Considering Solar? It’s complicated. Good thing we are here to help.
Solar is a big & broad topic today. Unfortunately, it is not black and white – solar is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. One of the most asked questions is, “will solar save me money on my electric bill?” In short, yes it probably will. However, you must ask yourself, at what cost, and what is the projected savings and payback in years? Solar payback can be anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years. Where we used to see less than a 4-year payback, we have been seeing about a 12-to-25-year payback over the last couple of years depending on if the system was financed and the financing rates.
One of the key factors in the investment is the cost. Although the cost has come down rather dramatically, while technology has improved, there are still substantial upfront costs when installing solar. On a 10-kW system, you would have expected to pay between $18,500 and $25,000 before 2020, but today between $40,000 to $60,000. If you finance the system and add a battery-backed or grid-independent system to hold excess energy produced during the day for use at night, the cost can increase another $20,000 to $30,000! Some of the system payback could be from incentives, such as Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and/or state and federal tax incentives.
Contact EECA as your first call for information or assistance. We can answer any of your non-partisan questions first. We can also evaluate your usage history to help confirm the size of system that would be most beneficial. We highly encourage you to not only contact us first to be informed of our processes and expectations, but to also take advantage of a free energy assessment to gauge the efficiency of your home. We can also evaluate if your current electric service at your home is sufficient or if it would need any additional upgrades before adding solar.
There are many reputable solar companies to choose from in our area, but out-of-town companies sweep through our area trying to “get the next sale” that may not have your best interest in mind. If a solar installer claims to represent EECA in any way please contact us at (618) 684-2143, as we will not contact you directly soliciting the sale of solar.
You should be very cautious if a solar company tells you they can eliminate your electric bill by putting in solar. They may offer money-back incentives, promise savings without considering our rate tariffs and policies. Some may even discourage you from contacting your local cooperative with questions. These are all tell-tale signs of a solar company that does not have your best interest in mind and someone I would not want to do business with. The old saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” very much so applies here.
As your electric cooperative, WE DO have your best interest at heart. We encourage any of our members considering going solar to please reach out to us for a short or in-depth consultation. There are many factors that can “make or break” your solar experience.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT BEFORE GOING SOLAR:
First and foremost, evaluate your home’s energy efficiency. Whether your motive is for cost savings or for environmental purposes, first addressing your home’s efficiency is a must. Oversizing solar to compensate for a home’s inefficiencies is wasteful. A home energy assessment will help determine the improvement that will be most beneficial before sizing a solar system. We provide energy assessments to our members at no cost. Energy efficiency improvements can be minimal cost on items such as air sealing and added insulation, to more costly improvements such as new windows and high efficient appliances and equipment.
- Install a programmable thermostat to control heating and cooling systems.
- Replace traditional incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs.
- Install weather stripping around doors and windows to reduce air leaks.
- Seal air leaks around electrical entries, outlets, and switches.
- Upgrade to Energy Star certified appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines.
- Install low-flow showerheads and faucets to reduce water usage.
- Insulate your attic and walls to reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. In mobile and modular homes, ensure underpinned insulation.
- Install double-paned windows to reduce heat loss and gain.
- Upgrade HVAC and water heaters to heat pumps or geothermal.
There are three main setups for solar energy: off-grid, battery backup, and interconnected. Off-grid systems are rare in our region, completely independent and not connected to the power grid. These systems require a battery bank to store energy for use during times when the sun is not shining, such as at night or during cloudy weather. Interconnected systems, also known as grid-tied systems, are connected to the power grid and do not require a battery bank but could have one. Excess energy produced by the solar panels is sent back to the grid, and homeowners receive credits on their utility bills. Battery backup systems, on the other hand, are connected to the power grid but also have a battery bank. This allows the system to provide power to the home during nighttime and during lower solar output times. If properly specified, some battery backup systems can provide power to the home during a utility outage. Each setup has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the best choice for a homeowner depends on their individual needs and circumstances.
If interested in rooftop solar, check to make sure your roof is in good condition. If it’s an older roof, repairs or replacement may need to be done first. If interested in ground-mount, do you have the space and full-sun? Are you interested in a battery backed system?
Research for a reputable contractor/installer. Start with a list of recommended installers or options garnered from website research, local or state Better Business Bureaus, renewable energy associations, your state energy office, your state Attorney General’s office, extension service staff, and any other local experts you can call on for assistance and advice. Contact at least a few of those contractors appearing on your list, especially if recommended by multiple state and local experts. Are they local? Do they have references for you to contact? How long have they been in business? Check out other installations the contractor has completed and ask them their opinion of the contractor and thoroughly examine their contract before signing. If possible, ask a contract specialist or lawyer to review the contract before signing.
Get multiple bids. Getting at least three bids is good practice and will ensure that prices are competitive. The bid process can also help you better understand what you are getting – what is included, what isn’t or the differences and ensuring they are an apple-to-apple comparison.
Q: HOW CAN I KNOW IF A SOLAR PANEL SYSTEM WILL WORK ON MY HOUSE?
A: To begin, you can look at factors such as which direction your home faces, the condition of your roof, and obstructions such as trees and other buildings that may block the sun during the peak generation period of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Solar contractors can provide a more detailed analysis on what to expect, and your cooperative can offer advice too.
Q: HOW LONG DO SOLAR PANEL SYSTEMS LAST?
- Certified systems generally are reliable, with a life expectancy of about 30 years. Like a battery, the output of solar is slightly degraded each year.
- Manufacturers test panels for hail impact, high wind, and freeze-thaw cycles to represent real-life situations.
- Most manufacturers offer 20-to-25-year warranties for panels; extended warranties may be available but at an extra cost.
- Little maintenance is required; occasionally it may be necessary to rinse modules off with water to remove dust and grime.
- Inverters are usually the first to need replaced, typically after 10-12 years, similar to other electronic devices.
Q: HOW MUCH ELECTRICITY CAN I GENERATE?
A: It depends on the size of your system. You can determine how much electricity you want to produce; then size your system accordingly. The larger the system, the longer the payback.
A system that is projected to generate 100% of your energy needs is expensive, so most systems are sized to generate only a portion of your home’s needs. Again, it is important to address home inefficiencies and appliance upgrades before considering solar. You don’t want to oversize your solar system from wasted energy usage that could have otherwise been saved with a smaller system.
It also depends on your site. If you have a shade-free area from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., you’ll be able to collect more sun and produce more energy than if your site is shaded.
Q: CAN I STORE POWER AND USE IT AT NIGHT OR ON CLOUDY DAYS?
A: Unless you have a battery-backed solar system, the answer is no. If so, the on-site energy storage holds excess energy produced during the day for use at night or when the sun is not producing enough power to whatever capacity the batteries have. Choosing grid-independent will add significant cost and maintenance to your system. Most people opt for grid-connected systems for reduced cost, maintenance, and high reliability – with or without battery back-ups. With an interconnected system, EECA continues to provide energy to you 24/7/365. Your solar system will produce energy, and even excess, on sunny days. Your system will not collect sunlight at night and minimally on cloudy days. This means you will continue to need to draw electricity from your cooperative during these times when your array cannot keep up with your demand.
Q: CAN I STILL GENERATE POWER AND USE IT DURING AN OUTAGE?
A: Typically, no. Most grid-connected systems shut down to prevent back-feeding electricity into de-energized power lines that may have fallen or that line crew members may be working on. It’s important to have this shut-down feature to prevent injuries—and even death—to those working on high-voltage power lines.
Questions you should ASK solar Contractors before you sign a contract:
Q: Will a solar project save more energy and money than insulation and air sealing?
No. Experts agree that insulation and air sealing are almost always the most eﬀective means of reducing your energy use and saving money on your electric bill. It is best to ﬁrst reduce your energy needs before considering going solar.
Q: How much energy does my home use each year?
At least one, preferably two, year(s) of usage history should be reviewed and considered. You can contact your cooperative to get this data or find your past bills in the SmartHub app.
Q: How much energy will the solar produce each year?
Your contractor should be able to calculate this number easily. Your co-op can also help conﬁrm the estimate. The best bang for your buck typically occurs when the solar will produce 60-80% of your home’s annual energy needs. Visit pvwatts.nrel.gov, a free governmental website that we recommend. It can estimate your kilowatt-hour production over the course of a year, month-by-month. You shouldn’t project additional usage into future years. This could cause an oversized system.
Q: How much will the solar cost me?
Ask your contractor for an up-front cost, even if it will be ﬁnanced. Compare the total cost to the size of the system being installed (measured in kW-DC). As of 2020, residential solar systems should average about $4-6 per kW-DC.
Q: Do I pay upfront, or over time?
Be very certain of your contractor’s payment terms, as these can vary widely.
Q: How much money will I save on my electric bill?
Your contractor should be able to produce a good estimate of your bill savings IF they understand how your bill works. Make sure you contact us to confirm. Many members, and contractors we have found, don’t understand our policies or how their bill actually works, sometimes members are provided with inaccurate information or information from another utility, so it is important for you to either contact us or do your homework and review our policies, rate schedules, and know your bill. EECA nets your energy usage, but your bill will never be zero.
Q: Have you asked my cooperative to review your estimate of my electric bill savings?
You and your contractor should always ask your cooperative to review an estimate of bill savings. Mistakes are common and it is much better to avoid them when possible or ﬁnd them out before the system is built rather than after.
Q: How long have you been in business?
Longevity and experience should be noted when researching contractors as well, when considering maintenance and follow through. More local contractors may have a leg up on this decision.
Q: Do you have local references of systems you have installed that I can contact?
This can weed out a bad contractor, we cannot stress this enough. Ask their clients about their experience from start to finish. You can really learn a lot about what was missed, what was done well, and what can be done better.
Some important things to note of our expectations before a solar can be interconnected to our system:
- The system must be less than 40kW AC to interconnect with EECA. Anything over is an agreement to be had with our power supplier, Southern Illinois Power Cooperative (SIPC). SIPC can be contacted at (618) 964-1448.
- An application (Application for Operation of Member-Owned Generation) should be completed by you or the contractor and returned to us as soon as possible, preferably before construction has started and a contract with your contractor has been signed.
- Once the system is completed, an agreement (Agreement for Interconnection) must be signed by the member and executed with a “true-up” month selected as to when the banked kilowatt-hours (kWhs) reset. A witness test must be completed by EECA Engineering and meter exchanged before the system is placed online and eligible to interconnect with our metering and billing systems. It is not the responsibility of EECA to follow-up with the contractor to expedite the process on behalf of the member.
- EECA net meters. This means no payment is made to the member by EECA for overproduction. This is why it is important not to oversize your system. Net metering is an arrangement between us and the member to net the members solar production +/- energy usage. Any over production is “banked” on the bill to be used at a future time, or as needed. The banked kWhs will be reset once a year as agreed upon in the Interconnection Agreement. Also note, due to net meters the kWhs that shows as generated on your inverter will not match the generated kWhs on your bill, as you are using part of that generation before it hits our meter.