Solar Panel Q&A {Ask an Expert}

 

East-sider and solar panel expert, Jeff Wolfe, gives you everything you
need to know when considering alternative energy.

Photo by:  Ashley Haguewood

In your opinion, what are the top 5 reasons to go solar? Independence from rate changes: saving money and feel good about where your energy comes from. It’s cool. Why wouldn’t you unless you have lots of trees?

For someone just starting to think about solar panels, where should they start or to whom should they talk? There’s a cool startup here in Austin called SolarAdvisors (thesolaradvisors.com). For a reasonable fee, they help you design the right system, get competing bids, and pick the right contractor. They will also evaluate any existing bid you may already have. You can Google “Solar Companies in Austin” and get a pretty good list of the local firms, but I recommend doing homework on each one. Keep in mind; reviews are readily available online but can be tricky to navigate.

How does solar equipment work?

Every hour the sun pelts the earth with enough energy, in the form of photons, to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year. Current solar technology can convert about 15-20% into usable electricity for homes and businesses. Solar panels convert the photons from the sun into DC current and inverters convert that DC current into the usable AC electricity.

What maintenance is required for solar power systems?

How long does the solar equipment last? Little to no maintenance is required. The equipment should last for 25 years or more.

Solar panels can be a huge investment. How long does it take in Austin before the savings outweigh the cost?

Between a 30% federal tax credit and a rebate provided by Austin Energy, you can see a return on investment between 6-10 years depending on which equipment and contractor you pick. Don’t forget that houses with solar PV systems sell faster, and the system will add non-taxable value to your home.

Is there an impact on one’s property taxes?

Solar energy systems are exempt from property taxes in Texas, but you must fill out and file an application with the Comptroller of Texas.

What is the proper orientation for the solar collector to be the most effective? Are some houses not suited for solar panelsbecause of roof orientation or shady trees?

Solar panels can be placed east, south and west. Due south will produce the most energy, but all 3 are okay. Austin Energy requires a 6-hour window of full sun to qualify for the rebate, so homes with lots of trees shading the roof will probably not qualify.

How does one estimate the best number or power output of solar panels for their home?

Typically, roof space is the limiting factor, but as a rule of thumb, I never recommend producing more than 80-90% of your monthly electrical needs from solar energy. At least not until battery storage is cost effective.  In my experience, a 7kW system, or about twenty-three 300W solar panels, will meet this rule for the average house in Central Texas.

How does one measure the size and amount of solar panels needed?

Every house is totally unique, so the best way is getting a consultation from a local solar contractor or SolarAdvisors. Most of the industry will measure your roof with satellite imagery and give a recommendation based on how much you can fit on your roof combined with your monthly electrical consumption. If you have your bills on hand, they will generally turn around a proposal in less than 24 hours.

With solar panels, do people sometimes go “off-the-grid” or always stay connected?

95% of the market is grid-connected today. Unless you’re building a house where there’s no existing utility infrastructure, the cost of batteries is cost prohibitive to offer anything more than back-up when the grid is down.

Any thoughts of the future of Austin and solar panels, with respect to energy consumption and population growth?

Bloomberg has called solar the fastest growing source of electrical generation in the U.S., and we may already be at the point where solar energy is meeting all new energy demands, at least in certain regions. As costs continue to drop, I’m confident solar will continue supplying an increasing amount of Austin and U.S. energy needs.

Rebates for solar panels are decreasing, but the cost of solar panels also has been decreasing. Is now a good time to buy?

I’ve been in the industry for 12 years, and every year I’ve said the same thing, “Now is the time to buy!” And honestly, the payback period has been relatively consistent over the years as Austin Energy likes to maintain a rebate level that supports the payback I’ve mentioned before. So as equipment prices come down, Austin Energy adjusts the rebate level. But yes, the rebate in Austin is slated to be phased out over the next few years, and I don’t believe technology prices will make up for the difference for a few years after that. So take advantage of it while you can!

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