Should I Put Solar Panels on My Home?

| by Sierra Club

From the Sierra Club's "Hey Mr. Green Blog."

Hey Mr. Green,

If I were to put solar panels on my home, would it be cost-effective? I see most
solar panels in hot climates, and Ohio can be very cold. I live on a five-acre
tract and have the option of wind turbines also.
                          -- Sherry in Dayton,

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ANSWER: It may get cold in Dayton, but that doesn't mean you don't get sun. In fact,
you get 80 percent as much sunlight in a year as Sacramento, California, whose
municipal utility is a leader in solar development.

First, consider the
low-tech route: efficiency. The average U.S. household consumes 11,000
kilowatt-hours per year, when many could get by on half as much. Eliminate waste
by turning off lights and appliances when not in use, for example, and you could
slash your energy costs with no investment.

Wherever you live, take a look at returns over the long haul. At $9 a watt,
which is the typical cost in your region, a solar energy system large enough to
generate power for an average household would cost roughly $80,000 after rebates
and tax credits (or less in areas with stronger incentive programs). In Ohio, as
in most states, if you generate more than you use, your excess power feeds into
the electricity grid and you earn credit for it, allowing you to draw out as
much as you put in--for free.

Still, it would take about 30 years for you to break even, assuming the
utility rate goes up 4 percent a year and you put money saved from your energy
bills into tax-deferred investments. But you'd keep more than 260 tons of
greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere over the life of the system.

Once you nail down the cost per watt for solar, contact wind power dealers
and see how their costs compare. It's hard to be more specific about wind power
because there's so much variation, depending on windmill height and local
topography. You might also consider systems that combine wind and solar if wind
blows much harder in the winter than in the summer. These hybrid systems take
advantage of seasonal variation. Meanwhile, be thankful that Big Oil hasn't
privatized the sun and forced us to pay for it right down to the last photon.

BOB SCHILDGEN (aka Mr. Green) was managing editor and
book review editor of Sierra magazine for many years, and continues to
write Sierra's popular "Hey Mr. Green" environmental advice column.