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All About Solar Panels

The solar energy market is exploding. Between government incentives in the U.S. and Canada, lease-to-own options and a price-break in the cost of solar panels, the market has seen tremendous growth over the last five years. If you’ve been considering retrofitting your home with rooftop panels, there’s never been a better time.

Affordable Options

“Panels have gotten a lot cheaper here, and financing has allowed people to simply lease panels,” says Verengo Solar public relations director David Thoreau. Verengo Solar is the largest solar provider for residential properties in the U.S. and, according to Thoreau, business couldn’t be better. The company has seen a 30-40% per year increase in the last three years.

With offers that begin at zero money down, Thoreau says virtually anyone can afford to outfit their home, though he does recommend purchasing a system outright, if at all possible. With incentives, most homeowners can pay the entire system off within four to five years. After that, payments for energy produced flow directly back to the consumer.

Solar-generated power still only constitutes around 2% of the total electricity consumed by U.S. homeowners, but Thorough believes it’s a step in the right direction. “Solar cuts down the need for oil and reduces our dependence on fossil fuels like coal,” he says. “That can only be a good thing.” In the U.S., a number of states are aggressively pushing solar energy – especially places like Connecticut and New York.

Cory Honeyman is a solar analyst at GTM Research, a division of Greentech Media responsible for tracking U.S. market reports in green industries. He agrees that the solar residential segment is experiencing unprecedented growth.

“In 2012, the U.S. had approximately 83,517 homes convert to solar power,” explains Honeyman, “but that number jumped to 131,232 homes in 2013. It’s what we’ve termed the ‘landmark boom’.”

Aggressive marketing (solar companies have creatively partnered with everyone from Best Buy to BMW), state incentives and securitization (solar energies becoming part of the stock market), have fueled the boom in solar panel purchases. Honeyman says the trend is still emerging for 2014, but statistics show that the number of U.S. installations, thus far, has almost surpassed the 2013 record.

Making dollars & sense

Canadians are also switching to solar power in droves, thanks to programs like Ontario’s microFIT, part of the provincial government’s Green Energy Act. Any homeowner can participate in this program, which allows you to receive monthly cheques from your hydro provider for the electricity generated through your solar panels. However, it’s the rates people receive for the solar energy they put onto the grid that are the real attraction – they’re four to five times higher than the rates consumers normally pay for electricity.

To put this into perspective, the Ontario Power Authority says a typical 3 kW solar rooftop system can produce 3,400 kilowatt hours of energy each year – at the current microFIT payment rate of 54.9 cents per kilowatt hour, that’s an annual earning of about $1800 for the homeowner. Enough to quickly and significantly offset the initial start-up costs.

Mark Ogilvie, co-owner of Toronto’s Down To Earth Solar Power, says that even though the start-up costs can be a challenge, it’s best to own your system. “The price of panels is half of what it used to be just two or three years ago,” says Ogilvie, who admits that the current cost of about $20,000 for a complete solar set-up is significant. That price covers approximately 20 panels, a connection feed to the hydro grid and an expert electrician to set up the entire installation.

Clear skies above

It’s also worth noting that not every house is suitable for solar panels. “You’d be amazed at the number of sunless homes we visit,” laughs Ogilvie, “We arrive at the rooftop only to discover that there are trees blocking the rooftop’s access to sunlight.”

Ogilvie says south-facing roofs are best – especially in northern towns and cities. “If your roof faces north, I wouldn’t even bother with solar panels,” he says. “Before you call, make sure you aren’t under a canopy of thatched trees or that you don’t have a huge apartment building in front of your rooftop blocking out the sunlight.”

Toronto author and musician Chris Eaton is a fan of his solar-panelled roof. “We were brainstorming for how to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Eaton, “and solar was just a perfect fit for us.” A father of two young children, Eaton says he wanted to set an example to friends and family who thought solar power was beyond reach. “All of our friends ask about it, of course,” he says, “but I’m not sure how many of them have actually converted. Still, it’s a way to start the conversation and get people thinking about how they use energy.”

Whether your goal is to save money or to produce green energy, a solar-powered home benefits everyone and anyone connected to the grid. It makes you a self-sufficient ‘powerhouse’ and a community donor all in one. That’s what you call a win-win.

Solar Solutions: A snapshot of North American solar energy incentives

Ontario: The Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program pays out 44 - 80 cents per kilowatt hour for grid-tied solar power. The contract lasts for 20 years for projects that are under 10 megawatts (40 panels). The Ontario government has also created the Ontario Home Energy Savings Program to help offset start-up costs.

Washington: Performance based incentives pay $0.12/kWh - $1.08/kWh, depending on the project type, to a maximum of $5000 per year.

Pennsylvania: One of many programs in this state, the High Performance Building Incentives program offers loans and grants to new buildings meeting minimum standards. Grants are available for up to a maximum of 10% of eligible project costs not exceeding $500,000.