1. Do you live in a reasonably sunny area? About 50% of the US is what solar experts would call 'moderate' for exposure to the sun. This includes the Midwest, Northeast, and upper Northwest. These areas, while not ideal, do have pretty good exposure to the sun's rays during the spring, summer and fall. And the panel technology is getting better and better at producing energy on cloudy and semi-cloudy days.
Much of the rest of the country could be called 'good' or 'great' for solar power. These areas include California, Texas, Florida, the Southeast, the desert Southwest, and the Rocky Mountain states. These areas have relatively few cloudy days and the southern latitudes mean the sun is higher in the sky and therefore more energy reaches the ground.
Areas in the great lakes area and Alaska have limited sun exposure and are therefore usually poor candidates for solar power. These areas are often great candidates for wind power however, which will covered in another section.
2. Do you have an area with good southern exposure and minimal shading? Most people think of solar and immediately think of glass panels mounted on a roof. There is a good reason for that as this is the area that usually has the most sun exposure and the least opportunity for shading. The area should have great southern exposure with few obstacles. If there is an area on the ground that suits this purpose, there are plenty of mounting options for the ground.
The best way to determine if your roof or ground is right for photovoltaic panels is to take a picture of the south-facing area with a digital camera at 5 times throughout the day. Start early morning, then mid morning around 10, at noon, mid-afternoon around 2 and then about 5pm. This most effective if you do this in March or September, but anytime will do for our purposes. Now compare the photographs to each other. Do you see one particular tree, chimney, or obstacle shading the area consistently over the day? Is one time of day better than another? Can you move the system over a few feet and avoid the shifting shade? Obviously the less shade the better off your system will be.
3. What incentives are there in your area? Fortunately local, state, and the federal government have realized that we cannot go on burning fossil fuels. So they have instituted, along with power companies, a wide variety of rebates, feed-in tariffs, and tax breaks for solar power systems. To make sense of the ones in your area, first call your power company. Chances are they have a help desk set up just for renewable energy questions.
Next, talk to your accountant. The federal government has a 30% tax credit for renewables. Many states have tax credits too. Your accountant can help you determine just what this means for your wallet when factoring in your income and tax liability. Finally, consult the DSIRE.ORG database of incentives. There are most likely incentives for renewables and energy efficiency improvements in your area.
4. Are you as energy efficient as you can be now? There are no two ways about it: solar power is expensive. To maximize a solar power system's effectiveness, you need to reduce your consumption. There are a few very easy ways to do this. Start by looking at your power bill and notice how many kilowatt-hours (kw-hrs) you are using in a month. Nowremember the acronym L.A.W., and make it the law in your house! It stands for Lights, Appliances, Waste.
For lights, you've probably heard about compact fluorescent lights, or CFL's. Many power companies are actually giving these away. They use about 20% of the power that traditional bulbs use and last a lot longer. You can use LED lighting as well, which use even less electricity andlast even longer. The price for these is rapidly coming down too.
For appliances, remember less is more. If your refrigerator is often empty, fill up milk jugs with water put them on the fridge. This will improve the efficiency of the fridge as the water will retain the cool temperature better than air. Only runt he dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer when they are full. Hang your clothes on a clothes line to dry. And when purchasing new appliances, spend the few extra dollars for the Energy Star performers. The money you save can pay off that extra cost in a matter of months, plus many utilities have rebates in place for efficientappliances. They even have LED plasma televisions coming out now that use a fraction of the energy that older sets do.
Finally, stop the energy waste! How many families leave the TV on from the minute they get home until bed time, even if no one is watching. You probably have light on in the yard or the garage that stays on constantly. What about that empty freezer in the basement? Unplug it! Do you really need to crank the stereo while you're vacuuming? I bet you'd hear it better with an energy-sipping iPod and earphones.
Try moving the thermostat by one degree up or down (whichever way will save you money) every two weeks for two months and see if anyone notices. Chances are they won't. And if you if get really serious you can plug all your electronics into power strips (aren't they all already?!) and turn those strips off at night. Every appliance that has a remote control draws electricity even if you think its off.
Try these tips for a couple months and compare your previous power bill to your current. If you institute all of these practices, you'dprobably see saving of 30-50%. This means lower bills, and a smaller, cheaper solar power system will suit your needs.
5. How much can I afford? Ok, so you know how the incentives, how much your bill is, and an appropriate area for the system. Its time to figure out how much you can afford. Let's use an example. You determine that you can spend $5,000 on a system. You also determine that between the local power company (30% rebate, which is common) and the federal tax credit (30%) that 60% of your system will be paid for. That means that you only have to pay for 40% of the system, which means you can actually spend $5,000/.40 = $12,500 on a system. Now remember, you may have to pay the full $12,500 up front, but you will get your money back.
So, how much do these systems cost? Well it varies by location and installation, but a good general rule of thumb is around $10/watt installed. So if you had $12,500 to spend, $12,500/$10/Watt = 1,250 watt system you can get. This is a great starting point for most folks. If you configure your initial system correctly, you can add onto it as time goes on.
Are you a contractor or a skilled do-it-yourself homeowner? You can probably install the system yourself with some training, the right solar power kit and the help of a master electrician. You can get most kits for around $5.50/watt, so if you take your original budget $12,500/$5.50/watt = 2,250 watt system, so you can almost double your system capacity by doing it yourself. Which leads to our next question.
6. Can I do this by myself? How much you can or can't do really depends on your skill set and ability to learn. Grid-tied solar power systems are actually fairly simple. The four major components are the panels, the mounting system, the inverter, and the wiring. Anyone with basic carpentry skills, safety equipment , and a proper power kit can mount and install the panels. The wiring and inverter installation are a little trickier. For these items we suggest using a certified electrician to guide you.
Most of the power kits now come with instructions and drawings. These are useful for installing the system and getting the permits necessary to start the work. You can also take a solar installation and design course that will help you.