Location: Do you have a sunny south(ish) facing area available on your roof or in your yard? This can be as easy as checking Google maps satellite view for a quick answer. There, you can see some locations can be ruled in or out immediately, but some may need a closer, onsite inspection to determine if it’s a good site. Check out these three properties in the same neighborhood.
As you can see, the first one had a beautiful, sunny, south facing roof, with no obstacles on it. It probably has at least an 8kW solar system on it. You can also see that they have a swimming pool, so they probably have heavy electric usage running the pool pump. Their solar array is probably generating around 800kWh a month on average.
(Red arrow indicates North)
This house has a SW facing roof, which would be OK, but as you can see, it’s in deep shade, with trees all throughout their property, and would require cutting down numerous trees to get adequate sunlight. It’s probably not a good candidate for solar electricity.
At first glance, the busy and shady roof line of this house would say that they are also not right for solar. But wait! Look at all of that wide open field. Perhaps they would be able to install a ground mounted solar system on their property.
Electric Rates: What are you paying for electricity? If you are in a region where electric rates are low, the payback time for your system may be rather long. For example, here in Massachusetts, electric rates this February 2015 were $0.21 per kWh. Whereas in North Dakota, they were $.08 per kWh. Before any financial incentives like tax credits or rebates, the savings from a solar system installed in North Dakota would take 2.5x longer to pay for itself than one installed in Massachusetts.
Incentives: How much money back can you get for your system? Until the end of 2016, the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) provides a 30% Federal tax credit for solar installations in the US. In addition, many states, municipalities, and utilities have incentives available. You can check on the DSIREUSA.org web site to see if you qualify for any incentives. Massachusetts has many state and utility incentives, include Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs), where a homeowner is paid for each MWh they generate. North Dakota, on the other hand, doesn’t have any state incentives that I could locate.
Solar Resources: How much sun do you get where you live? When people think of the sun in the US, they, of course, think of the south, southwest, and Hawaii. But in the continental 48 states, there’s still plenty of sun year round to make installing solar worthwhile. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) calculated the amount of available sunlight throughout the world called sun hours. Below is a map of the USA. With the exception of a tiny little corner of the Pacific NorthWest, the rest of the states get over 4 sun hours on average; more in the summer and less in the winter. This is plenty of sunshine to make solar a viable option.
Carbon Footprint: Does it matter to you how much pollution your electric use is generating? This is not a criticism, this is just another question to ask yourself. If you are in a location that does have low electric rates, and no local incentives, thus making it not just about the money, you may still be want to install solar to help reduce your carbon footprint. The EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) has a monthly report detailing the type of fuel used to generate electricity in each state. In the examples I gave of Massachusetts and North Dakota, Massachusetts generates its power from a combination of coal, nuclear, natural gas (which is why our rates went up so much this winter), and a tiny fraction of renewable energy. Whereas, North Dakota gets about ⅔ of their electricity from coal generators, and the rest from renewable energy sources like hydro and wind. You may decide that paying extra for your electricity is worth it to you to reduce the amount of CO2 generated by your use.
Energy Conservation: Have you done everything you can reasonably do to reduce your electric use? Have you swapped out your incandescent light bulbs with LED? Replaced your old inefficient fridge with an ENERGY STAR efficient one? Replaced your old water heater with a heat pump water heater, like the Stiebel Eltron Accelera? It costs less to implement energy efficiency options than to install solar, and many options also have terrific incentives available to help pay for them. Your first step should always be conservation. You don’t have to pay for what you don’t use.
Years at house: Should I stay or should I go? The average American owns a house for 13 years. If you are planning on moving in a few years, it may not be worth it for you to put solar on the house. While a purchased solar system can increase your property value, a leased system may limit your options for selling, as the new seller will need to agree to taking on the lease. Otherwise, you may have to do the expensive buy-out on the lease to get the new potential owner to agree to buy your house. Leasing solar can be a risky move if you are already planning on moving in the near future.
Grid Availability/Stability: Do you have the electric grid available at your location? If it is there, is it fairly stable, or do you lose power frequently for long periods of time? If you have a stable grid, grid-tied solar is the best solution. Just generate what you can, and buy the rest from the grid, same as usual. If you are in a remote location and do not have the grid available, then a battery based off-grid solar system may be for you. Also, if you lose electricity often, you may be a good candidate for a grid-tied battery backup system, where solar generates some of your power and keeps a battery bank topped off, and when the grid goes down, you can power your critical loads, like a fridge and well pump, off your battery bank.
As you can see, there are many questions to ask yourself if you are thinking about going solar. Answering these questions can help you determine if solar is right for you.