Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are You Ready To Go Solar At Home?

Solar panels have never been cheaper. How to tell if your house is a good fit.
You recycle, you buy organic, and you drive a hybrid car. What's next if you've got greenbacks burning a hole in your pocket and you want to spend them on something green?

Get your house some solar panels. Soon you will smile with glee as you slash the amount of money you fork over to the electric company every month, while reveling in the satisfaction that your home is producing its own zero-emissions power.

Solar panel prices have plunged by half in the past year as manufacturers have opened new plants, ending a multi-year shortage of silicon for photovoltaic chips. That glut will be bad for manufacturers' profit margins, but good for you. For SGD 20,937 (USD15, 000) installed, a 3.5 kilowatt system could generate 5,000 kwh of electricity a year, about a third of most homes' needs.

And if your time horizon is long enough, your homemade solar power won't cost any more than what you pay the power company. Currently the US federal government gives a 30% investment tax credit, and assuming that one can finance a solar system at the going mortgage rate of around 5%, over 20 years his/her solar power will cost between 10 cents and 13 cents per kwh.

Costs will be even lower if you can finance the system yourself with cash you have sitting around collecting 0.1% interest in a money market fund. John Berger, chief executive of Houston-based solar installer Standard Renewable Energy, maintains that because many additional state and local green energy incentives will run out of money or expire by the end of next year, there's never been a better time to install a solar system.

You've heard of smart meters? When your solar system is installed you get a genius meter that shows how much power your solar panels are generating, how much power your house is drawing from the electric utility and (if you're really power-frugal) how much power you're sending back to the grid. Lazy summer day? Grab a beer and watch the metering levels flip around as clouds wander over your neighborhood and block the sun for a few minutes.

Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for the high-tech early-adopter nerd in your life who has everything? Solar panels are better on the environment than a new high-def TV, less annoying than a robotic dog and probably about as much fun to drive as an all-electric car (kidding). There are some caveats: Panels don't work if you have a big tree blocking the sun. And in some of your more uptight (i.e., "nicer") neighborhoods, the local spy agency (i.e., homeowners association) won't let you install them.

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