Money Savings with Solar Too Good to Miss

Why buy solar now? Solar power is currently the fastest-growing industry in the USA, and solar on homes has become a very hot sector. New, much lower solar prices are catching homeowners’ interest, with the price of solar panels dropping 80% in the past 6 years. Looming trade sanctions against China for selling solar panels below cost in the US could force prices up soon, if punitive tariffs are applied.

Solar on the roof is now the best energy source financially for many homeowners. Low prices combined with a great tax incentive make the climate ideal now to go solar at home. The Federal Tax Credit for renewable energy (paying back 30% of the system cost) is currently in law through 2016, but is under attack from some lawmakers.

So now may be the best time ever to save money by producing your own energy. Stop paying a utility company. It is both smart and timely to install solar now.

Going solar is easy. We make a free analysis of your home to gauge sun exposure, shading, roof conditions, and existing electrical service. We look at a recent utility bill to see how much power you use, and when. We match your available space, electricity needs, and budget to find your solar sweet spot – the best system size for you, with the best pay-back. You want to make the most clean power for the least money – and that is what we can do for you.

Our Smart Solar Finance options – offered by a respected New England bank with expertise in renewable energy lending – offer no or low money down, good rates, and no pre-payment penalties. Our customers often apply the Federal Tax Credit refund directly to pay down their solar system, lowering their monthly payments. Home solar can produce positive cash flow from day one, as soon as it’s turned on.

Chances are, you can finance your solar panels for less than you currently pay on your electric bill. And once the system is paid off, the fuel is free – it rises every morning!


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Our Warnings on Helios are Validated

Over the past several years, we have had a number of prospective customers tell us they specifically wanted Helios solar panels. We understood why — Helios panels are made in the USA, and even closer to home for Ohio, in Wisconsin, in the Upper Midwest. We support the drive to use American-made solar panels and other Made in USA solar components, but we also work very hard to protect the long-term interests of our customers. After all, a PV solar clean energy system will be productive for more than 25 years, and that 25-year warranty needs to be backed by a healthy company with a good long-term outlook.

In evaluating solar panels and related equipment, we employ three main filters:

  • Quality of the solar technology platform
  • Specific solar performance indicators coupled with industry reputation
  • Financial stability of the solar manufacturer

Our concern with Helios was that third filter. Sadly, with Helios declaring bankruptcy, our advice to customers has been validated.

We choose only the top performers to build our reputation upon. Our network of national peer companies amplifies our internal ability to vet and process the best available solar products. We are well-connected by virtue of our 14 years of industry leadership as well as our president’s positions on the NABCEP and SolarTECH boards of directors. We have interviewed executives and key science and operations officers at all of the solar manufacturers that we recommend and we monitor the real world performance of their equipment at multiple test sites around the world.

We do not recommend a product lightly. As a case in point, we are proud to have warned against using Solyndra, due to its unproven technology as well as the instability of its parent company. We had many customers asking for Solyndra solar panels when they were the “hot new thing.” We’re proud to have held those customers off by advising them, “that technology is not yet proven in the real world—we’re not using them. If and when they prove to be everything they claim, we’ll consider using them.” They never did, and despite government backing, Solyndra went under—and gave the entire industry a black eye.

Now, Wisconsin’s Helios Solar Works has “temporarily suspended operations” at its 50-megawatt capacity c-Si solar panel factory in Menomonee Valley and filed for receivership, according to Milwaukee Public Radio. Helios Solar was a member of CASM, the SolarWorld-led consortium that brought an epic trade case to the U.S. Department of Commerce and succeeded in placing an approximate 30 percent tariff (anti-dumping and countervailing duties) on PV modules with Chinese-made solar cells.

Earlier this year, an investigation by the Commerce Department determined that Chinese manufacturers were not only guilty of illegally dumping solar cells and panels into the U.S. market, but that they also benefit from more than a dozen illegal subsidy programs.

Regarding the Preliminary Judgment by the Department of Commerce: This is a positive step forward for U.S. solar companies and the prospect of a stronger American solar manufacturing industry that can help more Americans back to work.

Our best solar advice to you: spend time choosing an experienced solar installer who will advise you and guide you toward the best solution for your energy needs, unique site characteristics, and budget.

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In California, Solar Panel Is Next Granite Countertop

As an Ohio solar developer, we keep a close eye on states and markets where solar has developed faster or sooner, like California. Here is a re-post from Bloomberg News, 9/13/2013:

Solar panels are the next granite countertops: an amenity for new homes that’s becoming a standard option for buyers in U.S. markets.

At least six of 10 largest U.S. home builders, led by KB Home, include the photovoltaic devices in new construction, according to supplier SunPower Corp. (SPWR) Two California towns are mandating installations, and demand for the systems that generate electricity at home will jump 56 percent nationwide this year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“In the next six months, home builders in California and the expensive-energy states will be going solar as a standard, and just incorporating it into the cost of the house like any other feature,” Jim Petersen, chief executive officer of the PetersenDean Inc., the largest privately held U.S. roofing and solar contractor, said in an interview.

Lashing panels to roofs during construction is about 20 percent cheaper than after a house is built. Homeowners who can afford the extra $10,000 to $20,000 cost in return for free power threaten the business of traditional utilities such as Edison International of California or Kansas’ Westar Energy Inc.

Power companies are losing business because they can’t cut their rates in line with the tumbling prices of residential solar systems. Those cost about $4.93 a watt in the first quarter, down 16 percent from a year earlier, according to the Washington-based solar association. That was sparked by the 18 percent slump in prices for solar panels and related hardware in the same period.

Mortgage Embed

A 3-kilowatt system, enough to power a typical mid-size home, costs less than $15,000 and can be rolled into a mortgage, said Tom Werner, CEO of San Jose, California-based SunPower.

“You embed it into your home mortgage, you’re cash-flow positive month one,” he said.

That’s similar to how some buyers decided to pay $5,000 or $10,000 for a kitchen counter top that would be from natural materials and would outlast a Formica-style top.

“You’re going to see a transition from novelty, to granite counter tops, to mainstream option,” Werner said in an interview. “We’re rapidly passing the equivalent of a ‘counter tops decision’ to a ‘no-brainer.’ You just do it.”

As more homes generate their own power, typically with the help of state or federal subsidies, they’re buying less electricity from traditional utilities.

Jeopardizing Grid

PG&E Corp., California’s biggest, has said this jeopardizes the power grid because there’s less revenue to maintain the infrastructure. In response, utilities are raising rates, a burden that’s a slightly heavier burden for people without solar power. In California they may eventually pass on as much as $1.3 billion in annual costs to customers who don’t have panels.

The price crunch has also clobbered many manufacturers, pushing some of the biggest in Germany and China to protect themselves from creditors and restructure debt over the past two years, including Solar Millennium AG and Q-Cells SE.

PetersenDean installed photovoltaic systems on about 7.5 percent of the 100,000 roofs it built last year. CEO Petersen said he expects that figure to double this year.

“We’ve picked up at least a dozen new subdivisions since mid-March, and all of them have incorporated it into the cost of construction,” he said.

KB Home (KBH) has built about 1,800 homes with rooftop solar since 2011, according to Steve Ruffner, president of the company’s Southern California unit. It’s currently developing 22 communities in the most populous state that include panels as a standard feature, he said.

Arizona Offers

“Our buyers told us that’s the way they wanted to go,” Ruffner said in an interview. “Selling solar to the consumer is the value in the process, because they can put that in their mortgage.” The company delivered almost 3,300 homes in total during in the six months through May and expects to surpass that in the second half of its fiscal year.

KB sells solar as an option on homes in Nevada, Texas and Colorado and plans to offer it in Arizona beginning next month.

Megan McGrath, a real estate analyst with Stamford, Connecticut-based MKM Partners LLC, said building new homes with panels is still mainly a California phenomenon.

“It’s not as big of a deal elsewhere,” she said. Builders in other states haven’t seen significant demand for energy-efficient homes, so “it’s not really an important part of your strategy.”

10,000 Homes

About 494 megawatts of panels were installed atop new and existing U.S. homes in 2012, according to the solar trade group. That figure is expected to swell to 770 megawatts this year as prices continue to slide and may reach 2,175 megawatts in 2016.

SunPower has supplied components for more than 10,000 U.S. homes, including 4,000 built last year in California, the biggest solar state. As many as one in five homes built in the state this year will have solar, Werner said.

R. Rex Parris, the mayor of Lancaster, California, pushed through legislation in March requiring the equivalent of at least 1 kilowatt of solar power on all new homes starting next year. About 97 percent of city buildings are considered “net zero,” producing as much power as they consume, he said.

The entire city, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles, may be net-zero within three years, he said. Sebastopol, California, a town about 55 miles north of San Francisco, passed a similar measure in May that applies to new residential and commercial buildings.

“Economically, there’s absolutely no reason not to do this,” Parris said. “Solar is the only way to go.”

Will solar panels improve?

Any thoughts on solar panel obsolescence, solar panel upgrades, etc. – i.e. 25-30 year lifetime is great, but do you anticipate material or other advances to provide a justifiable upgrade projection in 7, 10 or 15 years?

The solar industry is still evolving. Solar modules of the format we are currently using (crystalline cells sandwiched between glass sheets and framed by aluminum) are here to stay for at least the next decade if not the next three decades. The performance of the cells has pretty much been maxed out. The real advances now are simply bringing the cost of manufacturing down. So yes, in 7 or 10 years there will be lower cost solar panels, but I strongly doubt they would have sufficiently improved performance to justify a change-out or upgrade.

Our industry does not yet have sufficient standards in place to make solar panels mix and matchable or plug and play commodity items. Each project is still a custom project and the specific panels are matched to the specific inverters. There are about 600 different makes and models of solar panels and they are all different electrically and in their physical dimensions. So swapping one out for a “better” one in the future will likely not be possible.

The most likely upgrade you could expect would be improved inverter controls which would allow your system to keep running during grid troubles. Given the large number of inverters already deployed, I foresee such improvements being made available as retrofits to existing inverters.

Yes, there could be some step changes in performance improvement in the next ten years. But from what I’ve seen repeatedly since 2006 is that the overall economics of the package don’t improve. If the project makes sense to do now, you should just do it. Those customers I know who waited for something better to come along now generally regret that decision. They could have been saving money all along.


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How long does a solar inverter last? What’s the replacement cost?

Inverter warranties are 10-15 years, depending on the make and model. Inverter replacement costs are hard to forecast 15 years out. The inverter manufacturers are just now starting a price war similar to what the solar panel manufacturers went through over the past three years. So costs for equivalent models will likely fall considerably over the next 15 years. However, more and more value-added features are getting built into inverters, so those additional features will likely offset the price reductions going forward.

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Do I have to clean my solar panels?

We had this question from a customer: Given that there isn’t too much rain to help with the cleaning, what is the typical solar panel maintenance attention that you would anticipate – is solar panel cleaning just typically wetting them down with hoses, or hand scrubbing? Dust obviously and a lot of birds out there. Every other day, once a week, once a month? What is the accessibility (between panels, etc.).

And here is our answer: For most of our customers there is little to no maintenance whatsoever, other than a weekly or monthly check of the production numbers to make sure the system is still operating. They make no noise either on or off, so unless someone pays attention to the monitoring alerts you won’t notice if the system goes offline. We can have the system set up to send automatic email alerts to us and you so such events won’t get missed.

Washing: In the Midwest, with lots of rain, it is typically not cost effective to wash modules. In CA, however, it is generally considered cost effective to wash modules one to two times per year. First wash is best done in late May, early June. Second wash is optional, depending on rain. A good spray from a hose is usually sufficient.

Random birds are not much problem. But if birds make a habit of visiting one spot, then that spot will need some scrubbing.

Solar panel accessibility depends on your goals and priorities. The CA fire code requires walking space all around the edges and a few pathways between arrays. But this still leaves large portions in which individual solar panels would be hard to reach. The panels are usually butted tightly up against each other. Our trained installers can walk on them, but I would not want an untrained or inexperienced person walking on them. So, you should stand in the walkways and spray with a strong hose.

Alternatively, it is possible to purchase automated washing systems, but whether or not they’re cost effective depends a lot on the design detail. Suffice it to say, this is something easily solved and not too costly.

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What’s Stopping Solar?

We all use electricity. For too long we have ignored issues about where electricity comes from, and believed that electricity is best made by others, by experts, by “the powers that be.” Now we are entering a new era in which we can take control of our future, including the important choice of how our electricity is generated.

I am proud to be part of the growing solar power industry. Every day, companies like Third Sun Solar are busy building new clean solar power plants, including solar for homes, businesses, universities, government buildings, military facilities, hospitals, and libraries.

Solar technology is simple, reliable and efficient. There are no moving parts. The panels are solid state, modular, and scalable. More panels make more power. To make a certain amount of electricity, you might need 10 solar panels in the desert southwest and 12 in Ohio, or 15 in upstate New York. The state with the most solar is California; second is New Jersey. Germany is a shining example of a modern industrial nation that is well on its way to a clean renewable power grid. The point is, solar can work anywhere the sun shines. There is NO TECHNICAL BARRIER to a solar powered U.S.A.

Solar panels also make sense financially. Costs of solar panels have dropped by 80% since 2007. With long term financing, a solar system can cost less than conventional retail power, with free fuel. There is NO ECONOMIC BARRIER to a solar powered U.S.A.

My company and many of my friends in the solar industry are hard at work turning on system after system for folks that are choosing clean energy. But there are many entrenched interests that benefit from perpetuating the status quo—generating our electricity by burning coal, oil, and natural gas, and pouring pollution up into our delicate atmosphere. Aging, inefficient and highly-polluting power plants are being kept online simply to maximize profit, and for no other good reason. This has to stop. There is a very REAL POLITICAL BARRIER to a solar powered U.S.A.

At Third Sun Solar, our company mission is to accelerate the shift to clean energy. We need to move forward, installing clean solar and wind power as quickly as we can, while also retiring the dirtiest, oldest power plants as quickly as we can.

We salute and support Environment Ohio in calling on Senator Sherrod Brown to support the EPA’s new Carbon Rule.

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