Is Solar Worth It Yet? (2020)

Though the media and politicians push hard for more environmentally friendly options for power production, is solar ready for most homesteaders to jump on board?

Of course, the answer to this question is, “it depends.”

Are your motivations to reduce your carbon footprint? Or a backup to save tons of headaches in outages or emergencies? Do costs matter much?

Solar panel costs have come down a ton in the last several years. Take your monthly power bill that you currently have and look for your monthly and daily usage in KWH (Kilawatt Hours). Also take note of your power usage in the most energy intensive part of the year (probably summer with AC or winter with heating). Now determine what you can live without to cut down your usage. Are you currently heating your house with electricity? Can you switch to wood heat? Are you using incandescent lightbulbs still? Time to switch to LED. Is your refrigerator fairly old? Switching to a modern fridge will save electricity in no time. Heating your water with electricity? Look into a hybrid (heat pump) water heater or tankless water heaters (a hybrid is cheaper and uses less electricity if you have the requirements). Propane water heaters are also an option.

Once you come up with your estimated electricity usage for the worst part of the year, calculate how many panels you will need. If your house is on Google’s Project Sunroof, that is a simple way to calculate this. Otherwise, you can use the app Lumos to calculate how much sun you can get depending upon your tree placement and whether you should have a ground or roof mounted system.

Do you get a ton of wind regularly (such as at the coast or in a prairie)? Look into wind turbines as well. Have a year round creek on your place and water rights? Hydropower is the most economical and reliable of all home energy. Once you figure out if your property can have solar (if you would have to take out trees or get enough sun to make it worth it), you then must decide what type of solar system you wish to have: Off Grid, Grid Interactive, or Grid Tied.

Off Grid

Are you buying land without power connection yet? Is power a half a mile or more away? You can get a quote from your power company, but in this instance, if it costs more than several thousand dollars, you likely are better off with an off grid solar system financially. Being off the grid comes with pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Not at all dependent upon the power company to have electricity
  • No power bill ever again

Cons:

  • More expensive
  • Batteries may need maintenance depending upon battery type
  • If something goes wrong or you do not get enough sun in the winter, you need a gas or diesel generator to keep electricity

Grid Tied:

Already have power from the power company and do not care about occasional outages? A Grid Tied solar system is the most popular installation these days with solar being back fed to the power grid to offset your electrical bill. Many grid tied inverters have a backup receptacle for offgrid use if the grid goes down. Make sure to look into this if you care about keeping your refrigerator or other small devices powered in an outage.

Pros:

  • Least Expensive
  • Keep the simplicity of staying on the grid and do not worry about not getting enough sun for your electrical usage
  • No more power bill if your power company supports net metering and you have enough solar

Cons:

  • No electricity in a power blackout (unless limited power is supported during the daytime by your inverter via an offgrid receptacle).
  • If no net metering, this provides little benefit financially.

Grid Interactive

This is the best of both Grid Tied and Off Grid except the upfront cost. This system allows you to still use the grid but be independent of power outages. Your batteries do not have to be as big as offgrid use if you are willing to live without some appliances when the grid is down.

Pros:

  • Keep the reliability of the grid (no longer worry about no sun or electrical usage)
  • No power bill if net metering is an option and enough solar
  • Stay independent from power outages still with an inverter that turns off backfeeding to the grid but still powers the house during an outage (Most self sufficient of the three options)
  • If net metering is available but ever is dropped by your power company, you can easily switch to off grid usage should you no longer wish to pay a power bill.

Cons:

  • More expensive than Grid Tied and off grid
  • If no net metering is available, you still have to pay at least some of a power bill

Conclusion

Figure out your priorities.

Reducing carbon footprint or minimal cost? Grid Tied is the way to go. Get a secure power option and maybe some usb power packs for a limited backup to charge phones and lighting.

Backup for power outages but not off grid? Grid interactive. Or grid Tied with secure power backup and a generator if finances are limited.

Complete independence from the power company? Off Grid

Doing the research and installing solar yourself can save you a ton of money but does take extensive research and time. Look up diy companies like Wholesale Solar who can give you basic diy info and can help support you through the installation if you order from them.

I bought my solar panels from someone on Craigslist and tested each before purchasing. Doing this saved me quite a bit of money but does come with risks of its own (probably does not include a warranty from the solar manufacturers). I got my panels for around $0.30 a watt which was around a third of retail price at the time.

More grid tied inverters are adding backup options while the sun is shining. Some SunnyBoy, Solar Edge, and soon Enphase IQ8 inverters will have these capabilities even without expensive batteries. But do your research and find what works for you.

Solar is getting more affordable every year. Get quotes from multiple sources and do the math to see if it makes sense for you.

How Our Electric Bill is ~$30 a Month Without Solar Panels

Our electric bill ranges from around $20-40 throughout the year without solar panels. The average family uses about 30 KWh a day. We use 7-8 KWh. That means we use about one fourth the electricity as most of the nation. Many have asked us how we do it. Here are some ways you can decrease your electric bill as well.

Anyone thinking about getting solar panels would be wise to limit their electrical usage as much as possible before buying a solar panel system. It is much cheaper to buy energy efficient appliances and lights, for example, than more solar panels and a higher powered inverter.

The first thing going for us is our power company here in the Pacific Northwest. Though the price of electricity is about the national average – $0.11 a KWh, this is much cheaper than places such as Southern California or Hawaii where electricity is much more expensive. Part of this is the Pacific NW has a lot more access to hydropower than some parts of the country.

But we still use about a quarter of the electricity as the average American without compromising on most modern conveniences. Here is how we do that:

Heating/Cooling

The first and biggest money saver is that we heat our house with a wood stove. This can save in the hundreds of dollars per month. Since we have plenty of dead trees that we cut and split, and we get exercise from splitting by hand, I do not even count this as a downside (though it does take work, it can be enjoyable). Heating and cooling your house are the biggest loads of electricity.

What about AC? Where we live, it only gets hot around two months of the year. In these months, we open our windows in the evening or night and close them before it gets too warm outside in the mornings. We also will run our ceiling fan to circulate air. For the majority of the summer months, we do not miss AC. Only a few days has it truly gotten hot enough to wish we had more cooling.

Water Heater

A few months after we moved in, our water heater leaked all over. As the tank finally leaked (after 20 or so years from when the house was built), we had to purchase a new one. We discovered a few alternatives to an electrical element water heater. Depending upon your utility costs in your area, propane or natural gas might be cheaper than using an electric water heater, so look into that as well. They also make tankless water heaters (which use a ton of electricity on demand but do not heat unless needed). This may require rewiring and multiple units, so this was not the right decision for us. Passive solar water heating is a spendy but great alternative in many parts of the country.

Right as I was about to purchase a regular electric water heater, I came across a recent alternative: the hybrid electric water heater. At the time, it had rebates and tax credits which ended up completely covering the cost of the water heater. It also only uses around $120 (national average cost) worth of electricity compared to the previous $500. This $380 savings a year in itself is worth the additional cost even without rebates or tax credits (MSRP of $1399). As soon as we switched, we noticed our electric bill drop from around $50-60 to $30-40.

Setting the water heater to the lowest temperature that works for your household can save a lot as well. We set ours to heat pump only mode at 120F degrees.

Appliances

When we first bought our house, we bought all new appliances. From a financial point of view, this is not the best decision depending upon what you have, but we had planned on it and saved up for them beforehand. Try to pick out energystar appliances when you replace them. We got an energy star washer, dryer, and dishwasher. If your refrigerator is more than a decade or two old, you may save enough electricity on an energy star fridge to make it worth buying a new one. Look at the average usage per year and do the math.

A chest freezer can often be more efficient than a standup freezer, so do the math and bring that into your decision as well. Storing it in a basement rather than in a climate controlled part of your house can keep usage down as the compressor does not have to run as often to keep your food cold. Set your temperatures to the highest that is safe to eat (research this).

40 watt equivalent LED Edison bulbs in our pendant lights

Lights

We barely use our lightbulbs in our house. This is because we have so many windows. We only turn any on after dark until we go to bed (~2-5 hours depending upon the year). And the lights we use, I have switched all over to LED. LED bulbs use a fraction of the electricity of incandescent bulbs without any of the disadvantages of fluorescent. They also tend to have a longer lifespan up to 25 years instead of only a few years. Since our house is very open concept, one 60 watt equivalent LED bulb lights up most of our house. This is enough light to even read under. In winter months, the wood stove also lights the place a bit with a cozy atmosphere. We replaced our fluorescent shop lights in our kitchen with recessed LED lights that are way brighter with a much friendlier light. As LED bulbs have dropped in price in recent years, this is one of the cheapest investments you can make in dropping your electrical usage.

Further Ideas for Saving Electricity

We still use all the regular kitchen appliances such as an electric mixer/oat roller, flour mill, espresso maker, blender, toaster, etc. But we never run these very long. We do not leave our desktop computer on so only our internet router/modem are on all the time. Some people even turn these off with a timer during the middle of the night if you have phone service otherwise for emergency contact. During winter months, you can cook on top of your wood stove instead of an electric cooktop. There are also solar ovens you can purchase for cooking in the summer months without heating your place up. Using gravity fed water keeps a pump from having to be used much if any. A root cellar can help preserve many types of produce taking advantage of the earth’s stable temperature. A sunken greenhouse uses a similar concept to help grow plants year round without heating. A clothesline is a passive solar clothes dryer without a lot of work. Take it as a challenge to see how low you can get it while still being worthwhile and enjoy the savings to your wallet a year.

Once your electrical usage is down, look into the cost of solar, wind, or hydro for your area and see if the prices have gone down enough to a worthwhile investment. It is just about there for us.