Solar energy has been around since the birth of stars. It is impossible to date when solar energy was first discovered by man, and most experts agree that man first started making use of the sun as a source of energy in an essentially unconscious manner.
Almost every ancient culture shows evidence of an awareness of solar energy. Virtually every culture in the long history of the human race has recognized and even celebrated it. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans consciously planned their architectural designs according to the sun’s position, so that their homes and palaces would be heated using solar energy. Not only would their homes be kept warmer through the night, but the layout was strategically developed to keep interiors cooler during the day as well.
In fact, the Greeks allegedly harvested solar energy as a weapon. According to some accounts, the great thinker Archimedes directed the inhabitants of Syracuse to use highly polished shields as mirrors to reflect and focus the sun’s rays. In this way, the citadel of Syracuse was defended against a Roman naval invasion when the concentrated solar energy was used to set their ships alight.
The Invention of Solar Panels
It wasn’t until October 1955 that modern man was first able to harvest solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuel electricity. Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller, who were scientists at the New Jersey Bell Laboratories, are credited with creating the first photovoltaic cell at this time. After some trial and error, on October 4, 1955, the three scientists successfully tested their silicon-based solar panels. NASA’s first permanent satellite was powered by solar electrical energy supplied by Bell Laboratories in 1958.
Today, solar panels have become an almost commonplace phenomenon. California is virtually a state-wide solar energy farm, being host to the most solar panels in the US. New Jersey, home of the solar panel, comes in as a close second.
As questions arise as to whether the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, solar panels are becoming an increasingly popular alternative for households and businesses alike. There are a plethora of solar panel companies today, each with their own spin on a sales pitch.
But the real question is: are solar panels worth it?
How to Determine Whether Solar Panels are Truly Worth It
Cheap to mid-range solar panels have always been rather affordable, but they’ve also come with a list of set-backs, including inferior quality. But in 2017, even the better quality solar panels are highly affordable. Countries such as the UK have even offered an incentive to home owners who make the switch to solar, with their Feed-In Tariff. Even with cut-backs to the Feed-in Tariff funding in 2016, households can expect an average return on investment of 4.8% over 20 years.
Australia too has made leaps and bounds in making the transition from fossil fuel to solar more feasible by making battery storage easily accessible so that excess solar energy can be stored for use at night.
But the fact remains that there are some important factors to take into consideration before jumping onto the solar panel bandwagon. There is no clear-cut, definite answer to the question “are solar panels worth it” - although if push came to shove, we’d say “yes”. To help you determine whether or not solar panels are truly worth the initial costs, here are a list of important questions to ask yourself:
- How much am I currently spending on electricity?
- What is the cost of solar energy?
- Are solar panels worth it outside of the sunny Southwest?
We’ll be examining each of these points in the sections below, before offering you three tips for solar shoppers.
How Much Am I Currently Spending on Electricity?
Every solar panel company promises that you’ll save thousands of dollars by making the switch to solar. But to determine how much money you’ll really be saving, you need to consider how much you’re currently spending on electricity.
Utility companies charge between 8 cents to 20 cents (or even more) per kilowatt of electricity you use, largely depending on where you live. The more kilowatts you consume per hour, the higher your utility bill will be at the end of the month.
Solar panels effectively act as a replacement for the power plant that your utility company sources electricity from. Essentially, what you’re doing is privatizing your electricity by installing a receiver on your roof to harvest energy directly from nature’s largest power plant - the sun.
The higher your current electricity bill (which is partially governed by how high or low your utility’s rates are), the more you’ll be saving in the long run by switching to solar.
Even getting a rough estimate of your expected savings can be a little tricky. We recommend making use of an online solar calculator to make sure you’re getting the figures right. These calculators consider your address and how suitable your roof is for solar panel installation (using Google Maps and some mathematical algorithms based on direction and placement in conjunction with your geographical location). Your local utility rates are sourced from online data, and a report is generated to show a personalized estimate of your excepted savings. Not only will you see how much you can save, you’ll also discover how quickly you’ll reach the target figure (for example, $20,000 in five years). Some solar calculators will even give you an estimate of how much your property value stands to rise (typically 3%) by switching to solar.
What is the Cost of Solar Energy?
Depending on the company you decide to go with, installation prices can vary significantly. As mentioned earlier, cheap solar panels may seem like a good idea for saving cash in the short term, but they tend to have long-term issues. Your 20-year savings will almost certainly be higher if you opt for better quality from the start.
Luckily, there are online solar marketplaces where you can easily compare competitors on one page, similar to how you might shop for plane tickets online. Take some time to weigh the ratio of cost and quality before deciding on a model and provider.
Depending on where you live, there may be solar incentives and rebates that can reduce the costs by 50% or more. There’s also a federal 30% solar tax credit offered, and some utilities go so far as to offer cash rebates to customers who switch to solar panels. Do some research to gauge the offers available in your state and municipality.
Your choice of financing will also have an impact on your solar system’s long-term value and savings potential. A cash purchase allows you to save more than the other available options, but even a $0-down solar loan results in savings that rank in the tens of thousands. There is a trade-off to opting for a solar lease or power purchase agreement (PPA) though: your total short-term savings typically don’t exceed 10% to 30% of your current electricity bill.
Are Solar Panels Worth it Outside of the Sunny Southwest?
Naturally, one might expect solar panels to be worth it in sunnier areas like the Southwest, but that doesn’t mean cold, snowy winters prevent you from reaping the same benefits. In fact, we mentioned earlier that New Jersey has the second-highest number of solar panels in the US! New York and Massachusetts, which are also situated in the Northeast, are close runner-ups too.
Part of the reason for this is that such states typically have higher utility rates, and the local incentives for those making the switch to solar are often better than anywhere else.
Smart Solar Shopper Tips
As promised, we’re closing off this post with three smart solar shopper tips!
1 - Multiple Quotes = 10% Extra Savings
Investing in solar panels is a big ticket purchase, so they automatically require a lot of consideration and research. We mentioned earlier that you should compare prices before making a decision, and we aren’t the only ones who think so. In fact, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently published a report that recommends homeowners compare quotes from as many solar panel installation companies as possible. This helps you avoid falling prey to heavily inflated rates that cut into your long-term savings.
2 - Big Installers Often = Bigger Price
Adding onto our first tip, be mindful of the fact that it’s often the bigger companies that are inflating their prices. If you make use of an installer network to get as many quotes as possible, you could save as much as $5,000 to $10,000 on your installation costs!
3 - Compare Equipment Options Too
You shouldn’t just consider the installation costs when deciding on a company. Take a look at the solar equipment options as well, and you’ll find that often the more expensive installers have less variety as well. Certain panels will have a better efficiency rate than others. When comparing quotes, take a look at the equipment options as well to make sure you’re getting the best deal in terms of quality as well as price.
So… Are Solar Panels Worth It?
Now that you know what to look out for, it’s time for you to decide whether solar panels are worth it for you based on your current energy costs, local incentives, and the quotes you’re able to receive for installations in your area.
Short answer? 10 to 1 you’ll find the answer is Yes, solar panels really are worth it!