The cost of solar photovoltaic arrays has decreased greatly in recent years and installations continue to rise. If you are interested in installing solar to power your home or business, you may have many questions about where to start. While there are many guides available to help you start planning, we have compiled this list of step-by-step resources to provide you with the most up-to-date and unbiased information, much of it geared towards installing renewables here in western North Carolina.
Adapted from: U.S. Department of Energy's Planning a Home Solar Electric System
Solar Energy Installation & Decision-Making Guide
When considering a switch to cleaner energy sources, the first step is to invest in improving the energy efficiency of your home or business. Regardless of whether you're renovating your home or business, thinking of installing renewable energy systems, or just trying to improve comfort and lower energy bills, reducing usage is the clear first step. After all, the cleanest, cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one you never use! It is also important to be aware of your home or business's total energy use before adding a renewable energy system, so be sure to read our Energy Conservation and Efficiency Guide first, if you have not already.
Although the remainder of this guide walks through the steps toward direct ownership, keep in mind that there are other ways to source solar energy. One of these alternative models could be your only option (e.g., if you rent your home) or your only cost-effective option (e.g., your organization is tax-exempt and cannot benefit from tax incentives). Additionally, third-party sales are not currently permitted in North Carolina, but this financing option serves to promote access to distributed generation in parts of the country where it is allowed.
- Community Solar
Many areas now have utility-owned community solar systems that allow consumers to pay for a subscription to solar panels. Here in the High Country the local electric cooperative, Blue Ridge Energy, has installed over 1,900 panels in their 5 community solar projects. Visit their website to subscribe.
Duke Energy also offers a community solar program. Visit their website to learn more about their Shared Solar program.
In addition to utility-owned community systems, there are other models of community solar that may be available in your area. Read this article by the Solar Energy Technologies Office to learn more about community group purchasing, offsite shared solar, onsite shared solar, and more.
- Third-party Sales
A solar power purchase agreement is a third-party financing option that allows the solar developer to install a solar system on a customer's home and then sell the power produced by the system directly to that customer at a fixed rate per kWh. North Carolina does not currently permit third-party electric arrangements such as this, but you can read more about PPA's in this article from the Solar Energy Industries Association.
- Solarize Programs
Solarize programs allow homeowners or businesses to make group purchases from an installer, thereby providing a lower cost to the consumer and increasing local demand for solar. Learn more about Solarize efforts in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, or check out the U.S. Department of Energy's Solarize Guidebook to learn more.
- Solar Leases
Solar leases allow the consumer to use the power produced by a solar system installed on their property while a third-party, usually the installer, maintains ownership of the array. This arrangement is similar to a power purchase agreement, but a solar lease agreement sells power from the system to the consumer for a fixed monthly rate instead of a rate per kWh of energy consumed. As of 2019, solar leasing is available to some North Carolina residents. Contact your electric utility to find out whether solar leasing is available and which companies currently offer it in your area. Learn more about solar leases from Energy Sage.
- Purchasing a Solar Energy System
Purchasing a system may be the right option for you if:
- You own your home and want to increase its value
- Your home has an adequate site for solar
- Third-party financing is not available in your area
- Federal and state tax incentives are available
- You have the required up-front capital or qualify for available loans
- Your utility's net-metering policies offer fair compensation for excess energy your system produces and sends back to the grid
Regardless of the ownership or financing model selected, if installing a system on property you control, the following steps apply.
If you plan to purchase and install a system at your property, your electric utility will likely have multiple options for interconnecting your system to the grid. These policies will determine how you will receive power at times when your solar system is not producing enough to meet your needs and how you are compensated for unused power that is sent back to the grid.
Members of Blue Ridge Energy electric cooperative should compare net billing and net metering options to determine which option is most appropriate and will provide the greater benefit to the consumer.
Duke Energy customers should determine the most appropriate choice among their purchased power, net metering and parallel generation options.
There are a number of existing tools to help estimate the energy production you might expect based on your geographic location. Popular mapping options include:
Resource maps provide a rough estimate of the energy production you might expect at your geographic location, but accurate estimates require a site assessment. A site assessment will consider the orientation of the site or building and potential shading that would affect system output. A solar contractor will conduct a site assessment to provide an accurate quote. If you live in the High Country region of North Carolina, check the Appalachian Energy Center's Energy Extension Services portion of our website. We may be able to assist with this step while also providing an experiential learning opportunity for college students!
In addition to estimating what a system might produce, you will also want to know your current electricity consumption. Review the kWh usage from your prior electric bills and record your monthly and annual usage. This will help determine the system size needed to offset some or all of your energy consumption.
A qualified solar company will have experience, good reviews, and the necessary licenses and insurance policies required by your state. Although a license or credential does not guarantee a good outcome, it indicates a commitment to the trade and sufficient knowledge to pass an examination and often requires continuing education to ensure up-to-date knowledge. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is a leading solar industry credentialing organization. Keep in mind that your project may involve other trades, and you can find licensed contractors in North Carolina and/or verify licensure status for General Contractors and Electrical Contractors online. Review the number of past projects the company has completed, feedback from their customers and the number of years they have been in business.
Request at least three bids from qualified companies and be sure to compare them based on similar metrics such as the maximum generating capacity of the system, the annual and monthly estimates of energy production, and the price per watt. Be sure to ask about the efficiency of the panels, as well as the length of warranties, performance guarantees and whether the installer offers system maintenance services.
Check out these directories to find qualified solar installers:
- NABCEP - Board Certified Professionals Directory
Search for NABCEP-certified installers and renewable energy professionals
- Energy Sage
Energy Sage's Solar Marketplace helps energy consumers determine if their home or business is a good fit for solar and discover how much they can earn from switching to solar.
- N.C. Building Performance Association - Member Directory
Directory of NCBPA-associated installers, contractors, auditors, nonprofits and consultants for a variety of building performance needs
- Green Built Alliance
Directory of energy and green building professionals serving western North Carolina
If you choose to purchase a solar energy system, it is important to research available financing, incentive and rebate options.
Federal tax incentives are still available for solar energy systems, but are being stepped down annually after 2019 and will be phased out by 2022. State tax incentives and utility rebates may be available in your area. Check the DSIRE Incentive Database for details on tax incentives and other rebate programs. Customers of Duke Energy should consider their popular Solar Rebate Program.
When considering loans, be sure to compare loans from several providers (including your installer, if they offer financing) and consider secured and unsecured loans. Energy Sage provides a helpful list of loan providers in the areas they serve.
For residents of North Carolina, loans for solar energy, as well as energy efficiency and solar storage, may be available from ElectTel Cooperative Federal Credit Union or from programs through the electric cooperatives they partner with. Residents of the High Country may qualify for these loans through Blue Ridge Energy's Energy SAVER Loan Program.
Your solar installer will conduct a site assessment to measure your roof or property site, perform a shade analysis, inspect the roof or site for necessary improvements and discuss equipment options with you. They will assist you in choosing the appropriate equipment for your site and designing a system that is well-sized to your needs.
A qualified installer should be knowledgeable about the requirements in your area for construction permits and interconnection requirements for your local utility. They will install the system and should be up-front with you about any required subcontractors.
Photovoltaic solar arrays are quite durable, but panels must be clean and clear of obstructions in order to function fully. Be sure to ask your installer about future maintenance requirements and any service packages they may offer.
Your installer may also be able to assist you in setting up a performance monitoring system which can help track energy production, consumption and any potential damage your system may experience.
For more information on planning a solar energy system, or for technology or program specific details, check out these additional resources: