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Four Steps to Going Solar

Make Energy Independence Your Reality

For years you've heard solar energy is a viable clean energy solution, yet you still don't have solar panels on your rooftop. If you are ready to get off the sidelines and choose energy independence, there are four essential steps to segue from curious to responsible. You need to see if your property is amenable to solar energy; discern the upfront costs and the return on investment payback time; get a final estimate and sign a contract; and share your experiences.

Step 1: Get Informed

The most enabling step you can take is to ask an installer for an estimate. Be bold and make the call, for it will change your entire outlook on what is feasible. Just as you would for a roof or windows or a driveway, get multiple estimates from reputable companies.

You simply provide the installer with your address and your last 12 months of electric bills. Using data available online, they can quantify how much solar energy reaches your rooftop and propose a design that matches your roof to your needs. The installer will typically send a shade analysis and a sample layout of the panels on your rooftop. The first glimpse of your house topped by a solar array is energizing unto itself.

Your immersion is immediate, for the installer will show the proposed size of your system, the cost, the number of years to recoup your investment, and the estimated earnings over the lifetime of your system. Yes, there will be differences between the company bids, which is why you'll talk with each of them. Since the initial estimates are not exactly apples-to-apples comparisons, don’t put too much emphasis at first on something like the price-per-watt comparison. As I experienced with a promising installer whose company derailed, price alone isn’t necessarily the driving indicator.

Don't think of your solar panels as a revenue generator like a mutual fund, in which the only value is income. That'd be like evaluating a new furnace to see how much it pays back, which a furnace never does. Rather, going solar is an affirmative move to abate consumption of carbon, and the rewards go far beyond the earnings that excess energy may generate.

Generally, you want your system sized to match your consumption. In Indiana, for example, there is little incentive to build extra capacity just to sell it back to the utility at a discounted rate. However, if you think you may be buying a plug-in vehicle in a few years--and soon that will be consumers' main option--then you may want to build in that generating capacity up front. Imagine having both your home's electrical supply and your transportation fuel being abundant, renewable energy!

Yes, there is a learning curve with new terminology like kilowatt-hours and net metering. But with it comes a visceral awareness of how you are about to integrate the sun's energy to power your lifestyle. Follow up on the installers' estimates with questions. For example, ask why their recommended system size is different than another contractor's, for there's often a good reason for discrepancies. You eventually have to dial in your design to your specific needs and wants.

Let me backtrack. If you want a quick peek at whether your home is a viable contender for solar, you can easily check it's approximate solar exposure by entering your address at Google Project Sunroof. Most houses fall on the continuum between Sunny and Shady and are candidates for solar installations, so don't outright dismiss your house unless your sun-facing roof is dark purple. And don’t get sticker shock or feel disappointed by the system recommendation by Google's generic interpretation. Again, your best bet is to contact an installer who can help you make an informed decision.

Another less-quick but rewarding way to envision your site's exposure to the sun is to make a solargraph. Rather than accepting the evidence of someone else's data like satellite images, establish your own credible data. A solargraph is a simple pinhole camera that will record the arcing path of the sun for six months between the solstices. The resulting image from a solargraph mounted on your roof may suggest whether obstacles like trees block the sunlight enough to squash your solar plans, or if you are all systems go. Yet again, your boldest move is to contact an installer for an estimate.

Step 2: Cost-Benefit Analysis

Now you have to interpret the data. Don't feel overwhelmed in the newness of solar decision-making. Rather, feel empowered by your initiative. Questions will abound.

Is the existing roof in good enough condition, for you don't put a new solar array atop a deteriorated roof? Will you either reside on-site long enough to make the payback time acceptable, or will you recoup the unmet costs through the increased home value when you sell early? How much value do you place simply on doing the right thing and reducing your carbon footprint vastly? Are there homeowner association requirements to address? If you are financing the solar system, how much will that affect the payback? Does this contractor meet the criteria you would demand of any other party working on a home improvement? What if you want to make changes later, like add battery storage or expand capacity? How will your action influence others to reach carbon-neutral? Why are you waiting any longer?

If some shade impinges on your rooftop, recognize the value of a solar array that provides partial coverage. Similarly, consider the upsides of the solar installation even if you end up selling your home early. The new occupant will automatically be reducing carbon emissions by using the solar panels. The benefit to the planet is the same whether you use the solar panels yourself or you pass them on to a new occupant. We need significant long term actions to draw down global warming and the ensuing climate change, and your rooftop array will help get us there.

Timing--urgency--is important. The Indiana Energy Association notes net metering will phase out in 2022, decreasing the money you receive from pouring excess energy off your array into the utility's system. That in turn will slow down but not end returns on investment. Speed up your financial reward by acting now.

There are also Federal tax considerations that are in flux. The tax credit originally scheduled to drop from 26% in 2020 to 22% in 2021 will stay at 26% for two more years and then be phased out completely in 2022, unless renewed again. And dare I mention the urgency to address climate change?

Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG) offers valuable resources, including updates on state and federal incentives.

Step 3: Get Final Estimate and Sign Contract

Now that you're serious about getting solar panels installed, you have to get a final estimate to lock in the system design and price. If it hasn't happened already, your preferred contractor will make a site visit to make sure there aren't anomalies on your roof that weren't noted in the initial remote assessment. For example, perhaps you have a stack vent that just barely impinges on the proposed array, so they'd have to modify the design to accommodate it. Or maybe the meter is in an odd location that requires an adjustment in wire. The cost of materials may change, and you'll want to lock in the prices.

The contractor will present a final estimate for you to sign within a specified time. Ensure timelines meet your regulatory or financial deadlines. Then, with your signature, you commit to living with a portion or all of your consumption being from renewable energy.

Step 4: Share Your Experience

With a solar array on your home, you will transition into a new role--ambassador of the sun! The best thing that can happen to make solar inroads into a community is for solar to appear in a community. When people see neighbors installing solar panels, they realize it's no longer some futuristic inevitability. Rather, it's here and it's now.

Expect inquiries. The most common and yet baffling question my solar-powered colleague hears is, "Does it work?" It's not like they would ask if the windows or front door or furnace work. Yet they inquire about the unfamiliar. As a new practitioner of energy independence, field those questions eagerly and share your experience, from the process of evaluating bids to the feeling of bypassing gas stations. Give the Project Sunroof link to get people curious, make a solargraph with a child to show how much sun is available to capture, or share Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' to express the intersection of faith and action for the common good.

Many sites are simply not suitable for rooftop or ground mount arrays. If you can't install solar panels currently at your site, please encourage and support others. Consider investing in solar-relevant companies, such as by purchasing your current energy needs from a solar energy provider instead of your utility company's default carbon-based supply.

Your being a solar energy educator will continue to yield benefits that you may not have considered in your earlier analysis. We need you. The global imperative for climate education is highlighted as one of the seven goals of Pope Francis' Laudato Si' Action Platform. Smile, dear solar panel owner. You've done well in taking a significant personal step toward betterment for all. We thank you.

What Company?

Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation, and there will certainly be newcomers and innovators coming onto the scene. Companies that didn't exist a couple years ago are thriving today, so I cannot make a recommendation that insures you have a favorable outcome. However, I can say I had a professional interaction with the following Michiana companies when I was seeking bids for my home in Indiana: Solar Energy Systems, Wellspring, GRNE, Advanced Solar, and Photon Electric.

Meanwhile, national companies have since expanded into the region. [Note: While people recognize Inovateus Solar of South Bend as a major player in the industry, Inovateus Solar focuses on larger solar projects and not home installations.]

A sample spreadsheet allows you to see differences and similarities in company proposals, and will help guide you in asking questions. Some contractors will send multiple estimates that have different equipment specs, such as panel efficiency.

Added May 28, 2021:

Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG) has a list of contractors in Elkhart, Marshall, Kosciusko, St. Joseph Counties, as well as other Indiana companies.


Solar Education Resources from MACOG

Solar United Neighbors-Indiana

National Renewable Energy Laboratory's PVWatts solar calculator

Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN)

Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light (HIPL)


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