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10 STEPS TO TAKE BEFORE INSTALLING SOLAR

We want to be your source for energy and information. Since solar power generation is rapidly becoming more widely available, we put together this information to help answer questions you might have.

As prices decline and technology improves, installing a residential solar system—also called a photo-voltaic or PV system—makes sense for some consumers. However, even with these recent improvements in PV, it’s important to find out the facts before committing to a purchase. Consider these points as you explore whether solar is right for your situation.

Adding insulation, sealing air leaks, and completing other basic fix-it projects make sense for several reasons. You can cut your energy costs immediately, and you’ll also be able to reduce the size of PV system you purchase. Your cooperative may offer a free energy audit to members, or might be able to provide a list of qualified auditors in your area.

Your electric cooperative should be one of your first contacts. Experts at your co-op can answer basic questions, provide resource materials, direct you to reputable websites, and might also maintain a list of reputable contractors and other experts in your region.

Most solar systems are designed to provide you with a portion of the electricity needed, but won’t provide 100 percent of your needs. At night and on cloudy days, and possibly at other high-energy-use times, you’ll need more power than your PV system can produce. That means you’ll still be connected to your cooperative’s power lines. Because these systems are grid-connected, energy can flow both ways. Each utility—including your electric cooperative—sets appropriate policies and rates for connecting PV systems to their lines (the grid) and for possibly purchasing any excess energy your system might provide. As you begin to explore solar systems, be sure you ask cooperative experts about rate structures, interconnection, essential safety precautions, and any other connection-related details.

Your electric cooperative staff can help you review your past energy use, and help you determine how the projects you’ve undertaken to improve energy efficiency may help lower your future energy use. One pertinent bit of information that will be useful is looking at how your energy use fluctuates throughout the day. Having that information will help you determine—with expert assistance—the size and type of system best suited to your situation.

Most electric cooperatives do not sell, install, or maintain PV systems, so you will either purchase or lease a system from a contractor who is not a part of the cooperative. If you purchase a solar system, you will be the owner, and you’ll be responsible for the purchase price, as well as ongoing maintenance and repair costs. If leasing is the option you prefer, you will pay less initially, but you’ll likely have higher ongoing costs. In either case, it pays to spend time figuring out all of the expenses you’ll be responsible for during the life of the system. These may include: installation (in addition to the price of the system), interconnection costs, insurance, taxes, and possibly others, too. If you are leasing, ask contractors about the length of the term, if the contract is transferrable to a new homeowner should you sell your home, potential for price increases, as well as the same questions you’d ask if you were to purchase a PV system. In the “credit” column of your price comparisons, look at any incentives, rebates, and tax credits offered for either a purchase or a lease.

Any financial incentives available will help reduce your investment costs. Opportunities vary by state and locale, and many have expiration dates. One database offering details is www.dsireusa.org. This site includes a clickable, interactive map, showing federal and state incentives, credits, exemptions, grants, loans, and rebates for residential and commercial/industrial projects. In addition, your electric cooperative staff and your contractor should have up-to-date details about incentives available where you live.

If you purchase a PV system, you’ll need to meet the requirements of your electric cooperative’s interconnection agreement. That includes paying any costs of connecting to the cooperative grid. Local and/or state officials are responsible for conducting safety inspections, but it’s your responsibility to notify them in advance about your installation. After the interconnection requirements are met, and the safety and integrity of your system are approved, your cooperative will take care of the connection to the grid. And, as the owner of the system, you’ll be responsible for maintenance and system repairs. If you lease a system, your responsibilities will depend on the agreement you sign. Be sure you know and understand what your responsibilities are.

Most solar systems are grid-connected. Because of the two-way flow of electricity, excess energy your PV system collects during the daytime flows into your cooperative’s lines. This shoulders you with the responsibility for the safety of your cooperative line staff, others who may come in contact with a downed power line, and your cooperative’s equipment. Improper connection and maintenance of your system may endanger people and the reliability of the grid.

Start with a list of options garnered from website research, your electric cooperative, local or state Better Business Bureaus, renewable energy associations, your state energy office, your state Attorney General’s office, extension service staff, and any other local experts you can call on for assistance and advice. Contact at least a few of those contractors appearing on your list, especially if recommended by multiple state and local experts. Winnow your list after asking many questions checking out other installations the contractor has completed, comparing bids (get at least three), checking references, and thoroughly examining contracts. If possible, ask a contract specialist or lawyer to review the contract before signing. (See our section on Questions to Ask a Solar Contractor Before Signing a Contract),

Keep files on your pre-purchase research and pre-installation data provided by your cooperative, as well as bids, contracts, inspection reports, maintenance records, and all other details you may need to refer to in the future. In addition, you’ll want to know about system performance, so set up a system to track and compare your actual system performance with predictions provided by the contractor/installer.

QUESTIONS TO ASK SOLAR CONTRACTORS BEFORE SIGNING A CONTRACT

As with any major home improvement project, purchasing from the right installer/contractor is every bit as important as the product you are purchasing. Due diligence is critical to ensure you get the best system, for a fair price, and that it’s installed correctly and on time.

 

Ask these questions to be sure the contractor knows the business thoroughly and has satisfied other customers. Also, be sure to request copies of insurance documents, certifications and licenses, so you know that the contractor and installers have gone through required training. Be sure to call former customers and check out other installations the contractor has completed. You should query local Better Business Bureaus and your state Attorney General’s office, and check online rating services for comments about the contractor and the equipment you plan to purchase.

  1. How long have you been in business?
  2. Are you licensed to do business in my state?
  3. How many PV systems have you installed? Can you provide a list of consumer references in my area? Can I talk with former customers and also see successful installations?
  4. Who will do the installation at my site? Are they employees or subcontractors? If you involve subcontractors, do they work with a number of other employers, too? Have these subs worked on many of your installations?
  5. What training have you and your installers had, and what, if any, certifications do you and your installers hold? Do you have an installer with a Master Electrician license, and is there an installer on your team licensed to install solar?
  6. Does your company carry these types of insurance: general liability for at least $1 million, professional liability, workers compensation, other types?
  7. Have you ever been involved in a legal dispute involving a solar installation?

Ask these questions to find specific details on what the contractor is proposing and why, as well as general information on what you can expect during and after installation.

  1. What size and type of system do you recommend for my site? Why?
  2. Are there any steps I must take before the installation - such as removing trees or replacing my roof?
  3. What brand(s) of systems do you install? What advantages do these brands offer over other options? Are the systems manufactured in the U.S. or elsewhere?
  4. What warranties do you and the manufacturer offer? Do you offer a warranty on installation? If the manufacturer is not located in the U.S., are there any difficulties with warranty work? How do I make a claim on defective or short-lived equipment?
  5. 5. What tax credits, rebates and other incentives will this installation qualify for? Who files the paperwork for any/all of these incentives?
  6. How much of my energy usage will this system provide?
  7. What will the payback period be?
  8. Will I be able to monitor the output of my panels? What is the process for doing so?
  9. How and when will you involve staff from my electric cooperative in the installation? Do you have experience interconnecting with utility grids?
  10. Will permits be needed for this installation? Who obtains them and pays any fees?
  11. When will you begin the installation? How long will it take to complete?
  12. What is your daily schedule? (For example, is it M-F, 8:00 to 5:00, with an hour for lunch?)
  13. Will you be on the job site daily? If not, how will we communicate if there are questions or problems that arise? And how do I reach you after hours?
  14. If my energy use changes, can I increase the number of solar panels later?
  15. Is it possible the installation may cause my roof to leak? If so, does your company take responsibility for repairs?

Why you should ask these questions? All of this information should be included in both your bid and on the contract you sign. Check these details carefully, then compare to other bids you obtain. (Get at least three bids, all in writing.) Be wary of any really low bids. If the contractor can’t supply the information, ask why not. After checking any contract to be sure this information is included, have a contract expert or lawyer review the contract before signing it.

  1. Is this bid an estimate or a fixed price? What is the process you will follow if you find unexpected problems with this installation and want to charge extra to fix the problems?
  2. Does the bid include the total cost of the project, including components, materials and labor?
  3. Does the bid include a breakdown of each of the components (make and model number, size/kWh per year, as well as price of each) so I can see what each portion will cost?
  4. Does the bid include details about permits?
  5. Does the bid include the time frame for beginning and ending the installation?
  6. Does the bid include warranty information, as well as how to place a claim?
  7. Does the bid include expected operation and maintenance costs; projected monthly, annual and lifetime costs and savings; and projected energy production?
  8. Does the bid include payment options, as well as financing details?
  9. Does the bid include details about who will file paperwork for tax credits, rebates and other incentives?
  10. What documentation will I receive when the project is done? (This may include lien releases and other contract-related paperwork, as well as warranties, operating manuals and more.)

Ask these questions so you know how you will be billed and the expected payment due dates.

  1. How much will the down payment be? When will it be due?
  2. What is the payment schedule?
  3. How long after work is completed will the final payment be due?
  4. Do you offer financing or have a relationship with a bank that offers financing?

SOLAR SYSTEMS: WHAT SIZE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

All solar systems begin with a series of small photovoltaic (PV) cells that produce electricity directly from sunlight. These PV cells are combined to form a module or panel. Several panels are connected together to form an array or a solar system. Arrays can be small—from a few panels to power a roadside warning sign or a remote cabin—up to a large array covering hundreds of acres as part of a utility-scale solar farm.

Solar systems generally can be divided into three types, based on size.

This type of system is most often thought of as a residential system, although rooftop systems may also be installed on commercial and industrial facilities., However, for the most part, rooftop systems are smaller in scale, and for practical purposes, have far less capacity to produce solar than other types.

As the name suggests, rooftop systems are mounted on a roof. This may be a home, a commercial/industrial building, a public building, or even a parking garage

The actual amount of energy produced depends on the location. Typical home rooftop systems are sized to produce between 2 and 10 kilowatts (kW). On average, 75 square feet of solar panels are needed to produce each kilowatt of direct current (DC) power during peak solar periods.

While prices vary, residential system prices have fallen to an average of $3.50 per watt peak capacity of direct current Wp-DC. Watt peak capacity is the maximum capacity of a module under optimal conditions.

Ownership of rooftop systems can vary: The system may be owned by the building’s owner. A leased solar system may be owned by the company installing the leased system, or a community solar system may be owned by the electric cooperative installing it.

The energy produced by the rooftop solar system helps offset energy use of the building on which it is installed. During some times of the day or months of the year, it may produce more energy than is used within the home or commercial building.

The number of solar panels installed on the building can be expanded over time, depending on the size and configuration of the building, and the owner’s desire to install additional capacity.

  • Utility-scale systems may range from a capacity of 500 kW to hundreds of megawatts (MW).
  • For perspective, a 1-MW alternating current (AC) solar array can produce enough energy to power about 200 homes (depending on location) and may cover 5–7 acres. Because of the amount of land required, utility-scale projects are often located in more rural, less populated areas.
  • Because of their size, most utility-scale solar systems are installed in a fixed-tilt ground-mount configuration. This means that the panels are placed on the ground (rather than on a building), and are tilted in place to gain maximum exposure to sunlight.
  • A solar array can be installed on marginal land that can’t be used for agriculture or building sites, such as brownfield sites, landfills, and airport buffer areas. However, the site must be relatively flat or south-sloping without significant shading from vegetation or other obstructions.
  • Utility-scale solar systems owned and/or operated by an electric cooperative usually feed electricity directly into the transmission or distribution grid. The utility provides solar power to customers in one of two ways: by adding the power to the co-op’s power portfolio—which benefits all cooperative members; or by selling power directly to individual members who are motivated to purchase solar energy. Selling directly to consumers may be done in one of two methods, also. First, members may sign on to a cooperative-offered Green Power Purchase program that sells the renewable attributes of the power directly to members. Some cooperatives also support a community solar program, described below. Though utility-owned programs come in many variations, most programs feed power to the grid, rather than directly to a home or business site.
  • Economies of scale have a direct impact on costs. The 2015 calculations indicate that a large (20 MW-AC) solar system can be installed for an average of $1.55 per Wp-DC; the cost is even less in some areas.

  • The size and scope of community solar systems typically fall between rooftop systems and utility-scale systems. Community solar systems are larger than residential rooftop systems but usually smaller than utility-scale projects. The capacity of these systems is typically between 20 kW and 1 MW (enough to power between 4 and 200 homes).
  • Local cooperatives build, operate, and maintain their own community solar systems. Often these systems are located within the cooperative’s service territory. Smaller systems are most likely to be local. One advantage: members can actually see the system “in action.”
  • Ground-mounting is the most common installation method, although some community solar installations have been placed on top of parking garages and public buildings.
  • Ownership models vary, but in all cases, members who purchase solar through the cooperative community solar system receive credit on their bill for their share of the output from the solar system. The two most common ownership methods are:Members may purchase or lease a portion or unit of the system.
  • Members subscribe to a unit of capacity from the project―they don’t own any part of it.
  • There are significant advantages to community solar projects for both the co-op and the member. These include being able to participate in solar even if your home is not suited to supporting a solar system or if you don’t want the upfront investment. Participating in a community solar program offers economies of scale. That is, it’s cheaper per unit to build a large system rather than a small one, and there is more flexibility for consumers to participate. Cooperative advantages also include the economy of scale and the ability to manage the power inputs to a greater degree.

SOLAR ENERGY FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

We have compiled a list of frequently asked questions from electric cooperative members.

Solar energy systems work when sunlight hits a solar photovoltaic module (solar panel or PV panel) and causes electric current to flow. The current produced from the PV panels is controlled and regulated by an inverter, which converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC), needed for use by household appliances. The electrical panel is where the power gets distributed throughout your house; any excess electricity may be sent from the panel back to your cooperative’s power grid.

That depends on several factors. 1) The size of your system. You can determine how much electricity you want to produce; then size your system accordingly. Note that you can start out small and add on. A system that will generate 100% of your energy needs is expensive, so most systems are sized to generate only a portion of your home’s needs. 2) Your site. If you have a shade-free area from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., you’ll be able to collect more sun and produce more energy than if your site is shaded. 3) Your region. The more sunny days in your area, the more electricity you’ll be able to generate. For example, systems in the Southwest produce more electricity per year than in the northeast. You can find online calculators to help answer this question in more detail, and installers can provide details about your situation, too.

Battery-backed or grid-independent systems use on-site energy storage to store excess energy produced during the day for use at night or when the sun is not producing enough power. Choosing this option will add significant cost and maintenance to your system. Most people opt for grid-connected systems for reduced cost, maintenance, and high reliability. With this type of system, your cooperative continues to provide energy to you when you need it 24-7. Your PV system will produce energy, and even excess energy, on sunny days. Your system will not collect sunlight at night and on cloudy days. That means, you will continue to draw electricity from your cooperative during these times.

Most grid-connected PV systems shut down to prevent back-feeding electricity into de-energized power lines that may have fallen or that line crew members may be working on. It’s important to have this shut-down feature to prevent injuries—and even death—to those working on the line.

Grid connected PV systems are connected to the cooperative’s power lines. That means electricity can flow both ways (to your home from your cooperative, and from your PV system back to the electrical grid). Particularly on sunny days when your energy use may be low, your system may produce excess energy that can flow back to the grid and may be purchased back by your cooperative. Many cooperatives purchase energy generated by a PV system above what the homeowner uses. Check with your cooperative to get specific details for your area, including requirements for interconnection, safety, metering, and applicable rates.

The price of PV components varies depending on the size of the system (generating capacity), type and quality of the components purchased, and complexity of the system selected. The good news for consumers is that the cost of PV has declined dramatically, while the technology has improved, equally dramatically. Installation costs depend on the size and complexity of the system, but also on the home layout and construction. For example, a simple, south-facing roof allows for an easier install than a roof with hips and valleys. In addition, some homes require structural or wiring upgrades. An average 4 kW system may cost between $10,000 and $20,000, before credits and incentives. This is based on a typical installed cost of $2.50 to $5 per Watt of distributed generation capacity. To determine your costs, look for online calculators to help you estimate your pricing, and also get bids from reputable installers.

Yes. There is a federal tax credit of thirty percent through 2019, then a slow phase out of the credit by the end of 2021. In addition, there may be state or local income tax credits, property tax exemptions, and rebate programs from government agencies. Your cooperative may offer payments or credits based on electricity generation, loans, net metering policies and others. These vary by state, city and utility, and may also depend on whether the system is purchased or leased. Find information about your state’s programs: http://programs.dsireusa.org/system/program/maps. Be sure to consult with your financial and tax advisor.

The payback period can range from fewer than 10 years to more than 20 years, depending on the system cost, available rebates and incentives, the amount of electricity produced, and the retail price of electricity you purchase from your cooperative. Check with your cooperative for more information.

Certified PV products and systems generally are reliable, with a life expectancy of about 30 years. Manufacturers test PV panels for hail impact, high wind, and freeze-thaw cycles to represent real-life situations. Most manufacturers offer 20- to 25-year warranties for panels; extended warranties may be available at an extra cost. Little maintenance is required; occasionally it may be necessary to rinse modules off with water to remove dust and grime. Other components like inverters may have a shorter life. PV panels may outlast the roof they are attached to. Make sure your roof is in good shape or budget for replacement during the life of the system.

To begin, you can look at factors such as which direction your home faces, the condition of your roof, and obstructions such as trees and other buildings that may block the sun during the peak generation period of 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Solar contractors can provide a more detailed analysis on what to expect, and your cooperative can offer advice, too.

If your house is not ideal for solar, you rent your home, or you just aren’t ready to make a big investment, there are other options. Talk to your cooperative about community solar or green power purchase option.

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