Summer, Solar, and an Iceberg of Excuses: Why I Don’t Have Rooftop Solar (and Why I’m Wrong)

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | June 22, 2015, 8:00 am EDT
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I’ve got a confession to make: For all the talking I do about solar and the solar revolution underway, I haven’t thrown my hat in the solar ring. An iceberg-sized collection of excuses stands between me and Solardom, and my homeowner-ship is hesitant to steam past them. But here’s why my excuses might just be hogwash, and how that iceberg might just melt away under the summer sun.

Why no solar

My roof is woefully devoid of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Hard to believe, I know, but basically all my roof does is keep rain and snow out of our attic and bedrooms—not an electron to be had.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory Workers install PV modules on an Englewood, CO, home. Jobs are just one of the economic benefits that come from the increased investment in renewable energy spurred by state renewable electricity standards.

My excuses for not having solar might just not stand up to the light of day. Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

And why is that? Try these excuses:

  • Sun and shade. My roof gets some great sun, but there are also a lot of tall trees around. Because of the way PV panels are put together, shade on a single cell can reduce the output of the whole panel. And when solar panels are connected in strings (in series), a single shade-hampered panel can bring down the performance of the whole string.
  • Orientation. Even when we were house-hunting, I was thinking about someday-solar, and carried a compass with me. (That’s what you get when you cross a Boy Scout with an engineer.) The house we fell for had so much going for it—just not quite its orientation. The best roof from a shade perspective faces west-southwest.
  • Money. This is a big one. Solar costs more than a few lattes.

And those are just the tip of my excuses iceberg. For a while, roof ownership was another excuse, when we were renting and living in a multi-family building.

But inertia is maybe the most powerful excuse. Stuff that’s not moving tends to stay put, and we humans tend to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them (like not having solar).

Why solar is in my future (saying no to status quo)

Iceberg near Greenland. Photo Credit Robert Kopp

Some icebergs are worth keeping; icebergs of excuses, not so much. Photo: Robert Kopp

But maybe, just maybe, now that summer is here, that iceberg of excuses would fall away under the light/heat of a sun-drenched day. Let’s see:

  • Shade troubles. Really? Experts with the right equipment can easily tell us how much sun we’d get throughout the year, but we’ve never actually gotten that fully checked out. And new technologies have radically changed rooftop solar’s relationship with shade, with microinverters and maximum power point trackers (MPPTs) allowing each solar panel to do what it can when it can, without worrying about the others.
  • South vs. west. West is the new south, sort of. It turns out that there are actually advantages to facing solar panels to the west. While a west-facing solar array produces less electricity overall, it gets more sun after noon, when the local electric system might need the extra help. California even provides extra incentives for west-facing systems. Those advantages are for the electricity grid as a whole, not for me as a home/system owner. But I’m a team player, a big-picture kind of guy… and someday electricity rates may just take into account that extra oomph my solar panels would be providing at a critical time.
  • Financials. The money piece isn’t insignificant, certainly, but it’s a whole lot less of a barrier than it was just a few short years ago. Solar prices have dropped an amazing amount in recent years, and have since dropped even more. And the other big piece of the affordability puzzle has been the rise of third-party financing options—leases, “power purchase agreements,” or system loans that can mean little or no money down. Plus even my little municipal utility offers homeowners financial help.

As for inertia… Maybe it’s useful for me to think of this as just another step in the trajectory we’ve been following to cut our carbon emissions. We’re not totally unsolared: we did put solar water heaters (which are more shade-tolerant) on the roof a few years back. And when you’re on the right path, inertia is actually your friend.

Getting panels on my roof

Workers installing solar panels on a Milwaukee residence

Revolution in progress. Photo: Midwest Renewable Energy Association

And now my wife is encouraging me to get quotes. I know a few companies I can try, based on friends’ recommendations, and various websites that can help me explore options (such as here or here).

It’s possible that one or more of the above excuses will keep solar off my roof, and then I’ll go with Plan B (stay tuned). But how will I know unless I try?

If you’ve already gone solar, feel free to tell us how you conquered your own personal excuses iceberg, and give us all a little inspirational nudge.

And check back with me in a little bit. Maybe, just maybe, that iceberg will have melted away.

There’s a revolution overhead, and I want in. ¡Viva!

 

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  • Dale Schneider

    What is the toxic risk per square foot of Solar PV panels? What is the risk of thousands in an array on thousands of acres? How long before leaching into the groundwater begins?
    Billions of dollars are changing hands years before for future electricity may even be needed while the lemming taxpayers do the funding with incentives to Solyndra, Abound and scores of other well engineered bankruptcy strategies. The well funded Junior High has had the reigns too long.

  • Tabitha Schmieding

    I just find it absurd that we are paying for electricity in the first place. There are so many more proficient ways to supply electric to people. If you’re not sure you want solar panles on your home, there are other ways in which you could recieve the energy. There are are areas designated to providing solar power here in New Jersey and I recently was introduced to a company called Solar City. You can have panels placed on the ground, they don’t necessarily have to be put on roofs. I believe solar power will be in abundance due to the depletion of the ozone and the increase in our UV rays. However, I have witnessed the dangers of them catching fire during the intense heat. A few minor adjustments, such a remote controlled set of panels that can be redirected during peak hours of sunlight when there is a higher probability of fire could help solve that issue. All in all, I think to each his own, I’m a big fan of hydropower, some peopel are wind power fans. In this day and age, we have so many more options when it comes to renewable energy sources, I can’t see why some sort of conversion can’t be made. 🙂

  • zelduh

    My 65 year-old hubby says that “the return on investment makes the cash outlay simply not worth it because it will be twenty years before we reach the ‘breakeven’ point.” (No, he won’t lease anything, so “zero down” is not an option.) So, how many years (precisely) would it take to get to “financial breakeven?” We live in West Los Angeles and we are building a brand-new home, which is supposedly set-up for solar panels as required by Los Angeles Building & Safety. We should be moving in in August.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for your thoughts, Zelduh. I don’t know what the numbers look like for West LA, but 20 years sure sounds like thinking based on outdated numbers. California is the leading state not just because of the great sunshine, but because of all the state has done to make solar a reality for so many. And the economies of scale vs. 4-5 years ago mean so much is so much more attractive than it was.

      And as I mentioned in my reply to Farmer, above, I know the paybacks in Massachusetts can be under four years. And even if Massachusetts is sunnier than people realize (http://blog.ucsusa.org/solar-power-resources-are-more-widespread-than-you-think-671), LA is still a much stronger bet. Particularly if your house is all set for solar.

      So it’s worth looking into. You just might find an answer even your husband would be satisfied with.

      Best of luck with the new home, either way.

      – John

    • neroden

      West LA? Payback should be one or two years!

      Payback is longer in the northeast.

      Solar panels have dropped in price VERY VERY FAST. Your husband is probably thinking of the prices from 5 years ago.

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  • Laura Sto

    We waited … well, my husband hesitated for a long list of reasons, similar to yours. Our local utility made us take the plunge and we are so happy we did. The utility clearly wants to drive out rooftop solar and paired rate increases with fees on solar customers. We signed on before the deadline, which locked in our electricity rate for the 20 year lease term. This will be a great selling point in a few years when we sell the house. It’s wonderful to watch the meter run backwards. I love doing laundry knowing that the sun is powering the washing machine. You’ll be really happy when you get solar. Even a small system is better than no system. Take advantage of that infinite energy source and divest yourself some from fossil fuels. Good luck!

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for sharing, Laura, and inspiring — and congratulations for getting your husband over the hump (with your utility’s help). That’s great, and I imagine you’ll find that it was a smart choice. – John

    • Suzanne

      I want to second Laura on considering a lease if you can’t afford the upfront costs. I’ve got two kids to send to college in a couple years, so didn’t want to take out a loan for the up-front cost. I went with a 25-year lease which will cut my bills by about 1/3-1/2 now (and more later as prices invariably rise). While the panels and installation didn’t cost me a dime, I did have to re-roof. The existing roof was so old (30-40 years!), I figured I’d need to tackle that soon anyway.

      Don’t assume your roof can’t bear the load. I live in a snowy climate and my 120-year-old house has 2×4(!!) roof rafters, but the company had their structural engineer checked it out and said it wasn’t a problem. I have no plans to sell my house, but if I needed to, the solar company will transfer the lease to the new owner OR remove the panels at no charge.

      The only challenge I had with the process was 1)I have a smallish roof, so a couple of the big national companies rejected me, before I found one that would take my lease, and 2) Scheduling the job took several months to schedule because of the high demand.

      I’m at the front-end of my solar journey…the panels are up, but I’m still waiting for the utility to swap out the meter and flip the switch. Can’t wait!

  • Neil Armstrong

    I love not having a monthly bill for electricity & gas(solar hot water also) Technology advancing rapidly so less excuse & they are becoming more efficient, I would also like to have a smallish wind turbine generator or similar for night or cloudy day top up!

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, Neil. There’s a lot to be said for solar, but in some places, a mix of technologies may make even more sense. Congratulations on embracing the solar pieces now. – John

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  • What we need in America is a government subsidized factory intensive public works project to get a solar panel, helix wind turbine and battery backup on every roof that wants one. This will create a rush of high-income jobs to rival the New Deal, create the sort of infrastructure upon which our nation would grow from, and mitigate our carbon contribution to help forestall global warming. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kod1nIxteWQ

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, AvangionQ. It’s clear there’s a role for government in accelerating our transition to a clean energy future — solar, wind, storage, and all. It’s worth looking at what’s working now, at the local, state, and federal level. For solar, it’s pretty clear that we’re making real progress. Now we need to make sure that it keeps accelerating, and that we add in some other technologies, as you suggest. Thanks. – John

  • Walt

    The smart money waits until photovoltaic components actually ARE the roofing — you know, PV shingles, as it were. A smart building product that is intended to lay down a completely weatherproof roof surface and generate electricity at the same time. Put a 50 year warranty on it, get installation costs in line and there you have it. You guys sound so optimistic it shouldn’t be more than a few more years before every home improvement store and roofing contractor stocks it. These big clunky panels you’re installing now will be obsolete by then and will actually reduce the value of your house because the new owner will want to do a complete tear-off to update the entire installation. So I’m waiting and watching for this obvious solution to the solar energy problem. Now I have one more excuse to keep nursing my old roof along.

    • Laura Sto

      I disagree that “the smart money waits.” We waited, and it cost us. We took the plunge and, while others are paying $400 or more per month to cool a house of our size (AZ) our bill remains under $150, including the cost of the solar lease. And the panels locked in our rates for the 20 years of the lease, so we’re really going to be happy with the decision in 5 or 10 years when the rates are much higher.

    • Chris

      There are physics reasons why that’s a bad idea; ALL PV panels lose ~0.5%pwr/C; Panels elevated slightly off the roof run considerably cooler => produce >20% more energy.

    • ucsjrogers

      Walt, I can totally understand the inclination to wait; that’s definitely my tendency (just ask my wife about how quick I am to agree to change…). In this case, though, I’m not sure it’s doing either of us any good. Yeah, costs may keep coming down, but that’s just that much longer that I’d be waiting to take charge of my electricity in this way. The federal tax credit is also set to expire at the end of next year, meaning that solar companies are going to get even busier.

      As for solar shingles, they’d be great (though Chris has a point about needing to watch temperatures), but it’s been an idea that’s been kicking around since about the time I got into solar (and that was a long time ago). The panel approach seems to be working (600,000 U.S. roofs and counting), and studies suggest that solar is actually good for home values (“…adds a quantifiable premium…”): https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2015/01/13/berkeley-lab-illuminates-price-premiums-u-s-solar-home-sales/.

      I think if you look more closely, you may well find that solar energy is an opportunity, not a problem.

      – John

  • Concerned Senior

    I have just had solar installed in NC. I only have 12 panels so do not expect to sell much if any electricity back to the grid. I have gas heat, water heater and stove. But in NC, it is the air-conditioning that is the biggie. Our energy company relies on dirty forms of energy creation except for when they are led kicking and screaming to change by regulation. So I want to do my part for the planet. We have a nice solar credit in NC left over from when the Democrats had a say in things that runs out at the end of this year. That plus the Federal credit means that I will pay approximately $5,000 when all is said and done and that doesn’t count an increase in the home’s resale value. One nice feature is that there is an outlet separate from the grid in the case there is an ice storm that takes the power down for some sunny days.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for that perspective, CS. North Carolina has been cruising, solar-wise; it was #2 for new installations in 2014 (http://blog.ucsusa.org/solar-power-solar-donuts-landmark-20-gigawatt-miletone-661). But almost all of that has been utility scale, so it’s great to hear about your residential system.

      Including the power-outage feature. PV has the potential to be great from a resilience perspective, too, but only when wired correctly and, often, paired with storage.

      I hope you don’t have to use that feature very often, in any case. Best of luck with your new solar life.

      – John

  • Carl Borrowman

    I have yet to invest… and the list of excuses begins:

    1. My last electric bill was $15. According to my estimates, even the cheapest solar system through Solar City (about $10K) wouldn’t pay for itself within 55 years with my kind of electric bill.

    2. For two months prior to that, I actually received credit instead of paying the bill.

    3. My provider is SCE and I live in the Mojave: 29 Palms, CA. They are already heavily investing in solar plus wind along with other renewables and are well on their way to meeting the state’s new goal of 50% renewable by 2030.

    4. Solar is still coming down in price. It’s barely at 1% residential, imagine how low it will be by the time it reaches 50%. Why pay $10K today when you could potentially pay only $5K in 15 years?

    5. Solar is still increasing in efficiency and experiencing other advantages from natural technological evolution. Again, since it’s only around 1% penetration now, my guess is 15 years from now we’re not only much more advanced panels, but also storage solutions. Why have a typical 15% efficient panel today when you could have a 30% efficient (and smaller panels) in 15 years (well before today’s panels would pay for themselves)?

    6. I don’t qualify for the tax incentives, and the other incentives have already expired in my area.

    7. Because my monthly bill is so low, I’m investing in efficiency before generation.

    a. When I moved in, my roof needed to be replaced in order for the house to be insured, so I opted for energy efficient “cool shingles” at the same cost of regular shingles. Total investment: $7.5K. I’m still paying that one off.

    b. I’m thinking used electric car… maybe a Leaf (I know it doesn’t do well in the heat but I only travel about 5 miles per day on average anyway, so even it’s reduced range should be fine for me)… prices are now ~$11K on Autotrader, should be down to around $7/8K in another five years. Even with limited capacity on an old battery, it should suit my needs just fine. Because I pay about $25/mo on average for gas, I’m conservatively guessing an electric car may raise my electric bill by about $10/mo.

    c. Add another $700 for a charging station with installation.

    d. Electric water heater to replace the gas one (~$700 installed, perhaps adding $10/mo to electric bill at peak)

    e. Electric stove to replace the gas one (~$400, maybe adding $10/mo to electric bill).

    f. Mini-split system to replace swamp cooler (same or perhaps even less cost than running evaporative cooler, definitely less water consumption and less maintenance cost, ~$2500-$4000 installed).

    g. New windows for added insulation, $10K installed. (at this point we’re talking more a luxury item than efficiency because my bill is already so low)

    h. Front and back porches for added shade, $20K. (same deal as windows)

    – Once these improvements have been made, my guess is my new electric bill might be ~$45/mo, with my gas bill (currently $12/mo) eliminated, and my water bill (currently $15/mo) reduced to maybe about $10/mo.

    -My current plan is to have these efficiency improvements installed over the next fifteen years, by which time solar and storage should definitely have come down in cost and improved in efficiency/size.

    • ucsjrogers

      I fully support investing in efficiency, Carl, and you may be right that it’s the right approach for you. I wouldn’t wait 15 years to re-assess your situation with regard to solar, though; I think you’ll find things are changing a whole lot faster than that. – John

    • neroden

      Once you’ve switched so many things to electricity it wil make solar more viable.

      • Carl Borrowman

        Agreed, however, I think by that time there may be an even larger utility scale solar presence, especially in my area, and it may be in their best interest to keep costs down, especially for the lowest priced tier consumers such as myself.

        If SCE (my provider) is already 20% renewable now, and they adhere to the state goal, they will be 50% by 2030.

  • ChrisHeinz

    I took the plunge and went fully operational last Friday. 38x 280W Hyundai panels. South facing roof Naples FL. No tree blockage. Estimated annual production, 14,400 kWh/year, worth $1872 if we use it (doubtful) or $1440 if we sell it back to FPL.

    The system was $39,500 – high here because of having to saw hundreds of holes in concrete barrel tiles. After 30% fed rebate, $27,650. Payback period 9-15 years depending on how electric prices go up. Seems to long to me, but, still, this house will now never have an electric bill. In fact it will be producing excess electricity for decades. Seems odd too that it is now in my best financial interest for electricity prices to go up – I am an electricity producer now.

    One upside – panels and microinverters all fully warranted for 25 years. Panels guaranteed to still be 90% efficient after 25 years (estimated efficiency loss 0.17%/year). After 1 year I do have to pay labor if anything has to be replaced.

    Note, in the time I have been talking to maybe 6 solar companies, everyone has gone to using microinverters. So no worries re partial shade or other unequal production problems.

    https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/pv/public_systems/YyNv652470#.VYgeFfwZSpU.twitter

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for sharing, Chris. One of the early solar installations I was involved in was on a house with clay tiles, so I feel your pain. But I’m glad that wasn’t a barrier to your getting solar.

      And Florida is a state that could clearly use more inspiration for embracing its “Sunshine State”-ness (http://blog.ucsusa.org/where-florida-electricity-comes-from-and-how-it-can-do-better-617). Glad to have you helping lead the charge.

      – John

  • Farmer with a Dell

    Heck, I would have solar on all the roofs around the farm except for a couple of very practical reasons:

    1) We get a lot of snow around here most winters and with the added weight of solar equipment the load rating of most of my structures is probably insufficient. Plus, how can we shovel excessive snow off a roof loaded with fragile expensive solar panels? If you’ve ever had to scrape snow off a roof you know it’s not the most graceful process.

    2) We seem to be on about a 20 year rotation for roofing repair and replacement here on the place – seems there’s always an old roof crying out for attention around here. I don’t even want to ask for roofing estimates for a structure that sports solar equipment. Plus, I don’t think my heart could stand the stress of watching a typical roofing crew stomping and hacking and hammering away under and around my delicate solar array. Talk about a bull in a china shop.

    3) Prices have come down but it still doesn’t pencil out. I care about the environment, as all professional farmers do, but the budget dictates I have to be selective in how I invest money in marginal assets. Especially careful about capital assets that will become obsolete or require expensive maintenance and replacement. For now I’m better off investing in more projects that reduce soil erosion and runoff, or maybe replacing obsolete field equipment with more fuel efficient designs. Only so much money to go around.

    Solar is a nice idea, of course. Those big solar arrays in desert areas seem to make the most sense. Logically these things belong where there is plenty of sunlight, protected from every day wear and tear. A roof has an important purpose that can only be compromised by bolting on solar panels or other off-purpose accessories.

    • Richard Werkhoven

      The weight may be an issue. I obviously can’t judge that. You could find out.

      The solar panels are not very heavy. They will not increase the load from snow either.

      If you were to get solar then no you wouldn’t have the roof repaired under the panels, the panels would be unclipped and the roof repaired and the panels put back. The panels sit on support rails and these are clipped down to the roof structure and not to the roofing tiles etc.

      Solar panels are either reinforced glass or Polycarbonate. They are going to be fine for removing snow from.

      Odd that you think it doesn’t pencil out. This can only be true if your electricity use is remarkably low. In which case hang on a year or 2 as the price drops are still likely to improve the economics.

      If you can reduce the fuel consumption in other areas then yes do that. Efficiency measures should in most cases be the first priority.

      Solar is more than a nice idea. I see Solar PV on many many houses here. Take-up is about 40% of available houses. (that is those with a rooftop and that are owned not rented)

      No bolting Solar panels on will not compromise your roof. In fact if done right it may actually improve your roof’s resistance to weather factors.

      This sounds like a set of excuses that you are putting up and not a serious look at the issues.

    • Carl Borrowman

      I totally get you about it not making sense for the budget yet (see my list above)… but I do know Solar City inspects your roof before installation and actually warranties it for the lifetime of the solar panels before they do the installation. So that’s one excuse down, at least if they happen to be in your area. It may be worth it for you, depending on your electric bill, to at least give them a call to do a free estimate. A lot of people with big electric bills seem to be paying less with their ppa and saving money.

    • Leif Erik Knutsen

      Farmer. Ground mounted arrays are a great option and in some cases, easy digging for screw piles, can be even less expensive than roofs. Some panels are built without proud edges that catch snow or dirt. Ground mounted array can be easy to clean which improves long term performance. Some states, WA gas progressive policies like production incentives that offset the higher prices early investors must pay for an array. WA credits will sunset in 2020 at which time I will have ~the same invested if I waited until 2020 but get ~ 9.5% ROI, (in my case ~$1500 a year), and a bunch of free electricity. Have you got a 732 square feet that can match $2,000, (credit + electricity) a year? Community solar can give you the benefits of solar even if you live in a cave. Don’t get bogged down by I can’t. Go GREEN, Resistance is fatal to planetary life support systems. Another approach is to up-grade equipment for more efficient appliances. LED lights, ductless Heat Pump. Those up-grades will give your solar investments more bang for the buck.

    • l_nino

      What is the pitch of the roof? We have 22 degrees and snow does not stay on the panels; it slides of the smooth glass surface. It used to pile up before the panels. We live in Hudson Valley, NY. If your state permits third-party financing, then there is no capital investment needed and you are still likely to start saving from day-1. Solar panels actually protect the shingles from weather wear. Solar panels are most efficient in cold weather and are working wonderfully in NY, CT, MN, MA, VT and Germany. It is not true that deserts are the only suitable locations – in fact lack of rain and therefore dust accumulation + heat are some disadvantages that deserts have over temperate climes.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for weighing in, Farmer. I’ll second the other comments about solar panels: these things are tough and durable, standing up to rain, hail, snow, and the test of time (most have 25-year warranties). And on the roof strength issue, I know around here companies definitely assess your roof supports before agreeing to put a solar array on it.

      As for the numbers, that’s clearly something to think about, whether you’re a farmer or not. And how the numbers work will depend on how competitive the solar market is where you live, what incentives you can tap into, and what you pay for electricity.

      In Massachusetts I’ve seen paybacks of under four years, based on low pricing negotiated at the community level (search the web for “Solarize”) and federal and state incentives. Four years. I don’t know how that matches the kind of return you can get in farming, but it’s a heck of a lot better than most other investment opportunities available to the likes of me.

      So maybe don’t give up on rooftop solar without looking a bit further into it. It may well be worth your time.

      – John