How to Get Off the Grid (Even If You Don’t Own Your House)

Today I have a guest poster Brent Hardy. Brent oversees all corporate construction & facilities management activities for Extra Space Storage and leads corporate sustainability programs, implementing solar power, and energy efficiencies. He writes about corporate sustainable practices here

Forget all the bad hype you heard about Solyndra last year. Despite all the controversy over that solar company’s federal loans, the rest of the industry is thriving.

In fact, the cost of solar panels has dropped 70 percent in the last three years. While that may seem like bad news for the manufacturers in the short term, it’s helping to contribute to a boom in their utilization that will ultimately give the entire industry a big boost.

Just a decade ago, installing solar panels on a middle-class budget was difficult to fathom. The incentive was more altruistic than financial. Fortunately, those tables have turned.

Solar Incentives

No matter what state you live in, the federal government encourages solar panel installation on personal homes with a tax credit of up to 30 percent, extended in 2008 for eight years. That deal is sweetened by individual states, some of which offer generous packages to help people get off (or contribute to) the grid.

We’d expect California to offer generous credits, but even North Carolina utilizes a ‘net metering’ program. This arrangement allows homeowners who generate excess power beyond what they use to sell it back onto the grid, actually turning a profit on panel installation. That’s in addition to a 35 percent tax credit that N.C. gives, on top of the federal incentive.

Massachusetts also smiles on solar power, offering a rebate program per kilowatt that a home produces, as well as property tax exemptions. Several sites exist to check your state’s incentives, including www.dsireusa.org and www.find-solar.org.

Most homes only require between a 3 and 5 kilowatt system for supplemental use, depending on power usage at any one time. A factor called ‘insolation’ comes into play when determining the viability of solar power. Insolation is essentially a calculation of the amount of solar radiation energy your roof receives in an average day.

Tools like www.solar-estimate.org help consumers to calculate how long it will take to pay off a solar panel array, allowing users to plug in the percentage of their electricity use that they want to derive from the sun and giving estimates of the time it will take to pay off the investment before savings kick in.

The strongest incentive for solar may be its effect on home-values. People love the idea of getting ‘off the grid,’ but taking the first steps toward solar installation can seem daunting (you’re on your way, just by reading this!). According to a 2011 study by the US Department of Energy, the average markup on a home with solar panels is roughly the initial cost of the panels themselves.

That means that your investment goes beyond the actual savings you’ll enjoy in the meantime; you can actually recoup your initial costs, if and when you sell your home.

Consider This:

If you’re sold on the economics of installing solar power, you should still remember that not every home is a good candidate. Ask yourself these questions before investing time and money into panels:

  1. Does your homeowners’ association or city ordinance prohibit solar panel systems? (If it does, maybe you should organize a citizens’ movement to change this).
  2. Is your roof big enough to accommodate the system you’d require, and does it angle toward the sun most of the day?
  3. Are you situated in an open area or does your home receive a lot of shade? How does this change throughout the year?

Even if you come to the conclusion that your own home isn’t a good fit, you may be able to connect with a neighbor whose roof works. A new resource called www.Gridbid.com recently launched, connecting people with roofs that are suitable for solar with contractors that can install them. Even if you don’t have the time, money, or desire to install your own system, you may be able to make extra cash (and feel good about burning less coal or using nuclear energy) by auctioning off your roof.

Solar leasing is also an option, allowing both homeowners and renters to pay for their systems on a monthly basis, rather than with a lump sum upfront. Rates are often lower than a typical utility bill and lock in for 10 to 15 years at a time. Resources like www.sunrunhome.com and solarfinaincing.1bog.org can connect people with solar leasing options for their region.

Whether or not you build your own solar array and live the dream of getting off the grid, there’s never been a better time in the history of solar power to look into whether making the switch can start putting dollars back in your pocket.

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