Putting off solar panels?

April 20, 2009

We have wanted to get solar panels on our rooftop for years, but the up-front cost has kept us from doing so. I imagine we aren’t the only ones, either. The federal stimulus package may change that.

Our power company (PG&E) continues to rob us in unpredictable ways. We thought things would improve when the California energy crisis passed (and they probably have to some extent), but month after month our high bills continue to plague us. We have both a pool and a hot tub and those are probably the killer items. But we try:

  • Reduced times on pool and hot tub filtering cycles.
  • Use the Bay Area’s natural evening cooling to bring cool air into our house, then shut the windows before it gets hot.
  • Replaced almost all light bulbs with compact fluorescents.
  • Try to run major appliances full and at night.
  • Replaced our washer with a high-efficiency washer.
  • Use clothesline for drying when it’s hot out. The sun is often faster than the dryer! (Nicer, too.)
  • After our Earth Hour experience, we consolidate evening activities to reduce the number of lit rooms. (It’s also more sociable.)

And yet, these things don’t seem to have improved our energy bills. Harumph. At least we are trying to do the right thing to help the planet. And I suppose our bills would be even worse if we didn’t do these things!

This is a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

But solar panels remain in our thoughts. A number of local schools have installed solar panel shades in their parking lots, which is a great idea: Not only does it generate extra power, but it keeps the cars cooler so we don’t have to run the air-conditioning as much. We parked under one yesterday, since our church meets at a school, and said, “It still would be nice to have this on our house.”

Well (if I get a job), maybe this year or the next will be the time to do it! On his blog today, Al Gore says the government stimulus package provides a 30% tax credit in 2009 and 2010. That’s a big chunk, folks. Yes, we’d still have to sacrifice, but it would benefit us, benefit the economy, and benefit the planet.

Kay asked, “So if installation costs $10,000 (say), does this reduce our taxes by $3000, or does it just reduce our adjusted gross income (AGI) by $3000? There’s a big difference between the two!” I did some searching and found an official government statement: This is a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, not merely a deduction. So this is good!

What about you: Have you been putting off solar panels? Will this tax credit push you over that edge of hesitation? I would also like to hear what energy-saving tips you are practicing.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

6 responses to Putting off solar panels?

  1. i am totally uncomfortable with solar power because there are so many things i don’t understand. after the bio-diesel debacle (where it turns out that increased demand for bio diesel was actually a net BAD thing for the world), i’d want to know more about the whole system from end to end.
    things like this.
    what waste gets generated from the creation of the panels.
    how long until the panels need to be replaced
    what is the impact of disposing of the panels
    additionally it isn’t clear to me that the “run your meter backwards” is really the best way to store energy you generate but do not use. i’d love to see a comparison of that plus a variety of storage technologies. many storage technologies (such as racks of batteries) have a nasty environmental impact as well.
    there may be answers to all these things, but i haven’t been hit over the head with them yet, and that is why i am not seriously considering solar panels yet.

  2. Michael, those are good questions. I guess I approach them from an optimistic perspective: Since I haven’t been hit with those questions, I assume they are not severe enough to detract from the benefits.

  3. I looked into it casually before we did an addition last year — just didn’t fit the budget at the time. A 30% tax credit might make it worth a second look. We tend to run into the higher rates especially in the winter (elderly in-laws like the house warmer than I’d normally keep it). Sometimes it seems we aren’t too efficient, but sharing a home with extended family has got to be a net savings, not to mention we don’t run the A/C all summer like we did in Los Angeles.

  4. Maria, I can see why you wouldn’t have money to spend on solar if you did an addition! It may well be worth a second look now (or next year).

  5. From what I’ve read, its under a year or two for the panels to generate more energy then it took to produce them – old myth from back in the 80s was they took more to produce then they would ever generate.
    The rated lifespan / warranty is usually for 20/25 years. They do decline in production over time but its a fair bet you could be using them 30+ years down the line.
    Inverters generally last about 10 years and cost 2-3k to replace – just something to keep in mind.
    Waste in creation / disposal is something I’d like to read up on a bit more. so can’t answer that one for you.
    Running the meter backwards – this just means during the day when you overproduce you put power out on the grid, get a credit and your neighbors use what your produce. At night you use electricity from the power company and they apply any credit from the day first. No need for expensive batteries that also require maintenance and have to be replaced after so many years.
    Look for city / state / electric company programs as they may further reduce the cost.
    One thing I’d suggest before getting the panels is to insulate your house. Right now you can get a 30% tax credit on new insulation, windows, and other energy upgrades. Its for 2009-10 and you can spend up to $5k total for a dollar for dollar credit of up to $1,500. Its a total of 5k BETWEEN the two years, so don’t try and claim it twice.
    Its more cost effective to reduce your demand first then see how many panels you need.

  6. Bob, thanks for the really helpful info — much appreciated!