Power to the panels

As the benefits outweigh the costs of residential solar panels, more homeowners and builders install solar arrays

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia
CTW Features

This could be the tipping point. That’s what advocates of residential solar power are hoping as they weigh factors like the lower cost of solar panels and the availability of tax breaks against the traditional arguments that have been holding back homeowners, like payback from the initial investment and the aesthetics of solar panels.

But the scales are really tipping only in about a half dozen states. “The two main drivers are local retail electricity rates and state policies,” explains Tommy Cleveland of the North Carolina Solar Center at the North Carolina State University.

In the solar sweet spots, like California, homebuilders are increasingly using solar. “Some municipalities are requiring 100 percent solar,” says Mark Stancroff, director of CertainTeed Solar, based in Valley Forge, Pa.

While economics is largely behind the uptick, the public is influenced by seeing new homes with solar panels, adds John Pinto of RealtyWorld-John V. Pinto & Associates, Napa, Calif. Just as many consumers were introduced to granite counters or first-floor master suites from touring model homes, seeing solar as a modern amenity can persuade buyers, he explains. Still, just a tiny fraction of residential electricity is currently generated from solar panels. If we’re seeing a tipping point, it’s probably pinpointed in certain locales.

Power play

According to the Energy Information Administration, the charge for traditional power ranges between 11.4 cents and 33 cents a kilowatt-hour in California, New Jersey and New York, which are among the high solar adoption states.

For consumers, says Jim Petersen of solar roofing provider PetersenDean Inc., the solar decision involves pitting the estimated utility bills savings against the cost of installing the panels.

The calculation also includes any federal tax incentives, says Sherri Shields of the University of Central Florida Solar Energy Center. She suggests the site Dsireusa.org for information on state and federal incentives.

With typical solar panels — known as photovoltaic or PV — the installation costs roughly $5 per watt, Cleveland says. Since homes need anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 watts, a homeowner could pay between $5,000 to $50,000 for a full solar array.

Another factor is that the solar array may not generate enough power for the household, which means that utility bills aren’t always completely eliminated.

New and improved

In Concord, Mass., a new home community was designed with solar roofing and advertised “net zero” power use, meaning that the homes all generated as much power as they used. Those homes “sold for prices and at a pace well above comparable in the area,” says Donald Powers, partner at Union Studio, architects for the project.

Buyers of newly constructed homes view solar as a plus, Petersen says. “They like getting a more energy efficient home, and sometimes the builder passes the tax credit through to them.”

These aren’t the only ways to get in on the solar game. Lately, homeowners can enter into third-party agreements whereby a firm installs and maintains the PV system with the panels installed on a roof or on the property. Appealing aesthetics People who like a traditional-looking home may have been turned off by solar simply because of aesthetics, Powers says. Many predesigned sustainable homes had a modern or contemporary feel, so his firm came up with a solar design that is compatible with the classic New England look for the Concord, Mass., community.

No matter the design of a home, “integrated” solar roofing is available, in which film solar “shingles” are seamlessly incorporated into shingles of the roof for minimal aesthetic impact.

These systems cost “about 10 to 20 percent higher on a total installed cost basis,” says Stancroff of CertainTeed. But, he concludes: “Many customers are willing to pay the slight premium for improved aesthetics.

© CTW Features