Editor's note - This is the third in a multi-part series by guest blogger Dr. James Crooks. See Part 1 [Link], Part 2 [Link] .
Part 3 - Put Solar Panels on Your House
This is probably the most direct way to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. As far as I know in all states it is legal to buy a solar system, but state regulations have a big impact on affordability. The differences boil down to: (1) Does your state allow you to lease the panels instead of buying? (2) Does your state require you to pay a grid maintenance fee? and (3) Does your state allow you to sell back excess power to the grid? Furthermore, whether it makes financial sense to install rooftop solar on your home depends on a variety of factors even beyond regulations such as tax credits, hours of direct sunlight, the geometry of your roof, and surrounding trees and structures. Google makes it easy to weigh the costs and benefits through its Sunroof Project [Link]. Just enter your address and google will analyze your roof geometry and give you a ballpark estimate of how much money solar panels would save you. I suggest you select “Fine Tune Your Estimate” to make sure that Google’s guess about your current power bill is accurate.
The focus of Sunroof is cost savings, but this is not the only reason to buy solar; even if the cost of solar is higher than your current energy bill keep in mind that your family will benefit in the near term from lower air pollution and your children and grandchildren will benefit from lower atmospheric CO2. That being said, solar is falling in price so an installation that is too expensive for you this year may be affordable next year. The website has links to solar providers in your area but only those big players who actively partner with Google. Look for local installers and shop around for the best system and financing for you; bargains do exist.
One advantage of owning your solar system is that you may be able to sell your excess power back to the grid (“net-metering”) if you live in a state that allows this, which most do.
If price is still the limiting factor for you, consider joining forces with your neighbors on a group solar purchase; the more people who agree to use the same contractor the more bargaining power they have. The installers save money on advertising and can pass that savings along to the consumers. This website explains how it works: [Link].
What about leasing vs. buying? The advantages of leasing are that you have a much lower initial cost outlay and that you are partnering with a company that will monitor your usage, alert you of problems, and perform what little maintenance is usually required. The disadvantages are that some states don’t allow leases (sorry, NC, KY, OK, and FL), that you are stuck with this company for the life of the lease (typically 20 years, though there can be buy-out options), and that having a lease may turn potential buyers away when you are selling your house. In contrast, the advantage of owning your solar system is that you may be able to sell your excess power back to the grid (“net-metering”) if you live in a state that allows this, which most do. The disadvantages are that you have to pay for your own maintenance and repairs and that you may not break even on cost if you sell your home within 5 years. A middle way between these two extremes is to buy the solar system using a home equity or other low-interest loan. Consumer Reports recently concluded that buying in this way is almost always cheaper over the long-term than leasing [Link]. However, their calculations assume that your lease price increases over time, which some (including mine) do not. It pays to do your homework.
My personal experience with solar systems is that we inherited a lease from our sellers when we moved to Denver. The system was installed in 2012 by a company called SunRun. SunRun has been easy to work with and pro-active about maintenance issues. In terms of cost, over the entirety of 2015 we paid an average of $0.12/kWh, which is both below the original lease estimate and about half the rate for grid electricity in Denver, which is about $0.25/kWh. A solar system installed today would likely be cheaper still.
If you yourself have a solar system please let us know what your experience has been!
Next week I’ll discuss how to offset your household carbon footprint if you don't have solar panels.
Dr. James Crooks is an environmental health researcher and statistician at National JewishHealth, a respiratory research hospital in Denver, Colorado. He researches the health effects of climate-driven extreme air pollution events. He's also interested in genomics, toxicology, and infectious diseases. Before joining the faculty of National Jewish he worked for seven years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He earned a Ph.D. in physics and a M.S. in statistics from UNC Chapel Hill. He is a husband and the father of two boys.