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How Do I Know If My Home Is a Good Fit in a Good Place for Solar?

Posted by Christina B. Farnsworth

Nov 20, 2014 12:29:00 PM

Thumbnail image of the national solar photovoltaics (PV) resource potential in the United States map

While visiting family in the Midwest. I had lunch with a high school friend. She knows my Arizona home has solar panels and asked if it made sense in the Midwest. Solar makes sense in a lot of places and for a lot homes, so here is how to make sense of whether solar makes good cents for you. And, yes, solar does make sense in the Midwest, at least I think so.

One of the ironies about solar is that it isn’t just about the sun. Temperature matters, too, hot temperature, that is.

Even though, a lovely interactive map by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows the West and Southwest to be most promising for solar, that isn’t true all of the time.

On my own system, it’s no surprise that I do not produce much surplus power in the depths of winter when days are shortest, but I don’t produce as much power at the height of summer as one might think either.

SunPower monitoring

Days may be the longest and sunniest. Heat (and its gets to be well above 100 a lot) reduces solar panel production about 20 percent. My best production is when the need for space conditioning in Arizona is lowest -- Fall and Spring -- my panels produce the highest consistent amount of power during those shoulder seasons.

The lesson here is to not despair, if you do not live in solar hotspot of the United States. If it’s too hot, your panels will not produce as well as they will on cooler days.

The map above from Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) shows Midwest potential.

Renewable Energy World says (and features a presentation to back up what they say),

"As much as 67 gigawatts of distributed solar power could be installed in the Midwest at prices competitive with utility retail rates by 2022, without subsidies. It's enough solar to meet 5-10% or more of the region's electricity demand. But the growth of solar energy in the Midwest has lagged other parts of the country."

So here is the approach I used for my own system:

  1. How much are you paying for electricity? Many utilities, charge tiers of service. The more you use the higher the rate. Using solar may radically reduce the amount of top tier-priced electricity you have to buy.

  2. What incentives or rebates is your utility offering? Five years ago when I installed my system there were great rebates and state tax incentives. If the answer is none, that does not rule out solar. Panel prices have been falling. There are leasing programs available that may net you out of pocket costs that are less than you currently paying when you consider the lease cost and the lower power bill. And there are still federal incentives. As an aside, I did not buy my Prius when there were rebates and tax incentives, but, by the time I did, prices had moderated to be comparable with non-hybrid cars, gas was much higher in price.

  3. Get estimates from a number of solar contractors. There were huge differences among my own bids. I ultimately chose Technicians for Sustainability (TFS) not because they were the lowest (They weren’t, but they weren’t the highest either), but because they were local and gave back to the community by providing solar panels and/or solar hot water heating to some churches and schools.  

  4. If your roof does not face South, that may be just fine. My own roof faced a little Southwest. TFS told me that I might not get our utility’s full rebate, because of the variation. When the utility paid its visit, I qualified for the full rebate. The slight offset was not enough to matter.

I attended a Department of Energy (DOE) workshop a few years ago in which the speaker showed how the perfect angled solar panel on a South-facing roof produced the most power. This was something like a tennis racket. When you play tennis, you try to hit the ball in the sweet spot on the racket in order to play best. But, just as you can still get the ball over the net if you don’t get just the right spot on the racket, many angles result in 90 percent of more solar production. In fact, the point of the DOE seminar was that owners were spending a lot of money on racks to get just the right angle, when laying panels flat on a flat roof was just fine.

You can also install panels on a garage, a trellis, a carport, or some other area that gets better sun and angles. In some cases, especially with historic homes, the panels might be somewhere in the backyard on poles.

Solar Energy is another good Website with a lot of information about choosing solar.

Germany, a cloudy, cold, definitely not fabulously sunny environ embraced solar to an almost unrivaled degree. Buildings have panels on their sides as well as on the roofs. The love affair eased off as incentives lowered, but Germany is still a deep shade of green in more ways than one -- and it gets enough sun to make a positive difference.

 

 


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