By Lucy Stolzenburg
Author’s note about federal tax credits: The current federal tax credit for a solar installation is 30% of the cost of the installation after any state, utility, or local rebates (if available). This applies to both commercial and residential buildings through the end of 2019. Systems put into operation in 2020 will be eligible for a 26% tax credit, and systems put into operation in 2021 will be eligible for a 20% tax credit. After 2021, there will be no residential tax credit, but a tax credit of 10% will be available for installations on commercial property. Be aware that energy efficiency upgrades are NOT eligible for the same tax credit in spite of some installers’ claims. Go to http://energy.gov/savings to find out what state, utility, and local incentives you are eligible for.
There is a solar installation boom among homeowners in the country. In Texas, according to Tracking the Sun from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the median price of a solar installation in 2014 was $3.40 per watt, the lowest in the country. Anecdotal data from 2015 suggest that the cost has continued to decline. Depending on the size you install, with a federal tax credit, a potential incentive from your utility, and perhaps a group purchase as outlined in our article Solarize Plano Initiative Exceeds Expectations, you could be looking at $2-$3 per watt or less. Please see Questions to Ask a Solar Energy Salesperson to guide you through the process. You’ll know more about what to expect, what’s a fair price, and how much energy you will produce if you choose your installer carefully and follow these guidelines. Please get multiple bids!
1) If you intend to continue connection to your electric utility for some of your power needs, contact them first. Are you eligible for local incentives for your installation? If incentives are available, they are paid only to projects installed by professionals approved by the utility. If pertinent/available, a local organization such as Solar San Antonio’s Bring Solar Home program or Austin Energy can set you up with qualified installers. When talking to installers, be sure to ask which incentive programs they have access to and how that will affect your financing options.
2) What’s the track record? How long has the company been in business, how many systems have they installed, and how happy are the customers? Ask for references (from most recent projects to a few years back) and contact them for their feedback. Look around your neighborhood for solar arrays and ask the owners about their experience with the installer.
3) Consider whether your installer can respond quickly to a warranty or service issue. Is there a service contract to insure performance? A large national company may have the best pricing but the smaller local installer may be able to respond more quickly to an emergency or outage.
4) Get three estimates. Expect to spend some time with the professionals discussing financing, incentives, and installation logistics. Comparing job bids will help you understand your expected costs and your energy savings.
5) Though there is rarely damage to solar arrays, we do live in a state with extreme weather. Hail damage is rarely an issue with today’s panels. Your roof is far more vulnerable, but check with your homeowner’s insurer to see if coverage is available.
Know your electric use in kilowatt hours. This is not the dollar amount on your bill, but the actual amount of energy you use. Even before providing an estimate, an installer’s representative will want to sit down with you to review your use as a prelude to discussing how much you can expect to save on monthly bills and an estimate of installation costs. The estimator should be knowledgeable about your local utility rate structure, the net-metering policy, and may suggest ways to reduce energy use and thus the size of the PV or solar hot water system.
The estimator will want to climb on the roof to gauge the amount of sun it receives and what kind of shade to expect as the sun moves across the sky, summer and winter. A critical issue is the condition of the roof itself. The solar array components carry a warranty of 20 years or more, and you probably don’t want to bolt it onto a roof that will need to be replaced in five or ten years.
Ask about subcontractors. Does your solar installer subcontract any of their work? This is important because while you may trust your solar installer, you may not know the subcontractor. Is the installer going to bring in a licensed electrician or roofer? If so, who is responsible for the quality of their work? Who, for instance, will be responsible for possible roof leaks?
Be clear about the financial terms. The estimator will have a grasp of local incentives if available, the federal tax credit, attractive financing options for renewable energy projects and efficiency upgrades. Your solar installer should be fluent on the different financing options (ie. out right purchase, lease, power purchase agreement) available and they should explain how any financing costs wll impact the monthly savings on your electric bills resulting from solar power.
Once the estimates are in, compare them carefully. Are the estimates all for the same size system? Are there performance warranties? Who handles the permitting and inspection fees, and are all applicable fees accounted for? What are the warranty and service-visit policies? Is there a service contract available? What about cost overruns – if fees or charges rise unexpectedly, who pays?
In case of an accident during installation, it is important that your solar installer has the proper licenses and insurance to ensure that you are not liable. At a bare minimum, your solar installer should have general liability insurance, worker’s compensation insurance and a contractor’s license. If they don’t have these basic business protections, it’s probably a sign that this particular solar installer is not a quality business.
Once you’ve settled on an installer, negotiate firm dates for installation and commissioning (the completed system has been inspected, is connected to the grid and running). A post-commissioning visit from the installer should validate system performance, and the rep can explain the inverter’s monitor display so you can track power production. Be sure to get the equipment manuals and warranties.
Some installers will monitor your system’s performance, or a more popular method is online monitoring systems for the homeowner. You see exactly what you produce and have the ability to check your performance against your utility’s measurement.