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, Ohio

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.