Solar Panels - What's the Verdict

Here in Illinois, we get ‘bombarded’ by Solar ads. Multiple vendors doing their typical pitch i.e., with your own system you can have your meter run backwards and sell to the utility company, and also take advantage of government incentives, zero cost to you, …

You start digging deeper and you find out most of those companies lease you their panels (average life of 20 years), you let them use your roof, and you pay them for the electricity you use. It is THEM that take all the government subsidies etc. You, the end user, simply buy your electricity from someone else (The panels’ owner). In essence, not much of a gain.

I see many people on here who have Solar. What’s your experience/Verdict? I know one can buy their own panels, and it’s a bit of a long-term investment, unless one is environment conscious and gets ‘satisfaction’ from using clean/renewable energy.

So, what are your thoughts?

Hi @drjb

Here is my perspective… First, you need to figure out if you are going solar primarily to reduce your carbon footprint and be a good citizen of the earth… If that is your primary motive, then you probably already have your answer… Yes, it’s probably a good thing, regardless of cost… Though you still need to factor in what it takes to manufacture, deliver and install your panels to net out all of the various factors…

However, if you are thinking about this from a financial perspective, a lot of the ROI depends on the cost of the electricity you are trying to offset, and the investment you need to make on your panels and determining your breakeven point.

Generally speaking, I would avoid leasing panels or renting your rooftop so a company can sell you energy. The biggest most attractive ROI is typically when you purchase and own your solar system outright.

For California (which is where I am located), the ROI is pretty compelling for several reasons (some California specific, some not):

  • Electric rates are high and are threatening to go even higher with inflation, lawsuit settlements, wildfire costs, etc…
  • High percentage of daylight hours throughout the year
  • Net metering is still in play in California
  • Federal solar credits are still very attractive (26% this year, and 21% next year)

With the above, most people that I have talked to in my social circle claim that they breakeven in 6-8 years after considering all of the above factors.

If any of the factors above were eliminated, it would greatly impact the ROI.

Electricity Rates - This is a HUGE factor. Californians generally pay a blended rate of $0.24 per kWh. If you get into the tiered details, an incremental kWh can cost Californians nearly $0.50 per kWh in the most extreme cases. I have talked to friends of mine in Ohio, and they pay $0.05 per kWh. The electricity is so cheap, they are not really avoiding substantial utility costs if they implemented solar.

High Percentage of Daylight - Pretty obvious, right? Not sure I need to spend a lot of time talking about this one. If you don’t have the daylight hours, or the sunlight intensity, your production per panel is going to be a lot less than compared to an area that has a high percentage of intense daylight (and by daylight, I do not mean heat… Intense heat actually makes solar panels degrade in performance).

Net Metering - Net Metering is almost too good a deal to be true. Generally speaking, Net Metering allows solar customers to “sell” over production during the day back to the grid for full retail credit towards energy that you will consume when the sun is not out. In effect, the grid becomes your backup battery. This is such a great deal that many states have elmininated net metering (I think Nevada and Hawaii have eliminated net metering if I recall correctly). And there is currently huge pressures to eliminate it in California. The good news is that if you get under the wire, most Net Metering contracts lock you in for a substantial time period. In my case, I am locked into my net metering contract for 20 years.

Federal Tax Credit - Again, not a lot to say here… The Federal Tax Credit is huge… It’s not a deduction, it is a dollar-for-dollar credit towards your tax liability… Subtract this credit from your total investment to determine your ROI/Breakeven. This credit goes to the purchaser/owner of the solar system. So if you lease your system, you won’t get the credit.

Sizing Your System - And when you think of sizing your system, think about it as pre-purchasing a set amount of electric capacity every year. As an example, my solar system is forecast to generate around 5,500 kWh per year. You should think about this capacity like you would a Health FSA account… You’ll want to try and use it all before the end of the year is up. If you have too much left over, then you probably over-invested in your panels and could have received the same benefit for less cash outlay. It’s better (financially) if you are either even, or if you are paying a little more for energy from the grid… It basically ensures that you used every last drop of your solar consumption…

I hope this helps… Let me know if you have any questions…

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Hey @drjb

Very good information from MikeekiM.

The worse thing you can do is lease your roof. Installers do a horrible job while trying to maximize their profit. They will try to fit as many solar panels as they can. My coworker leased it and is paying $172 a month. That’s just over $2k a year which is more than what he was paying without it. So he’s paying more for electricity and letting installers collect the incentives and the excess electricity. He is in NJ where you can sell your excess power.

In NY, I was able to get 25% off installation tax credit or 5k, which ever is cheaper. Also, I got 30% fed rebate on the installation. I needed a new roof so I received 30% off as part of the installation. That's huge. You can also get 30% if you have them install Sense for you. NY is also a net metering state. But now you can bank excess power and it doesn't expire at the end of the year. Con Ed here charges around .08 per KWH. Also another $.07 per KWH for delivery fee. The cost of energy will never go down, atleast it hasn’t for the last 16 years. It usually takes an average of 7 years to pay off the system.

Before you decide to install solar, make sure you do everything you can to minimize your electricity usage such as LED bulbs everywhere. I had 6 years worth of data before telling the installer what I needed. He also wanted to fill the roof. I have a 6.5KW system that is suppose to generate the 7MWH I need a year. So far, it’s working out. Whatever excess I have, I use towards space heaters to offset my natural gas heater.

My number one reason to install solar was to lower my energy cost.

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Thank you MikeekiM and slac101 for the very thorough explanations. It seems Illinois might not be ready yet for solar. The ConEd rate here is about $0.091/kWh, times 2 for delivery.

This is a really great post, @MikeekiM. Appreciate you sharing your insights here for those of us without Solar.

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You are welcome @drjb!

However, I would not rush to that conclusion…

After all, when you go solar, your solar consumption offsets both the generation and the delivery charges… So your ROI should be based on a per kWh rate of $0.182 (which is high enough to consider solar in my opinion, depending on the other factors I mentioned above).

If you are a spreadsheet kind of guy, I would pull out a spreadsheet and start playing with numbers and do some what-if analysis…

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Thanks Justin! And you are very welcome! I knew nothing about solar a few years ago, but anytime I get into something, I research and always end up “diving deep”! LOL…

I find myself knowing more than the solar sales people that are trying to sell me a solar system (not realizing I already have solar)…

If you (or others) have any other questions, I am happy to share anything that I have learned on my solar journey!

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@slac101 - How is this working for you? My natural gas furnace heats things up so quickly (and intensely), it is hard to substitute my natural gas heating experience with a space heater experience…

Space heaters work fantastic in the bedrooms, where it’s a confined room with a door that you can close and contain the heat… And I definitely use the space heaters in bedrooms…

But my experience trying to use a space heater in the common areas has not been terribly effective… I don’t have a huge house either… My home is 1500SF, and once you remove the bedrooms and bathrooms, the amount of true common area is pretty small… That said, trying to heat the common areas with space heaters feels a little like boiling a gallon of water with the flame from a candlestick! LOL…

Just yesterday, I did start to experiment with running multiple space heaters in the common area in strategic locations with my ceiling fans running slowly in reverse to move the rising heat towards the living space. I don’t have high ceilings, but I think the ceiling fans do help to both distribute the heat, as well as bring the rising heat to the lower living space…

I did blow a fuse when I ran two space heaters on the same circuit at the full 1500W power… It ran fine until the refrigerator on the same circuit kicked on! LOL…

I have a lot of excess solar “acorns” stored for the winter that I need to burn before my true-up date due to a broken AC over the summer. Because we weren’t able to use the AC, we didn’t use as much solar energy production as we had forecasted…

In a bid to lower our CO2 emissions, we added floor heating loops when we redid our floors about 1 1/2 years ago to supplement our forced air gas heating. What we have found so far is that heating the floor in great room of the house to 70 degrees from 7am to noon, allows us to drop the thermostat set point by 2 degrees for the whole day (with equal comfort for my temperature sensitive wife). We don’t produce enough solar to compensate for this, but do have 100% renewable electricity (ECO100) from our utility.

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@MikeekiM

You are correct about the common areas. Very hard to heat the entire area.

My house is 3500 sqft. I have 5 heating zones. one for upstairs, one in the basement and three on the first floor. I never use the zone in the basement since the heater is there and it keeps the basement at comfortable 67 degrees. There is one zone in the living room and one in the bonus room that is connected to the kitchen. The last zone, I will call it game room. That room is being used by my grandmother as a bedroom. It has four windows and faces south West. It gets a good amount of sun in the afternoon. It’s perfect for her since the bathroom is right across and the kitchen is a few feet away. Her room is set to 65 (gas) and the space heater kicks it up between 72-75. It’s on about 16 hours a day. It uses an average of 15KW a day. As long as the space heater keeps the temp up, the zone rarely kicks in.

I installed my solar panels on July of 2019. I started using more of the space heater that winter. I banked 2.5MWh that summer/fall . So, I started to use the space heater in the fall of 2019 and reduced my gas bill by 20% that year. For the last two months of this year, it looks like I am on the path of saving another 20% because the space heater is on much longer. But history shows that we have a warmer winter. So that also helps.

According to Sense and KP115, the space heater used 421 KWh last month. That is around $75 of electricity. I saved around $60 on my gas bill. So it almost equals out in my book. I used about 300 KWh of my banked energy. Next month should be less since the panels will generate more. The only good thing is the banked power doesn’t expire.

Since you mentioned Illinois…

I’m in Naperville, 30 miles west of Chicago. I bought my panels outright and had them installed in January 2020. Now that I’ve been through a year, my offset was 87% and my estimated break even point is about 9 years. To be honest that’s longer than I initially expected. If rates go up, it will be a bit shorter. If something happens to the roof and I need to remove them temporarily, then longer. But I’m in the camp of doing it for environmental reasons with any savings being a bonus. Our grid source is mostly from coal.

I have 28 320w panels with 8 facing south, the rest east. Payoff would be shorter if they were all south.

The 2 dips in the graph are my SREC payment and 26% tax rebate.

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@chris.tarczon … Greetings neighbor, thank you for the info, and nice to ‘meet’ you. I’m in Plainfield, few miles south of Naperville, and often shop at the Costco on IL-59 and 75-St. Nine years seems like a long time, and my roof is facing east/west. It seems not too feasible for me now, but I often see ads in youtube (targeting specifically IL residents), and people promising zero-cost, meter running backwards, and government credits … difficult to make sense (not Sense) of all of that.

Here is a ‘related’ question (for everyone): How do solar panels affect the resale-value of the house? do we have any data on that? I learned that those panels have a lifetime of 20 years max. I guess one can do the math … assuming how long one is staying at their home.

@drjb The way it has been explained to me is that solar panels are a little like swimming pools… It can be very polarizing when it comes to resale value… Most have either a very positive or a very negative opinion on it (with not many in the “indifferent” camp)… Some won’t even look at a house with panels on it, while others see it as a huge positive…

The other thing to consider is the fact that your net metering agreement (assuming you have a net metering agreement) is between YOU and the utility company… Your net metering agreement won’t likely be transferrable to the new buyer, and if your state has eliminated net metering (including Hawaii), they won’t be able to establish one themselves, and it will not be as an attractive benefit to them, as it currently is to you…

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One additional consideration regarding solar: look also at future changes in usage

Electric vehicles.

They’re coming sooner than you might think – and almost certainly over the 20-year lifetime of most solar systems. That may affect the size of the system one plans to install.

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News like this makes me glad I went solar!

I’ll share one more data-point from Colorado. We bought our house with a tiny solar system already installed and are looking at expanding it when we replace our roof in a few years.

We pay ~$0.12/kwh here, and net metering that’s pretty good. We can sell back electricity at retail rates until the bill reaches $0. It gets wonky after that.

As a victim of having an MBA, I think more in percent terms than payback periods. In our case, I calculate the ROI as being apx 5%, excluding any future price increases. This puts total returns around the 7% range when inflation is factored in. This is REALLY good for something low risk.

Of course, I 'm using online installation cost estimates, so I won’t know this for sure until we get real quotes. But the payback looks really good presuming you’re staying in your house for the long term.

Some other considerations based on comments in the thread:

  1. Leased panels can make your house harder to sell. We almost bought a house with leased panels, and the new owner has to agree to the lease terms, etc. It looked like a minor pain.
  2. In my experience, the answer to whether panels increase value is “it depends”. I live in a neighborhood where every house had a small system installed at construction. There’s no premium for it in this neighborhood, and a larger system doesn’t seem to bring a higher price. However, I understand you can get a decent premium for solar if you have it in a neighborhood where it’s less common.
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Another thing to keep a close eye on is the future of tax credits in your state.

My state (IA) had a certain amount of money that it would use to pay out the solar tax credits on a first-come-first-served basis. If you didn’t get in for that year, you were on a waitlist for the following year. The tax credit was just killed off, and because of the weird way the credit worked, if you weren’t high enough on the waitlist to get the credit for 2021, you aren’t going to get it at all. The estimate is that, if you had all of your documentation in by October 1, 2020, you’ll still get the tax credit (but this depends on the actual amounts payable).

People could have known that this was always a possibility, since the credit is reviewed every year. Many people who were aware of the possibility of the credit going away completely probably didn’t notice the part of the tax law that essentially retroactively removes the tax credit from otherwise-eligible installations.

https://tax.iowa.gov/solar-energy-system-tax-credits

FYI: Pennsylvania net-metering currently includes a credit if your system exceeds your usage over a 12-month period. That once-a-year reconciliation is (if over-production) a cash credit which is automatically applied to any other charges you may have from that supplier (e.g. distribution charges, natural gas, …).

My utility in Iowa works the same way, but the credit amount is the wholesale cost of electricity (so the payout is at about 3 cents/kWh instead of the retail rate of ~11).

Greetings from your neighbor in Chicago proper. After reading this thread, and many other sources, my wife and I got solar installed in early august 2021 and it was officially activated on August 23rd. With just over one month of data, I can add a little more detail.

I too was getting all those YouTube ads, mainly from a company called Summit Solar out of Joliet. I talked with them, but they’re actually based in SC, and I wanted a local installer. We have 22 panels (see attached photos) with all but 2 facing south. That’s great mid-day, but with the angle of the sun in August and September, after the 4-5pm hour, my production is almost gone, despite the sun being up for a while longer. Why? It’s because the sun falls behind my roof, shading all but my two western facing panels. While I don’t need much AM sun, my upstairs AC would kick on at noon and on super hot days, run through midnight. IDK how much, if at all, it’s even out, but we would use more evening energy than noon energy because of AC

Where did you get this figure from? My panels and microinverters from SunPower are warranties for 25 years. Total panel degradation is 0.5% per year, meaning my panels will still be generating a minimum of 87.5% of their full capability in 2046. That sounds great to me.

Another point is SRECs. My deal with ComEd is for 15 years. Who knows what’ll happen after that, if they’ll offer a new deal or if I just keep my electricity. I’m hoping in 15 years that battery storage will be cheap enough that I can install that and bank my electricity myself, especially if net metering goes away in Illinois like other states have done. 36 days in one season is a terrible sample size, but ~9 years is what the payback period is looking like for us. We just bought the house in August of 2019, so we’ll be living here through the life of the panels.

Lastly, the future.

I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. ComEd has some equation where we can only install panels that produce under 110% of our yearly usage. When I was initially talking with our sales rep, he showed me how many panels were allowed with how much electricity usage over the year. When he’s type in more kWh, the number of panels went up. We were right on the cusp of an additional panel, so for a month we used MORE energy than normal, ran the AC more, and ultimately got a 22nd panel. Once you have them installed, if your usage goes down, you’re locked in and there won’t be a penalty. In the future (3, 5, 10, 20 years?)we’ll add an electric car, in which our usage will be blown out of the water. I think we could add 2 more panels to the south facing roof fairly easily, and maybe as many as 5 on our garage, but IDK if even 7 additional panels will offset the area usage. That’s a discussion for the long future ahead.

@drjb Let me know if you, or anyone else, has questions on my very new system.

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