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Why Solar is Not Free

Costs are associated with capturing the sun

May 2024

Installing a residential solar system doesn’t necessarily equate to zero energy bills. You will need to pay for equipment and installation, and continue to rely on your electric utility for electricity when your system is not producing power.

by Miranda Boutelle, Contributing Columnist

Q: I often hear claims you’ll never pay an electric bill again if you go solar. Is that true?

A: The ability to generate renewable energy at home is an amazing thing, and the concept of free energy from the sun is appealing, but the truth is that solar power isn’t free.

There are equipment and installation costs, and then you will likely still rely on your electric utility for power at night and when the skies are cloudy for days on end. Most electric utility rate structures include a set monthly service fee. Unless you plan to disconnect from local electric service completely, you will still have a monthly electric bill.

Before making a significant investment in solar energy, thoroughly research the costs and benefits, and improve your home’s energy efficiency.

If you are considering solar, I suggest taking these three steps:

First, make your home as energy-efficient as possible. It wouldn’t make sense to put a new motor on a boat with holes in it, so why would you put a solar system on an energy-wasting home? Invest in reducing wasted energy before investing in creating new energy. The efficiency updates I recommend before installing solar include insulating and air sealing your home and upgrading to efficient appliances — especially the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

Second, check with your electric utility about the requirements to install solar and how it will impact your bill. If you decide to install solar panels, working with your electric cooperative will be essential, as you will need to take important steps, such as signing an interconnection agreement to ensure the system is properly connected to the electric grid.

Third, get at least three quotes to compare each contractor’s recommended system design, equipment and cost. It’s often a significant investment, so you want to know your options.

Investing in solar is one way to support the transition to renewable energy, but before you leap, improve your home’s energy efficiency and empower yourself by thoroughly weighing the costs and benefits.

Miranda Boutelle writes on energy-efficiency topics for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.