Adventure
Q:

Should I install solar panels on my house?

I'm looking into installing solar panels on my house and I'm not sure where to start. Where do I find solar panels and how are they integrated into most household electrical systems? Matt Detroit, Michigan

A:

Dear Matt from Detroit,

I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that home solar panels generally aren't integrated directly into household electrical systems, which simplifies matters quite a bit. Instead, the power they generate on your roof is sent straight into the grid, and sold to the local power company. In turn, you get a refund on your electric bill for what you sell. This system is called net metering—and it's great for the environment because you're producing energy during peak demand times, when those nasty coal-fired electric plants are belching out greenhouse gases at their highest levels.

Only folks who live in really remote locations, where it's too expensive to tie into the grid, have much incentive to directly power their homes with solar panels. But these people are generally antisocial and cranky, turning their backs on civilization and often storing large caches of arms in their underground shelters. I aim to be one of them some day.

Now for the bad news. Assuming that you're not a trustafarian or independently wealthy in some other way, I'm advising you against retrofitting your home for solar power, based solely upon where you live. My reasoning has little to do with how much sunshine falls, or doesn't fall, upon the Motor City.

Installing solar panels on a roof can cost upwards of $40,000. Consider, for a moment, that a 30-year loan on that sum (with a 6.5 percent interest rate) would be about $190 a month, which is probably more than your average electricity bill (at least in the short-term). Unfortunately, Michigan offers few tax incentives to help defray the cost. If you move to California, say, or Louisiana or North Carolina, then state and local rebates combined with other tax breaks will lower the installation price by tens of thousands of dollars, suddenly making solar power a cheap energy alternative.

The cost calculator on the immensely helpful and easy-to-navigate Web site findsolar.com, gives ballpark price estimates on solar panel retrofits—even taking into account most rebates and incentives—in every zip code in the country. The web site moving.com can give you a free moving truck estimate for relocating to California, Louisiana, or North Carolina. Good luck selling that house, though.

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