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Are Solar Panels the Right Choice for Your Home?

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  • Transcript

    LESLIE: No doubt you’ve seen them on rooftops in even the most remote areas of the country by now. We’re talking about solar panels.

    Now, solar power is a very attractive option when you consider that not only will your electric bill be drastically reduced, you might even be able to sell some of that power you harness back to the electric company.

    TOM: Ah, yes. And there does seem to be some poetic justice in that opportunity. But going solar can require a big, upfront investment. And the question is, of course: is it worth it? Here to help us sort out the options is Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House.

    Welcome, Kevin.

    KEVIN: Hi, guys. Great to be back.

    TOM: And it seems like we are seeing solar panels pop up pretty much everywhere these days, even on schools and other public buildings. So, what’s the scoop? Have we gotten to the point where these really do make some sense?

    KEVIN: Well, I would have to agree that the popularity is increasing. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that there are tax breaks available now. There are discounts and rebates and grants available for some homeowners. So, in those cases, it makes a compelling case to go solar.

    LESLIE: So, Kevin, how does a solar energy-collecting system really work?

    KEVIN: Well, if it’s a photovoltaic system, then there are actually panels, typically, up on your roof and they are collecting sunlight and turning them into electricity. So that means you have to have the panels. You also have to have something called an “inverter” so that you can convert direct current to alternating current and then wire the house.

    And photovoltaic systems are actually the most popular form of solar power.

    TOM: Now, does that mean that we are cutting our grid sort of to the main utility? Or can we kind of have the best of both worlds?

    KEVIN: Well, it’s not an either/or. I mean you don’t have to say, “I’m going to go all solar and won’t rely on the grid,” or, “I’m going to rely on the grid and can’t rely on solar.” You can do both, which is great, which means that you can rely on solar to make some of your electricity and the grid can provide the rest.

    And in some situations, if your municipality is set up to do this, as you guys said, you can actually take any excess electricity that you make up on your rooftop, send it back to the grid and they’ll pay you for that. So you become a little power station and that could substantially lower your electric bill.

    TOM: Now, that’s some deal.

    KEVIN: That is some deal, right?

    TOM: If you can get that deal, that’s a great deal.

    KEVIN: When you sit there and you look at your meter and you see it going backwards, that’s money in your pocket, right? If it’s going that way, it’s great.

    LESLIE: Now, it seems like solar panels or solar energy would be, you know, kind of a no-brainer choice in places like Arizona or Florida. What about areas that don’t see as much sunlight? Do you think it’s still a cost-effective or viable option in a place like, say, Massachusetts or New York?

    KEVIN: Yeah, well, you would think, right, the sunnier it is, the better off you’re going to be because after all, it’s making electricity out of the sun. And while you can make more electricity in places like Florida, let’s say, than Massachusetts, the affordability of this system actually depends more on your local utility rates and the incentives that are available than the actual sunlight that you are exposed to.

    So, for example, a standard, 2-kilowatt system in New Mexico – a place that’s really sunny and produces 25-more-percent electricity than that same system in Massachusetts, where I live – but the energy savings are greater here in Massachusetts because our electricity rates are so high. So you’re offsetting higher costs and it makes good sense.

    TOM: And you really have to look at all of the options in your particular part of the country, because you really have to consider the electricity rates and then all of those rebates and incentives, which there are just a ton of these days, and try to figure out if the cost versus benefit is there.

    KEVIN: And a lot of installers should help you, actually, navigate all of those rebates and discounts and show you a pretty comprehensive plan of what everything’s going to cost and everything you can save.

    TOM: Now, let’s talk about those installers because there’s another way to get solar these days. And I have seen where the installers sort of use your roof as the home of these panels but you don’t really own the panels. It’s kind of like a revenue split sort of deal where you’re sharing some of that benefit with the installation company. Is that correct?

    KEVIN: Yeah, it is. And I actually think this is the sort of the hottest thing in solar right now. And they’re called “power purchase agreements.” So if you wanted to install a full array of panels up on your roof, that might cost as much as $30,000. And that’s a lot of upfront cost. But there are some solar companies that have sort of reversed the equation. And they said, “We’re going to install those panels for you at low or no cost at all. In exchange, we’ll make the power, collect the power and sell it back to you.” And you enter into a long-term agreement with them.

    And what’s great is the price you’re paying for that electricity is often lower than the electricity cost from the grid. So you come out a winner in the end and you can avoid those big, upfront costs.

    LESLIE: Now, do you think there’s any sort of stigma of solar panels? Like maybe people think they’re not attractive and therefore will reduce the resale value of their homes?

    KEVIN: I do. I think a lot of people are resistant to do it because it ruins their curb appeal or they just say, “I don’t want those panels up there.” But I don’t think that is a fact across the board.

    A lot of people, when they buy a home – and a lot of people, when they’re in a home – are significantly concerned with the operating costs. “What are the costs of my utilities: the heat, power and all these types of things?” And there’s actually been some studies done out there. There was one by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that suggested that home values rise an average of – get this – an average of $20 for every $1 reduction in the utility bill. So if you can bring down your utility bills, you’re actually putting real value into that house.

    TOM: And moving forward, there’s more and more ways to work these solar panels into the design of your home. I’ve seen solar roof shingles where you really almost don’t know that there’s solar collectors on the roof.

    KEVIN: Even though it’s been around for a long time, I think the industry is still in its infancy and I think it’s got a bright future.

    TOM: Absolutely. Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House, great advice. Thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    KEVIN: Always good to be here.

    LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.

    TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by Lumber Liquidators. Hardwood floors for less.

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