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Renewable Energy: Why switch to solar power?

As more Americans express interest in green energy, many are taking a fresh look at how solar can meet their electricity needs. In many states, that means adding solar panels to rooftops of homes and businesses.

Of course, many utilities across the country either buy or generate solar energy and provide it to power grids. That means many Americans make use of solar energy without ever knowing it. But many electricity customers want to go all-solar and eliminate as much of their carbon footprint as possible.

Green energy regularly accounts for more than 22 percent of the nation’s electricity generation. As of December 2020, solar energy made up more than 10 percent of that electricity from renewable sources.

How solar power works

We’ve all seen solar panels on rooftops or in massive solar “farms,” but most of us don’t understand how they work. Generally, the panels perform as semiconductors, with negative and positive layers. Attached to the layers is a conductor, which creates an electric circuit that turns the electrons from sunlight into electricity.

According to the Center for Sustainable Energy, the average cost for a residential solar system ranges from $15,000 to $25,000. That’s a big chunk of money, but there are some ways to offset it.

  • In general, there are three ways to pay for a home solar system.
    • Cash. Easy to say, harder to do.
    • Solar loans. You can do this with a typical lender, a utility, or a solar-installation company. Terms vary according to the option you choose.
    • Solar leasing.  With this option, you sign an agreement with a solar company with little or no upfront cost. But you agree to pay a set amount (ideally less than what you were paying for your monthly electricity bill) each month for 15 to 20 years.
  • Incentives: Federal tax incentives for solar systems installed this year stand at 22 percent of the cost of installation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The credit is scheduled to expire in 2022. Credits are larger for systems installed in 2020 and before Dec. 31, 2019. A number of states also offer incentives, available by checking this database.
  • Net metering. This allows customers who generate their electricity from solar power to sell the amount they don’t use to the grid that serves their homes. The database in the above paragraph includes information about net metering.

Picking a solar panel installer

All solar installers aren’t created equal. That means you’ll have to ask a few questions of a company before you commit to a solar installation.

Here are a few things you should find out:

  • What type of system is being considered for your roof? Can your roof support that system?
  • Is the installer licensed and insured in your state? And don’t just take the installer’s word for it – ask for the license number.
  • How much experience does the installer have?
  • Are there any reviews or ratings for installers you’re considering?
  • What, if any, guarantee does the installer offer?
  • How much, if any, of the work will be performed by subcontractors?

Where is green energy thriving?

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, nearly 2.7 million solar systems had been installed nationwide through September 2020, with the capacity to generate 88.9 gigawatts of power. Nearly 250,000 Americans work in the industry, it said.

Which state generates the most electricity from solar? You guessed it! California.

Here’s how much it generated (in thousand megawatt during 2020 and with the rest of the top 10 (includes utility-scale generation):

State 2020 generation (in thousand megawatt hours) % of U.S. total
California 48,012 36.2
Texas 9,519 7.2
North Carolina 9,293 7.0
Arizona 8,922 6.7
Florida 7,677 5.8
Nevada 6,142 4.6
Georgia 4,230 3.2
New Jersey 4,117 3.1
Massachusetts 3,905 2.9
New York 3,422 2.6

The EIA defines small-scale solar photovoltaic electricity as the power derived from rooftop and other smaller arrays (the kind of generator you would be with a home solar system). Once again, California tops the list, but some other states crack the top 10.

State 2020 generation (in thousand megawatt hours) % of U.S. total
California 17,498 41.9
Arizona 2,924 7.0
New Jersey 2,526 6.1
Massachusetts 2,340 5.6
New York 2,300 5.5
Texas 1,612 3.9
Hawaii 1,214 2.9
Florida 1,119 2.7
Maryland 1,015 2.4
Nevada 876 2.1

FAQs about solar energy

The above are questions you should ask before choosing an installer. But there still might be questions you have about installing a home system. Here are some common ones:

  • What happens when it’s cloudy? The SEIA says panels work in indirect sunlight and when light is partially blocked by clouds. Your system likely will have battery storage in case its output falls below levels you need, and systems can also draw from the standard electric grid when necessary.
  • How do solar panels affect property values? The Department of Energy cites two studies that show solar panels will increase a home’s resale value by about $15,000.
  • Should I replace my roof before adding solar panels? Maybe. You should at least consider it. Roofs generally have a lifetime of 20 years. Solar panels will last that long or longer.
  • How long will panels last? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says typical solar panel warranties are 20 to 25 years.

More resources


Updated: 3/16/2021

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