Many alternative energy enthusiasts believe that this may be the perfect time to invest in photovoltaic solar panels to reduce or eliminate your electrical bill. We talked to Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy in Portland, Me., about the benefits of solar, and how to find a reliable contractor.

Right now prices for solar electric systems are at all-time historic lows because the cost of photovoltaic panels has dropped by 75% over the past five years. “The technology for photovoltaic solar panels is mature, well understood, robust and reliable,” Coupe said. He noted that solar panels are being used in the most extreme conditions known to man on the International Space Station, where reliability is essential for survival. “There is no maintenance required because there are zero moving parts anywhere in the entire solar electric system” he added.

Why Solar Panels? Return on Investment
Modern solar arrays deliver both a strong economic and environmental return on investment. One important reason to harvest clean, renewable solar energy to power electric appliances in a home is the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. A single one-kilowatt installation (about 4 solar panels) can eliminate about 1,225 pounds of CO2 emissions each year from regional fossil fuel power plants.

Another important factor is the cost of electricity. In Maine, one kilowatt-hour (kWh) costs the average homeowner about 14.3 cents. Amortized over the standard 25-year warranty life of the panels, the cost for electricity generated by a solar array average 6 cents per kilowatt hour. Additionally, the cost of solar is reduced by a Federally funded tax benefit of 30% of the total cost. If you can reduce the dependence on fossil fuels that feature ever increasing prices (fuel oil, propane, or natural gas) by supplementing or switching over to an electrically powered heating system, then a solar panel system is a winner over the long term.

Grid-Tied Calculations
A solar panel installation can be installed to convert energy and transmit it back to the utility for a credit to the homeowner. Setting solar panel installations up in this manner is referred to as “grid-tied.” When sizing a grid-tied panel array, the technician will assess the monthly electric bill, and configure the system to provide enough electricity to offset nearly all of that bill.  The offset is kept just under present or anticipated demand to keep power credit amounts within actual usage amounts. “The reason for keeping the output just below demand is the power company will hold a credit and apply it toward the homeowners’ bill, but any additional credit is not refunded,” Coupe said. Typically the electric utility will charge a small fee (in Maine $50) to install the second meter to track solar input into its system.

For a new log home, your electrician can calculate the load of appliances and lighting planned for the new home. If you’re adding a big electrical drawing item, like a swimming pool, hot tub or home theatre, you’ll want to be sure to include them in the calculations. You’ll also want to include your Katahdin Cedar Log Homes dealer and the design department in the discussion, as they may be able to determine the best possible orientation for your home, the best roof pitch and include chases for the wiring required for the panels and inverter. (Chases can be added for solar equipment at no extra charge.) It’s also not a bad idea to walk the building site with the technician to see what physical factors on the site may play into the solar panel location.

Finding a Solar Provider
Like many consumers checking out local solar providers can be done via an online search, asking friends and neighbors, or references from contractors or HVAC professionals. Some things to note while researching:

  • How quickly does the company respond to an inquiry?
  • How many years and installations has the company completed?
  • Are they certified by an accrediting organization? The gold standard for the solar industry, says Coupe, is the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). A company may have one certified professional on staff, or many, depending on the size and experience. To locate a NABCEP certified installer, check out the organization’s locator feature.
  • Are the installers on staff or are they less experienced sub-contractors hired on a per-job basis?
  • If you’re looking to add a solar array to an existing home, does the technician bring a ladder and inspect the roof? Does he assess the pitch, southerly orientation and review potential obstructions from neighboring buildings, trees, or land mass?
  • Does his review include the existing main load electrical panel? Does he ask about any other electrical additions such as an existing inverter for a gas or propane fueled generator?

Panel Placement
The technician or engineer will need to review either the existing home or the plans for new construction to calculate the appropriate number of panels. The least expensive and most solid area to install panels is on a pitched roof, but free standing and geosynchronous arrays can also be designed to fit the land and circumstances. The ideal pitch for solar falls within the 20-40 degree range; generally the best overall performance is a pitch close to the latitude angle (in Portland, Maine, it’s 44 degrees.) For orientation, the ideal range is 150 degrees to 245 degrees magnetic compass heading. Thus a home can be oriented to maximize land and views, as well as optimal solar angles.

If the panels are mounted on the ground, additional planning must be included:  trenching and conduit for the wiring back to the house and a foundation or concrete pad onto which the panels will be installed. You may need to add an extra day or two to allow for concrete drying and additional contractor work. If you’re sure of the solar array location when the foundation and other infrastructure is being completed, it’s not a bad idea to include trenching and concrete forms for these solar panel pads.

For geosynchronous land-based solar arrays, remember that the moving parts (a motor with sensors that moves the panels to follow the sun’s path, both the daily side-to-side and seasonal up-and-down) may require maintenance and repair. However, these moving solar panels maximize the collection of the sun power throughout the day, so if you’re looking to power a high load home, a moving array may be the answer.

Once the system basics are agreed to, the solar representative will draw up a contract with a deposit amount to initiate the process. There may be a separate form provided by the solar representative to send to the utility requesting installation of a second meter to track the electricity being added into the grid. Make sure that the contract includes the panels, framing, wiring, inverter and installation fees. There should be an indication of construction timing once the contract is signed and how long it may take to reach the head of the queue.  In pricing, remember that with historically low prices for photovoltaic panels, the bulk of the cost will depend on labor and installation costs. Some contracts offer a wireless monitoring option that allows you to see the output and note any malfunctions.

Rebates and Tax Credits
Your solar company should also be able to include any rebates or tax incentives available in your area for alternative energy projects. The federal 30% tax credit is a generous one, and depending on the state and your utility provider, the total bill can be whittled down further.

Make sure you ask a lot of questions of your solar contractor, including facts about output, reductions in carbon footprint, and rate of return. Concerns about snow removal, maintenance and weatherproofing can be addressed as well.