Cheat Sheet: Solar Power

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In most states, solar incentives are still available for a variety of renewable energy technologies. Amounts vary based on the type of technology used and the scope of your project. Photo: Flickr/ATIS547

There are many factors to consider when considering the installation of a solar energy system for your home including initial investment cost, the viability of a home solar system and the many federal, state and municipal financial incentives available to help offset the initial cost.

But don’t be overwhelmed. We’ve thrown together a simple cheat sheet for everything you need to know about solar power.

Types of solar power systems

PV or photovoltaic systems are the most common type of residential solar electric system. These systems are made up of modules, which are often referred to as solar panels. Residents can install one module or an array of modules depending on budget and space.

Solar water heaters preheat your water using the warmth from the sun. This process can significantly lower the electricity needed to warm your water.

Solar modules convert the energy from the sun into a direct current (DC), which is then converted by an inverter into alternating current (AC) that you can use to power your home.

If your system is connected to the utility grid, any excess electricity produced by your system will be put back into the general electricity supply for your municipality. Your meter will spin backward, thereby giving you a credit.

Factors to consider

1. Placement of your panels – Solar panels need direct sunlight to work, so it is important to determine where to mount your system and how much energy your panels could generate. The amount of energy generated depends on the size of the system and the number of kilowatt-hours the system is capable of producing.

There are several things to consider before installing solar panels, including location, costs and how much energy your home uses. Photo: Flickr/reiner.kraft

2. Your energy needs – Once you know how much energy your system is capable of generating, the next step is calculating the monthly energy needs of your household. You can contact your local utility for this information. You should also inquire about the utility’s specific requirements for connecting your system to the grid.

3. Your budget – Solar Electric Systems are expensive, and while rebates are available, there will generally be a substantial investment required. The initial cost of a solar panel array can range anywhere from $5,000 all the way to $40,000.

Rebates and incentives for solar

In addition to credits from local utilities, those installing PV systems and solar water heaters are also eligible for tax incentives. As part of a larger effort to encourage residential energy efficiency, the federal government is offering tax credits of 30 percent of the cost of either of these systems.

There are requirements for these credits, and detailed information can be found at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Web site. State credits are also available, and options and requirements vary from state to state.

The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) offers information about federal, state and local incentives. Also, be sure to check with your local utility about incentive programs.

Ask the Experts

Solar energy is a viable investment for many homeowners, and it is a promising way for many households to supply their own energy needs without pulling electricity from the power grid. More and more resources are cropping up for homeowners that are considering solar power.

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is a good place to start when looking for an installer. The American Solar Energy Society is an excellent Web site for information on everything from legislation to installation, and your local utilities will often provide how-to guides as well.

For more quick breakdowns of common eco confusions and projects, check out our entire Cheat Sheet series.

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