How to go solar ☀️ (with minimal hassle & maximum savings!)

by | November 10, 2022

As you may know, the planetary emergency threatens the building blocks of society and requires an all-hands-on-deck response. We really need to make justice-centered sustainability the organizing principle of society to get to zero emissions asap.

To do this we need both individual and systemic action.

Today, we’re focusing on one of the key actions you can take to minimize your individual footprint: powering your home with sunlight instead of burning harmful fossil fuels.

Back in 1931, Thomas Edison told Henry Ford:

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

In 2020, the International Energy Agency reported:

“solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

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As a result, millions of people have followed Edison’s lead and put their money on the sun and solar energy.

Many millions more are wondering if it’s time they did the same.

This newsletter is for all the people wondering whether they should make the switch to solar and how to do it!

My intention is to make it as easy as possible for people to go solar and choose the option that’s best for them by sharing the latest information and useful tools.

And for those who are short on time right now, my bottom line recommendation is to use a trusted solar marketplace so the process becomes easier, more transparent, and so you can compare multiple quotes from vetted companies to make sure you get the best possible deal.

Top solar marketplaces by country:

  • EnergySage: United States 🇺🇸
  • SolarQuotes: Australia 🇦🇺
  • Otovo: Austria 🇦🇹, France 🇫🇷, Germany 🇩🇪, Italy 🇮🇹, Norway 🇳🇴, Poland 🇵🇱, Portugal 🇵🇹, Spain 🇪🇸, Sweden 🇸🇪, United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Fyi – CS is partnered with SolarQuotes and EnergySage (which I used, loved, and have been recommending ever since). This means if you use these top marketplaces with our links, you’ll be supporting our small, scrappy non-profit while you get solar energy for your home – that’s a win-win! 🙂

Why go solar?

  • ❤️ It improves human health by eliminating some of the air pollution that kills 8.7 million people every year.
  • 🌍 It helps stop global heating because the average residential solar system in the US will reduce over 100 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in its lifetime (helps more if you don’t sell the renewable energy credits).
  • 💸 You’ll pay less for electricity and save thousands or tens of thousands of dollars over the next 30+ years (the ROI is fantastic).
  • 🏡 Houses that own solar sell for about 4.1% more than those without.
  • 😊 You’ll feel better knowing your electricity is sun-powered! (source: me)

Is solar right for you?

Hopefully! It depends on a few things:

  • Do you own or rent your home? (there are way more options for homeowners but renters may still have access to community solar!)
  • How expensive are your current electric bills? (the higher the bills, the more solar will save you.)
  • How suitable is your roof for solar? (how much sun does your roof get? which way does it face? etc.)
  • Your state’s policy incentives (e.g. net metering, tax benefits, SRECs, etc.)

The other critical factor is of course financial. What are your financing options and what do they mean for your wallet both today and in the long term?

Though I believe it’s inevitable everyone will be able to benefit from solar at some point, it’s not accessible for everyone right now.

As everyone’s situation is going to be different, the easiest way to figure out what solar would mean for you is to use a solar calculator.

This is what pops up for my parent’s somewhat shady, east/west facing house in Massachusetts (high electricity prices, good state incentives):

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These results are from EnergySage’s calculator.

A few things worth noting:

  • These numbers are a bit more favorable than US averages, but they should give you a decent ballpark understanding (US payback period average is about 8.7 years, with a range from about 5 to 15).
  • The savings figures above are for 20 years. But the panels should last for at least 30, meaning the lifetime savings should be far more than what is shown above for the cash and loan options.
  • You can of course get a better deal than what is shown as well. The price ($/watt) I negotiated 4 years ago for my parents is still cheaper than average prices today despite falling costs since then (another reason it pays to get several quotes on a competitive marketplace!)
  • About 10% of people buying solar today are getting batteries as well. Batteries are not ‘economical’ yet like solar but they do increase your home’s energy independence and can ensure you still have power if the grid goes down.
  • If you plan on selling your house in the future, I’d probably avoid getting a lease or PPA as that leads to complications.
  • If you decide to finance with a loan, make sure to read the fine print and account for any upfront fees.
  • Just like the economics are different in every state, they’re also different in every country. Australia for example averages just a 3 to 5-year payback period.

If you’d like to learn more about the pros and cons of each financing option for solar, read this!

And if you’d like to learn more about EnergySage and their solar marketplace, check out the webinar we hosted a few weeks ago to help people go solar!

Alright, on to what I see as the solar options that are helping to make solar more accessible to everyone!

Community Solar

Some estimates show that solar is currently inaccessible for a whopping 66% of Americans. This is why, although it’s relatively newer, community solar may be the future of solar.

Also known as shared solar or solar gardens, community solar is empowering people who rent their homes and people without suitable roofs to access and benefit from solar.

In a growing number of instances, it’s also increasing access for people with lower incomes and credit scores via thoughtful policy and design which is critical for a just energy transition!

Here’s how it works: a community or third party installs a solar garden that a lot of people nearby are able to own or ‘subscribe’ to for up to as much power as they use. In some cases, it’s as easy as signing up for a Netflix subscription.

Community solar typically saves people 5% to 15% on their electric bills, has no upfront costs, and can enable people to cancel the service if they move (always read the fine print though to make sure).

Though there are projects in most states, only 22 have specific policies which are helping to boost community solar.

This map will give you an idea of where most projects are currently happening:

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Credit: NREL

In addition to googling, the two places I’m aware of to check and see if there’s a community solar project near you are on EnergySage and Arcadia Power. Generally speaking, the states with the best policies and where it is easiest to sign up are CO, DE, IL, ME, MD, MA, MN, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VA, and DC. (By the way, if you decide to get community solar with Arcadia, this link will get you $10 off in addition to saving at least 5% on your electric bill going forward.)

Community solar is growing like crazy and is expected to more than double in the next 5 years (with the government aiming even higher) so if you don’t have access yet, keep an eye out!

You can learn more about the pros and cons of community solar here.

Green Municipal Aggregation: get clean electricity for your whole community!

Green Municipal Aggregation is a way to get cheaper and cleaner power for everyone in your town or city (it’s also known as Community Choice Aggregation and Community Choice Electricity).

Basically, instead of you paying your local utility for just your electricity usage, your town or city bulk purchases electricity for everyone from a different supplier, making it cheaper.

In doing this, you can decide what percentage of clean electricity you want to be the standard option for all residents, as well as give people the option to opt for 100% clean electricity.

Boston, MA just started a program that decreased prices while increasing renewable energy to 30% of the electricity mix for everyone in the city. It also gives people the option to get 100% renewable energy for significantly less than what they were paying before!

Community Choice Aggregation is currently available (or may be soon) in the following states:

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This would be an amazing project to take on in your town if you live somewhere where it’s possible. It can be a serious impact multiplier.

Here’s an educational and implementation-focused resource to help you get started!

My Solar Story

I started exploring solar as an option for my parents back in 2016 or so. We got quotes from a couple companies but it was too expensive. To ease my conscience, I decided to start paying an extra 15% or so for the electricity they consumed to be considered ‘clean’.

In 2018, I had just moved back in with my parents to start Crowdsourcing Sustainability and decided to look into solar again. We got quotes from another couple companies (along with unwanted calls and emails). It was slightly cheaper.

To have a chance at this working, I knew I needed to be able to show my Dad the economics in plain terms. It wasn’t easy. I had lots of questions I was struggling to figure out (e.g. what’s the payback period? how do net metering and SREC prices work? how much will our utility’s electricity prices rise annually? if my parents get an electric car in the next couple years, how many more panels would we need? etc.)

In my research, I stumbled across EnergySage. After reading several extremely useful articles and learning more about them, I put our home’s address and electricity bill onto their free solar marketplace. Within days, we had 5 quotes we could easily compare from local, vetted installers and zero unwanted calls or emails. The two best offers were thousands less than what we’d seen before.

Being on the platform, I was also able to email and schedule multiple calls with one of EnergySage’s free, unbiased energy advisors named Sam. I asked Sam a lot of questions and was impressed with his patience and helpfulness. He helped me feel a lot more confident and comfortable navigating this new terrain.

I messaged the two companies whose offers we were most interested in and got the price lowered even further by the company and person we thought was best after having them both to our house for a site visit. We went with not the cheapest option of the two but the one that was very close in price and with the person/company we liked best and trusted more.

After hours of preparing an excel sheet and my talking points for why we should go solar, my Dad gave the green light much quicker than I thought when he saw how much money we’d save by going solar (likely tens of thousands of dollars in the coming decades).

Four years in, it looks like my parents will break even on the investment in the next 1-2 years. And then it’s “free electricity” for at least a couple decades.

This positive experience is why I’ve been recommending people use EnergySage for years.

What I’d do differently

I’d be very thoughtful about estimating your future electricity demand! In 2018, I knew my parents were thinking about an electric car so we got a larger system, but there are other things to consider that you may electrify like heat pumps or your gas stove. Think it through and plan accordingly!

Take Action!

As I mentioned earlier, solar is not accessible to everyone yet. This is changing quickly though.

No matter what your situation is, if you don’t have solar and haven’t checked recently, I’d highly recommend taking a quick look to see what options are available to you and if any of them make sense!

Again, here are the top solar marketplaces by country that I’m aware of:

  • EnergySage: United States 🇺🇸
  • SolarQuotes: Australia 🇦🇺
  • Otovo: Austria 🇦🇹, France 🇫🇷, Germany 🇩🇪, Italy 🇮🇹, Norway 🇳🇴, Poland 🇵🇱, Portugal 🇵🇹, Spain 🇪🇸, Sweden 🇸🇪, United Kingdom 🇬🇧

(If you know of other good ones that are helpful for people, definitely let me know. It’s impossible to keep up with everything happening in the solar industry!)

I hope you found this useful and that it helps going solar feel more doable for you!

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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