warmer Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure built a "hot box," also known as the world's first solar energy collector. Interest in solar technology continued into the early 1800s, with other scientists, like French physicist Edmond Becquerel, continuing to study the science of converting light into energy. 1860s-1870s: Building Up Steam Fearing that the world was about to run out of coal, scientists and national leaders got serious about solar energy. With some financial support from the French monarchy, mathematician Auguste Mouchout developed the first solar-powered motor and the first solar-powered steam engine. Bonus: the steam engine could also be modified to make ice. Not to be outdone by the French, a British official named William Adams devised a method of using mirrors to concentrate solar rays to power a steam engine. Mouchout, it seems, got there first, but Adams at least gets the distinction of having his design still in use in solar power plants today. 1880s-1910s: The First Cell Charles Fritz invented the first solar cell and officially became the first person to transform solar power into electric power. More than two decades later, Henry Willsie would become the first person to figure out how to store energy generated during the day for use at night. Unfortunately, in the early 1900s, coal and petroleum became easier and cheaper to obtain, and interest in solar technology tapered off. 1920s-1940s: Tinkering Around With Solar Despite a general lack of interest from the public, solar energy continued to linger in the minds of scientists. Even Albert Einstein took a crack at converting light into electricity-and was awarded a Nobel Prize for it in 1921. 1950s-1960s: Going Big In an attempt to power their telephones better, Bell Labs invented (some say accidentally) the modern solar cell out of a mix of purified silicon and arsenic. Almost immediately, the first solar cells hit the market, showing up in toys and radios in 1956 and in the first satellites and crafts of the Space Race. Unfortunately, solar cells were too expensive for serious use in daily life. A one-watt solar cell would cost the average citizen $300. 1970s-1980s: On and Off Again In 1974, private homes in the North America that were entirely heated or cooled by solar power systems numbered only six. But as the 1973 oil embargo and 1979 energy crisis took their toll on everyday people, solar technology re-entered the spotlight as a much-needed alternative to fossil fuels. Development of the technology began to make solar cells more affordable. President Jimmy Carter even showed his support for solar power by having a solar water-heating array set up on the roof of the White House. Unfortunately, solar power wasn't immune to special interests. In 1983, as oil prices fell again, and Big Oil exercised its influence on the new Reagan presidency, the president branded solar energy the domain of liberals and hippies. To show his support for good ol' American fossil fuels, Ronald Reagan had President Carter's solar water heater system removed from the White House roof. 1990s: Reality Sets In Once again triggered by issues with fossil fuel supply problems, and helped by increased awareness about global warming and the other nasty side effects of oil and coal, solar power started to get another look from utilities and consumers. Starting in the mid-1990s, solar power plants started popping up all over the country. Solar panels on housetops started to become a common sight. In the late Nineties, states began creating their own renewable portfolio standards, or requirements for how much of their power would come from renewable sources, like solar and wind. In 1997, Nevada became the first state to do this, requiring all electricity providers to get at least one percent of their power from renewables. 2000-2002: Getting Smart As renewable portfolio standards caught on with states throughout the western United States, solar power became a constant part of the national conversation about energy. Notwithstanding, solar power was still not a reality for the typical American household. People were starting to think about the savings that could come from getting their own solar power systems in their houses, but the required cells, equipment, and labor were just too expensive for anyone but the upper middle class and above. 2003: The Solar-Power Purchase Agreement In what might just turn out to be the most important moment in the history of solar power, mechanical engineer Jigar Shah figured out how to make solar power a financial possibility for almost any household. Through his company SunEdison, he offered customers a solar-power purchase agreement: " Instead of having to pay all of the money for a solar installation up front ... companies ... contracted with SunEdison to have solar panels put up at no initial cost. SunEdison then charged the companies for the amount of energy that the panels produced at a fixed rate for a period of 20 years - a rate that was less than what the companies were already paying the utilities, and that would ultimately save them even more money as energy prices inevitably rose over time." In other words, solar customers could have solar power in their homes without having to put any money down. They would still have a power bill, but it would be a fraction of what they were currently paying for electricity. Then they would pay a lease to the solar installers. Combined, the lease and the power bill would still be less than what customers had been paying for their monthly power bill. But it wasn't an act of philanthropy that made this unbelievable arrangement possible. The solar installer-or bank or investor or whoever had paid to put up and maintain the solar equipment-also made money on the leases and as they sold the leftover electricity off to local utilities. Shah's model was that rare win-win-and it made solar energy, which had once been an unjustifiable extravagance, irresistible to any responsible, money-conscious American household. 2004-Present: The Solar Spring Shah's solar-power purchase agreement would supercharge the growth of solar power throughout the U.S. and Europe. While some solar industry names, like Solyndra, would continue to be casualties to ideological, special interest-driven forces, solar energy companies like SolarCity, SunEdison, and Vivint Solar would spring up and thrive. By 2012, solar-power purchase agreements would be responsible for the majority of new residential solar power systems. Sixty-three percent of the new systems in California would follow this model; 80% in Colorado. The result: solar power has grown an average of 40% per year since 2000 equalling, as of the end of 2013, 139 gigawatts worldwide. Germany currently leads the world for most installations and Italy boasts highest percentage of electricity generated by solar (7% of their total electricity). What will be your place in the history of solar? The new solar energy industry is disruptive in ways that others can only dream of. For no money down, customers get significant savings on their power. Installers get a solid revenue stream. Everyone gets a break from the negative side effects of using fossil fuels. All this transforms the energy industry from something that has been clunky and "take-what-you-get" to something that puts the power figuratively back in the hands of customers. In the next few years, the question for homeowners will be not if they're going to get solar power, but with which solar energy installer they will sign up. To see how the top solar energy installers measure up to one another, visit our Solar Energy reviews page!
This is the twelfth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "Given that installing a solar PV system is a significant investment, it's important to do your homework: research incentives in your area; get an idea of what you can produce in terms of solar electricity and what that translates into with regard to savings by using various online solar calculators; speak with friends/neighbors that have installed a PV system; and most importantly, try to get multiple quotes. Getting multiple quotes is important, not just to secure a good price, but also because you want to feel comfortable with the company that you choose. By speaking with a few installers, you will learn more about their experience and credentials, and ultimately increase your odds of making the right choice for you." -Simone Garneau "Consult with a trusted source. Get as many estimates as you can. Research and review credible information, such as from the Dept. of Energy on costs, etc. Do not rely too much on ‘solar calculators’ alone that are easy to Google on the internet – these typically do not give the full picture or complete analysis." -Greg Reed "When shopping for solar and talking to different solar companies, be sure you're comparing apples to apples. At the present moment, you're essentially renting your power and are paying your bill on a monthly basis. You own a home for a reason: you don't want to rent. So why would you choose to rent your power?" -Rainier de Ocampo "If your home qualifies for solar, go for it." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "Right now is one of the best times to install solar. The incentives are great and there are a number of great solar installers. If the incentives go away, the payback will be longer. Like a computer, don’t wait for more technology to improve. Electronics all need to be approved by the Underwriters Laboratory and big changes are coming, but you will get plenty of your system's benefits by the time they come to market." -Teris Pantazes "If your site is appropriate and you'll be in your home for at least several years, there's really no downside. If your site is not appropriate, look into community solar. You can still gain many of the benefits. If initial capital is a factor, look into lease-back systems where the installer owns the system and sells you discounted electricity." -Shel Horowitz "If you purchase a solar system, you can reasonably expect an ROI anywhere from 3-7 years. This equates to a 14-33% annual return that keeps going once the investment is paid for. I would ask them, "with your current utility company, what is ROI on your electric bill?" This frames the situation differently, and some people have a hard time grasping the idea that the money they spend on their electric bill is a cost with no return. With solar, they can take that money they are already spending and turn it in to an investment with great return factors." -Matt Stoutenburg "As long as a homeowner can qualify for the program, solar will definitely save them money if they have enough sunlight and space. There's no reason not to go solar unless you are happy paying more for your electricity from your utility!" -Geoff Mirkin "Talk to somebody who has had PV panels installed and do some research. PV panels will not work for every person or every property but it is part of a renewable and efficient energy tool bag that can save you money and carbon." -Mark Stevenson Ready to take the next step towards energy independence? Click here to view top rated solar companies in your area and read reviews from real customers.
This is the eleventh question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "They definitely increase the property values." -Geoff Mirkin "In most cases, it is a neutral. Like a pool, some people like them, some don’t. If they like solar, it can add appeal and value, but if they don’t, it can detract." -Teris Pantazes "This really depends on the knowledge of the appraiser and the real estate agent marketing a home. A system owned by the homeowner can appreciate the home's value if it is marketed correctly; however, a system that is leased does not add any value to the home, as these systems are someone else's property that are attached to the home." -Matt Stoutenburg "Nationwide, the average home value is 15% higher if it has solar." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "It’s a difficult one, as value is defined by what somebody is willing to pay. We think that PV panels will raise the value, as the running costs of the house are significantly reduced and there may be a long term income stream. Unfortunately, some solar PV installations are particularly ugly with the older blue and silver panels installed randomly on roofs; I think these types of installations would reduce curb appeal and reduce the value of properties." -Mark Stevenson "This should increase home values tremendously. But, it depends on the buyer and value they place on it. There is certainly a market for it today, including a move towards net zero energy homes, which will include a sufficient amount of solar, among other energy efficient methods and technologies." -Greg Reed Click here to go on to Question #12: What Advice Do You Have for Individuals Who Are on the Fence About Solar Energy?
This is the tenth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "Most solar panels are warrantied for 20 to 25 years, which is considered the life of the average solar project, but panels can potentially continue to generate power at lower than 80% of rated power output for 30 years or more." -Kathie Zipp "The performance of systems are warrantied for 25 years, however they will be producing energy long after that (50+ years)." -Matt Stoutenburg "Most are guaranteed for 25+ years, but they are likely to last 40+ years." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "Solar panels degrade slightly (approximately 1%) every year, but the very clever people that design them estimate that the panels will last up to 40 years. The inverter will tend to have a life span of 12-15 years and may need to be replaced. In reality, we propose a 20-year life, as there will be newer and more efficient technologies in place in 2038." -Mark Stevenson "Most are warrantied for 25-30 years." -Geoff Mirkin "Life expectancy of most solar systems should be at least 20 years or longer - this remains relatively new, so we do not have many decades of experience yet. But, 30- and 40-year life expectancy is certainly attainable." -Greg Reed "It's warrantied for 25 years; useful life is 30 years. It will likely last longer, but we assume after 30 years, it is better to replace." -Teris Pantazes "Most systems are expected to last about 25 years or more. However, depending on the equipment you use, you will likely have to replace some parts, such as an inverter, roughly midway through the system's life. Fortunately, the cost of this equipment is a relatively small percent ( ~10%) of the total system cost." -Samuel Adeyemo Click here to go on to Question #11: What Effect Do Solar Panels Have on a Home's Value?
This is the ninth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "Yes, the better the panel quality, the higher the yield will be on a matched system. However, it's important to have a well-designed system customized for your needs." -Mark Stevenson "Yes. We all have limited roof space. The more efficient the panel, the more power you can produce per square foot. Otherwise, panels are always measured by their power output, not size, so efficiency does not matter as much as power rating." -Teris Pantazes "The higher the efficiency, the less space you would need to provide power for your home or business." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "Yes, it is very important. The more efficient a panel is, the more cost effective it is. Today, the panels on the commercial market are only about 18% efficient (maximum). As the technology improves and panels become more efficient, the greater the efficiency and cost-effectiveness can become. This is why we need to continue to invest in R&D – not just for the panel, but it’s interconnecting equipment, such as the inverter and other electrical infrastructure needs. In this regard, going to all Direct Current (DC) power is more efficient than the DC to AC conversions that we currently see – much more needs to be done in this area, but it is a great opportunity to improve overall solar efficiency and effectiveness." -Greg Reed "Yes, if space is limited, a higher efficiency panel will help if it's not much higher in pricing." -Geoff Mirkin "Yes, a higher efficiency panel will produce a greater amount of energy, and you would need less of them to meet your household consumption needs." -Matt Stoutenburg Click here to go on to Question #10: How Long Will a Solar Energy System Last?
This is the eighth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "Not necessarily. We found out the hard way that ours didn't, and, like the rest of our neighbors, had no power for three days after the October snowstorm a few years ago. Work with your contractor to make sure ahead of time that yours does." -Shel Horowitz "No, unless purchased with a battery backup." -Geoff Mirkin "Yes, when they are connected at the facility level. This is one of the main benefits of end-use solar installations. They can be islanded from the grid in times of blackouts or other contingencies, such as post-recovery from extreme weather events." -Greg Reed "For safety reasons, most systems turn off in a power-outage. If having power during a power outage is a necessity, then you should consider investing in battery storage." -Simone Garneau "In most cases, no. For safety reasons, most building codes prohibit it unless you have a battery backup." -Teris Pantazes "The panels will still generate, but unfortunately, due to legislation, the inverter (the device to convert DC power from the panels to AC power to the plug) will shut down." -Mark Stevenson "Yes, they still produce electricity, but because they are tied to the grid, you will not be able to draw this energy during a blackout unless the system has a battery backup connected to it." -Matt Stoutenburg "Most solar systems today are grid-tied and have a mechanism that would not allow the homeowner to use the power generated during a blackout." -Julio Daniel Hernandez Click here to go on to Question #9: Is Solar Panel Efficiency an Important Factor?
This is the seventh question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "Yes. Sun exposure is important, so the payback is not as quick, but many cold climate areas have successful solar programs. Very little and this depends on the inverter. Micro inverters tend to work better. A while ago, thin film technology was picking up speed (solyndra) and they worked in cloudy conditions however the price of Crystalline panels came down and they are more efficient." -Teris Pantazes "Yes. We are in cold, cloudy Massachusetts. What I don't understand is why the entire Southwest hasn't switched over. If we can make it work, it would be so easy for them!" -Shel Horowitz "Yes - the panels will work in all temperatures - just at a lower efficiency. The panels use daylight to generate, so they will generate some energy but not a huge amount." -Mark Stevenson "Yes, it works in all climates provided there's adequate space and minimal or no shading" -Geoff Mirkin "Absolutely. Like any electrical device, solar panels actually perform better under cooler temperatures. Cool, sunny locations can create some of the most efficient output of solar panels. But, solar needs the sun to shine, for the most part. While there is still a measurable output, even under partly cloudy conditions, solar is typically not as effective on rainy days, and snow covered panels will not produce much either." -Greg Reed "Yes. Yes, but not as effectively as on a bright sunny day." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "Yes, viability of solar panels is reliant on availability of sun hours. Temperature is not a major factor, however solar panels work better in cooler climates than hotter ones. Panel efficiency actually decreases as temperatures raise too much. Panels will still work in cloudy weather, but not as well as when the sun is directly shining on them." -Matt Stoutenburg Click here to go on to Question #8: Will Solar Panels Still Generage Power During Grid Blackouts?
This is the sixth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "The incentive that is still available is a Federal Income Tax Credit for 30% of the gross cost of the system. Incentives will slowly draw down and the industry will have to look for ways to remain profitable without customers being able to take advantage any incentives." -Matt Stoutenburg "Each municipality and state is different, so it would be impossible to list here all of the incentives available at the local level, but there are a handful of websites that list them, such as DSIRE and our own website Sunmetrix. But one of the most important solar incentives available in the US is the 30% solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Homeowners that are serious about going solar shouldn't postpone too long. The ITC for residential solar projects will remain at 30% through 2019, but then it is set to decrease, falling to 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021 and to zero in 2022 (it will remain at 10% for commercial and utility-scale projects)." -Simone Garneau "Rebates change from town to town. The federal tax credit covers everyone right now, and some states have state rebates, SRECs, etc. as well. However, incentives will slowly but surely go away." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "This depends on your state. I would recommend checking out www.dsireusa.org as a great resource- it is simple and what us pros use. Fun fact— the current federal incentives were actually enacted by President George W. Bush! They will likely decrease steadily as energy rates increase in order to keep a level playing field. I hope they keep many of the tax credits because they are credits that other forms of energy already have." -Teris Pantazes "Federal tax credit is 30% and multiple states have additional incentives" -Geoff Mirkin "The federal government offers rebates and incentives on the capital cost of solar installations, and most states also offer such. It is possible to get as much as 50% or more of the capital costs back though incentives today, depending on your state. Also, many states have renewable portfolio standards, so they are incentivized to see more renewable integration, including solar, at all levels of the grid. I think they will continue to be offered to spur investment in this sector. However, solar is becoming more and more competitive and reaching price parity with other grid-level generation, such as coal and gas, and so these incentives may not last much longer. It will be an important policy decision in future years for both our federal government and states, and will determine to some extent our commitment to a sustainable future and towards addressing aspects of climate change, grid reliability, and energy security." -Greg Reed Click here to go on to Question #7: Are Solar Panels Viable in Cold Climates? Will They Still Work When It's Cloudy/Rainy/Snowy?
This is the fifth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access the other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "A solid track record, meaning it's important to know how long the solar provider has been in business. The concern should be "will you be around when I need you in the next 5+ years?" So many solar companies, large and small, have folded in the last 2-3 years. In many cases, homeowners who need need maintenance on their solar system have nobody to turn to once their original installer has closed its doors. The other is the quality of work and level of customer service. We believe that you get what you pay for. There are solar installers out there who offer lower prices just to win the customer's business. What the customer ends up sacrificing is quality. The quality of products are substituted for underperforming alternatives. And the level of customer service is lacking. All of this simply because the customer wanted the best price. We want to protect prospective customers from this because, unfortunately, it happens a lot in this business. A company who lowers its price is, at the same time, lowering its value. It's like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Go with a company that has a strong track record, has some experience underneath it, and offers real customer value instead of empty promises." -Rainier de Ocampo "Someone with great reviews and someone that has substantial experience." -Geoff Mirkin "Consumers should look for a solar installer with NABCEP accreditation. This is not an easy certification to get or keep and was established to set a standard for quality in the solar workforce to protect consumers. A solar installer should also take time to sit down with you and answer all of your questions to ensure you are getting the best system for your particular roof that will perform optimally so you can see those savings in your electric bill." -Kathie Zipp "Commitment to great customer service, outstanding workmanship, and several product offerings to ensure they do what's best for you. The best bet is to speak to families who have already worked with them." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "I recommend going with someone who is focused on solar but can demonstrate a great knowledge on both electricity AND general building. The design of the array is important, which is why I recommend using a solar-focused group. Having knowledge in electricity is also important for obvious reasons (efficiency and safety). I stress building because I HATE seeing a number of the new solar arrays going out with panels cut out because of vent pipes, etc. A good company that also knows construction/roofing should have no problem moving roof vents. They understand how the roof is constructed and can make changes or repairs while on your roof (we always cleaned the gutter of homes we were working on, performed a full inspection, and typically re-caulked flashing as part of our service)." -Teris Pantazes "Companies that focus on offering ownership of the system and making sure the homeowners are the ones to receive the tax credit. Ownership of solar systems benefit the homeowners, while leases and PPAs primarily benefit the financial institutions that back those contracts (they are treated as securities that can be bundled and sold). Also, being able to answer questions about every aspect of their project and not having a high pressure sales approach. Looking for positive reviews online in regards to installation and customer service is important as well." -Matt Stoutenburg "Reputation, longevity, and strong financial stability. There are many small/local outfits in the business today that may or may not be profitable and will not be in business several years from now. We have already seen this happen. In terms of warranty and long term maintenance. it is better to go with a well-established, reputable organization or electrical contractor." -Greg Reed "The key to finding a good solar PV company is to avoid the shiny-suited salesman. There are a lot of companies that sell systems to homeowners and businesses that do not meet their needs. It is also important to ensure that they have internal and not sub-contracted labor, are members of the trade associations, and provide an insurance-backed warranty." -Mark Stevenson Click here to go on to Question #6: What Solar Incentives Are Currently Available? What Do You Expect to Happen With Incentives in the Future?
This is the fourth question in a twelve-question series. Please click here to read the introduction, as well as access other questions in the series. Or, download the printable ebook to view the entire series. "It becomes a matter of costs vs. return. I would highly recommend considering battery storage if the economics are favorable. However, today, energy storage is still very costly in comparison to capacity. As costs continue to come down, it will make more sense to include battery storage more universally over time." -Greg Reed "Battery storage is still a developing technology and the early adopters have had issues with generating enough energy to store in the battery." -Mark Stevenson "Battery storage can be a great option for some customers. On the residential level, storage can be a good choice for homeowners looking for the piece of mind of having backup power from their solar array when the grid power is out. It's a common misconception that the solar panels will continue generating power when the grid is down, because the system's inverter must shut down from the grid to avoid backfeeding dangerous voltage that could harm grid workers. However, with batteries, the homeowners will continue to have power for some loads (fridge, lights, TV) when the grid is down." -Kathie Zipp "Only for off-grid homes. On-grid homes should stay connected, sell excess power back to the power company, and use the electrical grid as their battery. It's cheaper, more efficient, and takes up much less space." -Shel Horowitz "The technology is great, but the economics aren't there yet to justify the cost. In other words, it would be great to have power even if the grid goes down, but the expense associated with that luxury is hard to justify in areas where you rarely have a power outage." -Julio Daniel Hernandez "Not yet, the technology still has a ways to go in MOST markets." -Geoff Mirkin "In some cases, yes. Especially when utility companies shift their on-peak hours away from the times when solar is most efficient, it would make sense for homeowners to invest in batteries to capture the solar energy during the day time hours so they can use that energy from the battery during the later on-peak hours. This would prevent them from having to purchase energy from the utility company at higher on-peak rates." -Matt Stoutenburg "In most cases, no. I am based in Maryland and we do not have a large discrepancy in price between day and night (when you would use batteries). Instead, like most states, we use net-metering. I can spin my meter backwards and for a small fee, get credited the energy back at night or on rainy/snowy days." -Teris Pantazes "In a volatile western region like Southern California, home battery storage should be a topic of conversation with every household. There are three key reasons why investing in battery storage along with a solar system is important. 1) Backup Power: It's protecting your home from a power outage, a natural disaster, or act of God that is completely unforeseen. Backup power is seamless and reliable. 2) Self-Powered Home: Homeowners can use solar and battery backup to reduce their reliance on the grid and create a zero emissions home. 3) Energy Peace of Mind: The home battery stores solar energy to continuously power the home with sustainability, day and night." -Rainier de Ocampo Click here to go on to Question #5: What Should Consumers Look For in a Solar Company?