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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Something To Consider Before Buying In To Rooftop Solar

Something To Consider Before Buying In To Rooftop Solar

Green energy has moved to the forefront of the national conversation on energy production even as oil prices sit near decade lows. The simple fact that solar power and wind power now command so much attention speaks to how the country’s views on energy have changed. But now some people are going one step further and actually looking to install enough solar panels on their homes to become energy positive – that is to generate more energy than they actually consume. Britain’s Guardian newspaper ran a recent story about this , but that story skipped over a few obvious issues. Issues that became clear to me after I recently talked to a solar company about making my home energy producing.

Producing more energy than a house consumes is very easy for some homes and essentially impossible for others. Most obviously, people in climates without a lot of sunlight will have a much more difficult time producing energy than people in sunnier climates. Even forgetting about that fact, the direction a house is facing, trees in the area, and angle of the roofline all dramatically impact the level of solar production that can be expected from a house. Related: Saudi Price War Strategy May Blow Up In Their Face

Energy producing homes rely on creating large amounts of solar energy, while consuming relatively little energy. The consumption side of that equation is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial – having thick insulation and energy saving light bulbs are not generally a major inconvenience for most people. Unfortunately, producing solar energy requires a trade-off. For example, an individual could always produce more solar power by filling not only their roof with solar panels, but also their front yard, yet very few people want to give up their lawn for solar arrays. Related: Do Biofuels Still Have A Place In The Global Energy Mix?

In my personal experience, I talked to a major national solar company about putting solar panels on the roof of my house after getting a letter telling me I was a prime candidate for energy production. The standard offer from solar companies today is as follows: the company agrees to install solar panels at no cost to the homeowner. In exchange, the homeowner agrees to buy energy from the solar company for a long period of time – frequently twenty years. This energy bought from the company is actually produced on the owners own roof, and the homeowner gets the energy at a discounted rate. In my case, my utility company was charging $0.25 per kwh (peak) for electricity, while the solar company would charge me $0.13 per kwh. This equates to savings of about $1,000 a year based on the kwh usage of the average US household. Related: These Major Players Could Make Or Break The EV Market

In my case, the direction of my house, and the angle of the roof meant that I would actually be able to generate about $50 a month in excess energy which I could automatically sell back to my local electricity company. There was a catch though – of my $0.25 rate for electricity, $0.11 are “distribution” costs while $0.14 are generation costs. Hence, I was not going to be able to earn the same amount that I had to pay for electricity. Solar companies are able to sell solar power at low rates and fund the solar panels at no cost to the consumer because of the increased popularity of solar bonds which gives the solar company a low cost financing source.

In my personal case, while I could have had an energy producing home, doing so would have required putting solar panels on the front of the roof marring the attractiveness of the property. It also would have meant that anyone who wanted to buy the house from me in the future would have had to sign on to buy energy from the solar company as well. In light of these intangible costs, I ultimately chose not to install solar panels. This perhaps highlights the limitations of energy producing houses – they require a life-long commitment to a very special kind of lifestyle by either the present homeowner or future occupants of the house. In light of that, I’m skeptical about energy producing houses becoming a widespread phenomenon.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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  • David Hrivnak on April 20 2015 said:
    Just because you are reluctant does not mean others are. Over 400,000 Americans have added solar to their roof growing at better than 50% a year. With rooftop solar I am making 85% of the power I need for the house and two cars. All of this emission free.

    For me solar is a far better investment than CD's or bonds and far safer than stocks. It is a great way to reduce expenses for retirement.

    Imagine powering your house AND 3 tanks of "fuel" for your car for about $15/month.
  • Ken eglinton on April 20 2015 said:
    Michael have you looked into ownership of a solar system? With the 30% tax credit, ownership works for most homeowners-I am a little disapointed that you didnt explain the differences between ownership and a solar lease
    Also if you were to produce $50 more electricity than you use, the system is way to big-It sounds like you had an inexperienced solar consultation
    The goal is to design a system that covers all of your on peak usage while buying the offpeak from your utility at a low rate
    You would pay for the system in 7-10 years with money you are already spending with your utility company
    Please do a little more research on matters that you obviously have little or no understanding on-It is rookie journalists like you who give solar a bad name
  • Christof on April 20 2015 said:
    Nice: You take one experience w/solar, and not a very open minded one at that, and then generalize it to the rest of the world. Not very convincing, not very convincing at all. BTW, I love the way solar panels look on my house: They mean energy independence for me, including from oil, thanks to my solar-EV charging synergy.
  • Jesse on April 21 2015 said:
    Hi Michael,

    Let me join the discussion from The Netherlands; a (often cloudy) country with a fast growing number of private solar system owners. Only few of us have the kind of lease-contracts you looked into. It's far more attractive to invest in your own solar panels. It pays back in 6 or 7 years; also thanks to a milder tax on sutainable energy. But even without that, current systems would pay back in 8 years at the most - even in our part of the world with low sun in winter - if any at all. It also improves the value of your house, by the way..
  • Roger on April 21 2015 said:
    Hmm, pretty slanted view here. Some people may think solar panels mar the look of the house--others love to see the investment in clean energy and future technology. Also, as others have pointed out--there are all kinds of payment options, not just the one you've highlighted. Not an especially well researched article, and one that reads as being baised towards non-renewable energy for some reason.
  • John L on April 21 2015 said:
    Agreed on the solar lease model. It's a bad deal. Better to borrow the money from a bank. The loan payback amount will be equivalent to the monthly savings from the solar panels. Solar leasing has caused a lot of unnecessary grief to a lot of people. Sad.

    As for aesthetic decisions, that's a personal choice. And if you're wealthy, saving a few thousand a year on utility costs probably won't matter to you. But for most people, that's real money. At that point, solar panels start looking real pretty, aesthetically and otherwise.

    As for your assertion that solar energy "requires a life-long commitment to a very special kind of lifestyle" .... I really haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about. Once the panels are installed, they do their work without any homeowner maintenance or fuss. Solar is easy-peasy, and in my experience (4 years with a 12kw rooftoop system) there was no change to our "lifestyle." Really, have no clue what you're talking about, or how you reached such an odd conclusion.
  • Ray Boggs on April 21 2015 said:
    Are you kidding ?

    In Southern California it is now possible to get a $0 down loan and get a rate of only 7.8 cents per kilowatt hour. And that price is for an owned system and is NOT available from any solar leasing company.
  • Howard on April 28 2015 said:
    I am paying around $250.00 per month for Hydro in Ontario, what type of monthly return would I get if I put about 800 square feet of solar panels on my roof.

    Sick and tired of paying hydro bills
  • Bob on April 29 2015 said:
    I installed 26 panels on my house outside Boston and produce more than I use, selling the rest back at the wholesale rate (~1/2 the retail rate). With incentives, I will earn my money back in

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