As Washington State pushes for 100 percent clean energy by 2045, homeowners can contribute to that goal – and put some money back in their own pockets – by having solar panels installed on their homes.

With only 17,000 homes (less than 1%) in Washington featuring solar panels, residential solar is a relatively untapped source of clean, renewable power that could greatly reduce the region’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Beyond Washington, here’s a listing of the achievements of individual states and the extent to which they are boosting solar power use in the US. President Trump taxed the solar industry with 30 percent import tariffs (implemented in 2017, scheduled to drop to 15 percent by 2021), while subsidizing coal. Still, renewable energy has become efficient enough to remain the fastest growing source of new energy production in the US. And the markets that are growing most quickly are the “emerging ones” (outside the top ten early-adopting states). Find out if your state is competitive with others, and “keep up with the Joneses”!

Free Consultations, Strong Warranties in Washington

I spoke with professionals at two local solar companies to get a sense of what to expect during the buying process, the benefits of going solar and common misconceptions surrounding the industry.  Stu Frothingham, Communications Director at Puget Sound Solar, said everyone’s path is a little different based on what they are looking to get out of home solar panels.

“We like to get a gauge of the project early on,” Frothingham said. “What are they looking for? Are they trying to be totally off the grid, just trying to green up their lives, save some money? We try to match up with what they are doing.”

Most companies, including Puget Sound Solar, offer free consultations that include inspecting the home via satellite imagery (to see if it is a suitable location for solar) and asking to see an electric bill. Frothingham said the process should be collaborative and customers that are more involved tend to be more satisfied with their systems.

“We aren’t commissioned – we present what works best for the customer,” Frothingham said. “We’ve been around since 2001 and we are in this for the long term. It doesn’t benefit us to jam a system in that doesn’t fit and run away.”

Puget Sound Solar offers a 25-year warranty on their workmanship (on top of a 25-year manufacturer’s warranty on the panels), but it is common to see 10-, 15- and 20-year warranties as well. Frothingham recommended getting two or three quotations from companies on the Solar Installers of Washington list. Be aware of roving installation outfits that quickly move into areas offering tax credits, do poor-quality work, and move on as soon as the incentive is gone. While these mercenary companies tarnish the solar industry’s reputation, companies in the Solar Installers of Washington group hold each other to high standards and often collaborate on the legislative side of the industry.

“I think there is a lot more collaboration in this industry, because we tend to have the same goal of saving the planet,” Frothingham said. “There’s a lot of friendships that bleed across companies. There’s competition, but its friendly in general.”

Frothingham also said the second half of 2019 will be the best time to buy solar panels in the foreseeable future because the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which is currently at 30%, is scheduled to diminish to 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021 and eventually may disappear for homeowners. Further, net metering (the system that allows Washington solar users to receive credit for excess energy collected during the summer) was recently extended through 2029. And, for the cherry on top, beginning on July 1st systems below 100KW will be exempt from sales tax.

The benefits of home solar panels

The benefits received from home solar systems vary based on the expectations and desires of the homeowner. Turner Pittkin, a residential solar design consultant at A&R Solar, said the most interesting part of his job is hearing the different goals people have for their systems. The most common goals people have are reducing their carbon footprint, saving money through tax credits and offsetting their energy bill.  Residential solar can do all these things, but it’s important to understand that the average return on investment is between 10 and 15 years.

Pittkin said in the last five or six years the cost of solar has come down significantly, and with low interest financing the average homeowner in Washington can afford a system that can completely offset energy bills. Using net metering, solar owners can bank surplus energy collected during the summer months and receive credit to put toward energy bills during less sunny months.

“It’s not hard to offset 100 percent of the usage by building up credits in the summer,” Pittkin said. “Solar still produces power even on cloudy days, but more importantly, we get to take advantage of all the power you use on the long summer days.”

According to Pittkin, home solar owners replaced their energy bill with the cost of the system (most easily during summer days). Then, after the system is paid off, it continues to zero-out energy costs, and can more than pay for itself.

“Washington currently has some of the lowest utility rates in the country, but they are going up because the state is going all renewable by 2040,” Pittkin said. “We expect them to go up faster in the near future, and one of the best ways to stabilize that cost is by putting solar on your home.”

There are also environmental and cultural benefits to going solar, the most prominent of which is greatly reducing your carbon footprint, while signaling the energy industry that you prefer clean, renewable energy. In addition, Pittkin said there are tech-minded customers that like having the latest technology, and other customers that like the sleek, modern look of solar panels.

There are also societal benefits to be gained from doing business with companies like Puget Sound Solar and A&R Solar. Frothingham said Puget Sound Solar’s workforce is gender and culturally diverse all the way up to its ownership, and the company focuses heavily on community outreach. Meanwhile, A&R Solar was founded 13 years ago by two solar professionals with the intention of improving the industries practices.

“A&R is employee-owned and because of that our team sticks around longer, is better experienced and better compensated, and that defines the culture of our company along the way,” Pittkin said. “The commitment to overall quality and service is absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s across the board.”

Debunking common misconceptions

  • The most common misconception local solar companies face is that the Pacific Northwest doesn’t receive enough sun for solar to work.
    • Thanks to long, sunny summer days and net metering, solar works just fine in Western Washington! In fact, the climate and latitude of the world’s solar leader, Germany, is comparable to Washington’s. As mentioned above, solar panels still produce on cloudy days, just at a lower rate than on sunny ones.
  • Solar will provide back up energy during power outages.
  • The energy it takes to produce a solar panel is greater than the amount it produces.

Not even close! According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, solar panels pay back the energy used to produce them in one to four years. With an average lifespan of 25-30 years, the panel’s output far exceeds the energy used to produce and install it, and its components can typically be recycled afterward.

A Listing of Top Solar Brands

A listing of top solar panel brands (commercially produced and not by Emeraldology.com) has a breakdown based on the most efficient, best value, most common, and most popular do it yourself brands. On “do it yourself” projects: Most home users may wish to buy through a local company with a reputation for quality. This helps to ensure systems work most efficiently with the layout of the roof, the surrounding trees, and also with the utility grid; even a do it yourself project will require certifications, including possible zoning approval, approval from a licensed electrician, and (for those selling back to the grid) acceptance of a dual direction meter and metering by the local utility company.