At today’s low prices, investing in solar panels can pay for itself in a relatively short period, particularly in a state where electricity is expensive and/or good incentive programs exist. (A state-by-state listing can be found at dsireusa.org.) Sometimes, local governments provide incentives, and some utility companies reward customers who install panels.
One constant anywhere in the United States is a 30 percent federal renewable energy tax credit that takes a chunk out of purchase and installation costs. Combine that with today’s lower prices and up-front costs can be recouped almost anywhere in the country within the typical 25-year life expectancy of modern solar panels, according to Andy Hershberger, president and CEO of Virginia-based Shenandoah Solar. Still, there are a few things to consider.
“It’s good for folks to get their utility bills and look at what they use on a monthly basis and a yearly basis,” says Andy Tyson, co-founder and owner of Creative Energies, which designs and installs solar electric systems in the West.
Such data is key to designing a system and calculating its payback period. Solar panels need sunshine, so an unshaded spot on the roof or nearby is a must. While the amount of sunshine received by a given place varies, there are very few places in the lower 48 where an unshaded panel won’t perform well, says Tyson.
Below are three models recommended by experts for homes or small businesses. Estimated costs represent the total overall cost to purchase and install a 4kW system.
SunPower E20 Series
SunPower of San Jose, California, has been in business nearly 40 years. Known for the industry-leading efficiency of its panels (meaning they generate more electricity per unit of area than others), the company offers a warranty guaranteeing a higher level of performance over a 25-year period than most manufacturers.
Specs: A turnkey 4kW installation – big enough to provide around 50 percent of the average U.S. home’s electricity, depending on how much sun it receives – may cost somewhere between $23,000 to $25,000. A 4kW system will occupy about 216 square feet of roof space.
Suniva Optimus Series
Suniva is a Georgia company spun off from the solar energy research lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Founded in 2008, the company makes reliable panels and is one of just a few American manufacturers to have weathered a difficult time for the industry, which faced stiff competition from inexpensive Chinese-made panels.
Specs: A 4kW system would take up around 266 square feet and cost between $23,000 to $25,000.
ReneSola Virtus Series
ReneSola panels are a Chinese-made option offered by Positive Energy Solar. These panels are also good performers, though they aren’t quite as efficient or backed by as comprehensive a warranty as the SunPower panels.
Specs: Turnkey installation for a 4kW installation costs between $18,000 to $20,000, and requires about 280 square feet.
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