Three Ways to Go Solar

(Liz Mahood, originally published on Get Your GreenBack Tompkins)

It’s that time of year again—the days are long and hot, and the sun’s rays hit everything. How can this help you get your green back? Solar! While it used to be that if you didn’t have a good spot on your property and enough money in the bank account you were out of luck, but now even renters can go solar with several community solar options—including a subscription model that generally requires no up-front costs. There is even a brand-new New York State program for low-income residents that provides a subscription to solar energy for free.

Read on to see which of the three ways to go solar may be right for you.

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Net-Metering or Solar Crediting

Before we go into the three options, we should explain a policy that all of these systems rely on, one that makes solar affordable and convenient. As you know, the sun is not always shining when you need to use electricity. However, residents with solar enjoy reliable electricity throughout the year. How? At the simplest level, we can think of the utility (NYSEG in our case) acting as a bank: your solar production—whether on your home or on a community solar farm—goes into the electrical grid. This gives you credits, whereas your electrical use counts as withdrawals. If you use more electricity than your panels generated, you will be charged for the extra electricity (at normal rates); if you generate more than what you use, then you will accumulate credits, which you can use in future months. The system for determining the value of those credits is currently in flux, but the basic banking principle remains the same.

1) ON-SITE RESIDENTIAL

This is the traditional option—installing solar panels on your property, either on your roof or on another structure on your property. This can be on a pole, a rack, or on a barn or garage. If you own your home and have a good sunny place, a good roof or spot in your yard, this can be the best investment. With current incentives, approximately two-thirds of the installed cost of a solar system can be covered by state and federal incentives. An 8-9 year payback is not uncommon, and the savings over 20 years can be significant.   

Incentives. There are three large incentives that help bring down the cost of on-site solar in New York State. The first is the NYSERDA rebate: As of July 2018, this rebate is $0.35 per Watt of solar capacity. A typical solar system has 7,000 watts, and the rebate would knock off $2,450 of the cost right off the top. Households with moderate incomes (80% or less than area median income, or roughly $71,000 for a family of four in Tompkins County) receive a rebate of $0.70 per Watt. This rebate decreases over time, so those installing systems in the future will receive a lower amount. In addition, there are federal and state tax credits, which cover 30% and 25% of the remainder of the costs. These are tax credits, so you have to have a tax liability to claim them (roughly speaking, for a one-person household to be eligible for the full federal tax credit, their annual income must be more than $40,000). Note that the federal tax credit expires in 2019, and the state tax credit is capped at $5,000. Your solar contractor will help you learn about and apply for all of these incentives.

Financing & Lifetime Savings. There are many financing and loan options available to help make residential installation feasible. See here for an overview. In many cases you can finance the purchase of a system and have a loan payment that is equal to or less than your current electricity bill. After you pay the loan off in, say, 10 years, the electricity is free for the rest of the panels’ lifetimes, which is generally 25-30 years, and the savings start adding up. It is not uncommon to see a lifetime net savings exceeding $10,000.

Some Considerations. Not every home is a good fit for on-site solar. For on-site solar panels to be their most productive, they need to be soaking up the sun. Thus, south-facing roofs are the best, and shaded roofs or lawns are not a good environment for solar panels. Additionally, if you are considering roof-mounted solar panels, your roof should be in good shape.

Read a story on the Get Your GreenBack Tompkins blog of a Tompkins County resident who recently got on-site solar.

2) COMMUNITY SOLAR PURCHASE

 Image courtesy of Renovus Solar

Image courtesy of Renovus Solar

This option can work well for residents who don’t have a good location for panels on their property, or for renters who pay an electric bill. Here, you purchase a set of solar panels on a local solar farm. These farms are in optimal, sunny locations, so the energy yield is as high as possible. Through net-metering, you use, keep track of, and get credited for the electricity as if the panels were on your property—you get credited whatever electricity the panels produce.

While the upfront cost of community solar is lower than on-site solar, and their siting is optimal, there are additional operations and maintenance fees, and the state tax credit is not eligible for community solar (though we are aware that some customers have successfully claimed it). Thus it may not yield as much savings as a solar array installed on-site. Aside from this, the other incentives and financing options are the same as for on-site solar.

One advantage of this model is its flexibility: It is possible to change residences regionally and maintain your solar energy. It is also possible to sell your panels, though we haven’t heard of anyone doing so yet.

3) COMMUNITY SUBSCRIPTION SOLAR

This option is optimal for renters or those who can’t or do not want to pay up-front costs. Through this system, customers purchase not the panels, but the electricity from a community solar farm, to cover their use throughout a year. Contracts can be as short as three months, there are incentives in place that make this option very affordable, and cheaper than purchasing electricity from the utility. However, the savings aren’t generally as great as when you purchase solar.

There are a number of pros with this option:

  • Savings: A number of contractors providing this option locally guarantee a savings of 10% compared to NYSEG’s rates.
  • Typically no up-front costs!
  • Flexibility: This is by far the most flexible option, allowing renters or those planning to move to use solar power, to change the amount of electricity purchased, or cancel their contract.

Read about a Tompkins County family who enjoys a solar subscription on the Get Your GreenBack blog.

In addition, there is a new NYSERDA program called Solar for All, which provides solar subscriptions to income-eligible households for free! This is for renters and homeowners who pay their own utility bill.  Through this program, members receive approximately 1,000 kWh of electricity a year for free. To learn more, go here.

NEXT STEPS & OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

With all of these options available, is there any excuse not to go solar? (OK, there are a few: you don't pay an electric bill, or you are on a municipal electric utility. But for many people, the excuses are few.) In addition to the flexibility available, there are significant savings to be had for the household. There are also important impacts on our community. We reduce our carbon emissions by over a ton a year, and just as importantly we support local jobs. One installer estimated that for every 24 solar installs they created or supported one full-time living wage job.

Get a Quote (or two)! To find out more about these options, visit our website, and find a list of contractors who can give you a free quote. We encourage you to get a few quotes and compare. CCE Tompkins is another great source of information on all the ways to go solar, and all the incentives to do so.

Energy Advising: Feel free to reach out to an energy advisor in your area or by filling out this form.