How can I offset more of my power with solar?

The percentage of annual utility offset you can achieve with solar is driven by several factors, starting with how much energy your house uses. The size of the solar panel system, the type of panels used, and the orientation and shading of solar panels determine the clean energy output that is possible.

In some case, when a customer wanted to produce more power than their rooftop size would allow, we have built a combination system using rooftop and ground-mounted solar panels. We have also used solar panels to build awnings and other shade structures.

Alternatively, we recommend using SunPower modules to maximize your clean energy output. SunPower panels are unparalleled in terms of energy production. They have the highest output per square foot and deliver more energy per kW, year over year, than other modules. However, that extra efficiency costs more to achieve. So, if your primary consideration is maximum performance, then you should go with SunPower. If your primary constraint is cost, then we recommend one of our other brands of modules.

Solar lease or solar loan?

One of the reasons many people prefer Smart Solar Financing over leasing is that it is simply a better deal. With a lease, several companies and their investors all need to earn a profit. When YOU own the system, there is only ONE investor – you. With solar ownership, all of the financial return goes to you, so that even if a solar project in OH doesn’t have enough of a return to please the tax equity investors, venture capitalists and others that seek to make money through solar leases, it DOES make financial sense when YOU are the investor. As the owner of the system, you can take the Federal Tax Credit, sell your SRECs, and benefit from stable energy prices over time, as utility rates rise.

How long do solar panels last?

All solar panels lose a small amount of performance every year. Exposure to direct sunlight puts physical wear-and-tear on any material — think of lawn furniture, decking or shingles. The performance degradation of solar panels is expected and is very slight, only one-half of one percent per year. The panels are warranted to produce at least 80% of their rated power at year 25. In fact, they will continue producing power long after that, just a little bit less each year.

What brand of solar panels is best?

For efficiency sake, we have a large supply of Trina solar panels. Trina is a world-class supplier of high-quality panels. Using them enables to us to use the highest quality equipment at the best prices and maintain a very efficient delivery operation.

However, we are not wed to any one manufacturer. There are approximately 80 solar panel manufacturers offering about 600 different makes and models of equipment. One of the values we bring to our customers is that we can select the very best equipment for your particular job.

When choosing solar panels, we have three filters:

  1. technology platform
  2. specific performance and industry reputation
  3. financial stability of the manufacturer

We are very careful in selecting quality solar panels from top-tier companies that will have the longevity to honor the warranties for their equipment. We offer many different solutions that are comparable in efficiency. We can also offer ARRA compliant solar panels (American Content) if that is a requirement.

We are also an Authorized Dealer of SunPower systems, which are the most efficient and energy dense solar panel available. There is a premium price differentiation for SunPower, but you can achieve more electrical output per square foot if you install a SunPower system, which would increase your system size and overall annual utility offset. SunPower is also a terrific solution when the roof is small but you want to maximize the amount of clean energy produced.

What are the pros and cons of micro-inverters?

We have experience with installing both micro-inverter systems as well as centralized inverters systems and can help to accommodate what is best for your renewable energy and project goals. One obvious diffidence between micro-inverters in comparison to centralized inverters is an increase in price to install micro-inverters.

Some pros for micro-inverters:

  1. ad hoc expandability
  2. optimal performance under shaded conditions

Micro-inverters can, in theory, allow for easier  incremental expansion of a solar array. But there are still the costs associated with mobilizing the crew and the question of racking. Do we build the whole rack now, or built the racking out in phases as well? Depending on the roof, this could be a limiting factor. Also, you can’t just keep adding micro-inverters forever. Even micro-inverters have limitations on how many can be connected together. If we install close to that limit today, then you’ll still be limited in future.

Some cons for micro-inverters:

  1. They are installed on the roof under the solar panels where high heat could reduce their life, whereas central inverters are installed elsewhere, and have a documented history of reliable performance
  2. Using micro-inverters increases the number of inverters for potential service repairs
  3. Currently, micro-inverters cost more.

Micro inverters can also create more potential future maintenance risk. With a central inverter, you have a single point of failure; with micro-inverters, you have many points of failure.

In our opinion, micro-inverters are not worth using if you have a large, simple roof, without much shading. However, micro-inverters can be worth the added cost if you have a complex roof, where the modules will have multiple orientations, or complex shading patterns.

Most important to remember is that micro-inverters are still new technology and have not been proven enough yet to wear their “25 year warranty” with any kind of credibility.

Why install solar panels on the roof?

Why on the roof? Why not on the ground?

We can build solar panel systems on the roof or on the ground. Rooftop solar offers a lower-cost option. The roof is an existing structure that can usually serve well as a mounting surface for solar panels.

A ground-mounted solar system requires a foundation and may demand a long underground wire run back to the house.We have built many ground-mounted systems, usually at a slightly higher cost than a roof mount.

Either type of installation can work well. We can provide whichever option you prefer, and we will advise you as to our opinion of which will work best in your case.

Solar panel subsidies and incentives

Solar panel subsidies and incentives might increase in the future—if I install solar panels now, will I miss out on solar panel incentives?

There are two broad classes of solar incentives: Purchase-based incentives and Performance-based incentives.

Purchase-based incentives are tied to the cost of the system, and apply one-time-only to the purchase of a new system using brand new equipment. They are designed to reduce or offset the initial cost of purchase. These incentives include tax credits (like the current Federal Tax Credit of 30% on renewable energy systems), low-interest loans, grants, and rebates.

Performance-based incentives are tied to the ongoing energy production of a solar system. There are several types of performance-based incentives, including Feed-in-tariffs, performance payments, Solar Renewable Energy Certificate sales, and a range of Carbon-tax or Carbon Cap & Trade mechanisms. What all performance-based incentives share is a solar income/savings structure based on the quarterly or annual output of the solar energy system—not a one-time-only payment, but an ongoing revenue stream as clean electricity is produced.

In a purchase-based incentive, the system owner must purchase the system within the time constraints of that particular incentive program. Performance-based incentives can apply equally to new and existing systems.

For several years now, the solar industry has been trending away from purchase-based incentives and toward performance-based incentives. This trend is expected to continue at both the state and federal level.

The advantage of this trend is that it makes project timing less critical—there is no need to wait for some potential future incentive. If and when that future incentive arrives, it will most likely take the form of a performance-based incentive and therefore be available to owners of existing solar energy systems.

Should I wait to buy solar panels?

Like all emerging technology-based businesses, the solar industry continues working on technical improvements. According to physicists, the theoretical maximum possible efficiency of a solar cell is 31%. Current laboratory cell efficiencies are hovering around 24%. So there is some room for growth in efficiency, but as the maximum efficiency is approached, each incremental increase is smaller and harder to achieve than the previous one.

Today, low-cost crystalline solar cells are by far the most dominant technology type available, holding 85% of total market share. Numerous laboratories continue to experiment with alternative technologies that could exceed the 31% efficiency cap of standard crystalline silicon, but none of these are close to commercial readiness. Any new start-up technology promising a significant efficiency boost would face serious cost hurdles and a long timeline to compete with crystalline silicon on a lifetime cost-of-energy basis.

While manufacturers have continued to improve solar panel efficiency, they have found more efficiency (and more savings) in reducing their manufacturing costs. As solar panel prices drop, it is that manufacturing efficiency, and the growth in scale of solar manufacturing operations, that are driving those cost reductions. Solar panel prices are not likely to drop much further, because if they did, the manufacturers would be forced out of business.

Will solar panel prices continue to drop?

Solar panel prices have been falling ever since the technology was invented. 40 years ago the solar cells alone (not counting the other components) cost $2,000 per watt. Today, an entire system, including permitting and engineering, can be built for about $2 per watt. The previous two years alone saw a nearly 50% reduction in solar panel prices.

However, as solar panel prices fall, the dollar amount of each percentage point becomes smaller and smaller. Today’s panel prices are so low that many solar panel makers are struggling to remain profitable. The solar panel manufacturing sector has entered a tough period of mergers, acquisitions, down-sizing and right-sizing. Currently, we are in a period of overcapacity on solar panels. How this will affect prices in the future is not clear, but solar panel prices have stabilized in recent months and could soon begin to increase.

Historically, the solar panels were the largest piece of the cost equation in a solar energy system. As a result, the total system price trends followed the panel price trends.

Today, the substantial drops in solar panel prices means that the solar panels now have a much smaller affect on the overall cost of a complete system. Costs of the other equipment (which includes racking, inverters, wires, and conduit) are tied to the cost of commodity metals like copper, and these prices are not expected to decline anytime soon. Labor prices, project management costs, and engineering costs are currently at their most competitive and will likely not decline further.

Meanwhile, increases in other project requirements (such as structural engineering and permit fees, and electrical safety and project oversight requirements) are gradually adding to the list of cost items incurred on any project.

On the whole then, the price of a solar system is expected to remain fairly constant for the foreseeable future. Any reductions are projected to be small, while the possibility of price increases becomes more real as the market shakes out.

Can solar panels damage my roof?

Will solar damage my roof? The short answer is no. In fact, the reverse is true—by shading the roof from the sun’s rays and from the damaging effects of wind, hail and debris, the solar array will actually increase the life of the roof beneath it. And the panels themselves are quite durable—about as hard to break as a car windshield.

As experienced, certified installer, we take great care to ensure no damage is done to the roof during the installation or anytime thereafter. With the exception of large businesses, we generally sell one solar system to each customer, and therefore live and die by our reputation and word-of-mouth marketing. We work very hard to ensure that each and every one of our customers is satisfied with their solar system results.

Prior to the solar installation, a structural engineer evaluates your roof to make sure it can support the solar array. This evaluation considers both the weight of the array and the potential uplift due to wind. We make sure there is no way that solar will damage your roof.

Solar modules are mounted parallel to the roof with a 1-to-3 inch gap between the roof and the modules. In this configuration, the wind forces are not extreme and are easily handled by any roof that was built to code. Nonetheless, on every job we rely on a professional structural engineer to evaluate the specific site and ensure that the roof and the array comply with all the local wind requirements in the building code and will be able to withstand all expected winds.

In addition to the structural evaluation, we take great care to ensure every roof penetration is watertight. Our crews are experienced with all types of roofing; we fully flash every roof penetration using standard roof flashings. We have built over 350 solar systems in our 14 years of operation and we have never caused a roof leak. Not one!