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Solar sales light up in Charlotte as prices fall

By Allen Norwood

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  • Learn more

    • N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University: ncsc.ncsu.edu

    • U.S. Department of Energy’s database for state tax incentives: www.dsireusa.org

    • Accelerate Solar: www.accelerate-solar.com



Special to the Observer

Michael and Sandra Wade had enjoyed lower utility bills thanks to a solar water heater on the roof of a home in Fort Mill. So, when they moved to Charlotte a year and a half ago, they investigated solar options for the new place.

In June, workers placed solar electric generating panels on their roof in Beverly Woods East.

“My wife and I are both green-minded,” Michael Wade said. “And the price is about half of what it was five years ago.”

Falling prices – along with the risk that solar tax incentives will disappear – mean this is perhaps the most opportune time ever for homeowners to install solar panels.

Solar sparks

Sales of solar systems have increased steadily as prices have continued to fall, said Chris Verner of Accelerate Solar, the Charlotte company that installed the Wades’ panels.

“It has greatly increased since two years ago, especially residential,” Verner said. One reason: People have become more aware of the benefits of solar power and success stories.

Part of the decline in price is due to attractive Chinese pricing, experts say, part to production efficiencies and excess plant capacity.

Prices might dip in the years ahead, Verner said, but not as fast. “If you’re waiting for it to be cut in half again ... it’s 10 years down the road.”

Meanwhile, the price you pay for electricity from the power company is going up – and tax incentives might not be there if you wait.

Costs in watts

The price of photovoltaic panels – or PV panels – is often expressed as cost per watt. Right now, the cost is about $5 per watt, Verner said, or even lower in some commercial installations.

So, a home rooftop solar system generating 6kW, or 6,000 watts, would cost about $30,000. But that’s before the tax incentives.

His customers typically end up paying about 35 percent of sticker price, Verner said.

It’s $30,000 out of pocket. The homeowner is eligible for a state tax incentive of up to $10,500, depending on his tax situation, and federal incentive of up to $9,000. “Some people can get it the first year, and some have to wait longer (and get the breaks over time).”

Verner said most customers calculate that the tax incentives and lower energy costs will pay for the systems in five to seven years.

Michael Wade said his family’s new 7.35 kW system cut their power bill by at least $100 during the first month – even though July was cloudier than usual. He estimates that it will pay for itself in five years.

Wade is pleased with the installation and the technology. Accelerate Solar handled the required permitting and tax-related paperwork.

Some companies don’t help with those related issues, Wade discovered as he did research on solar systems. “That was important,” he said.

How it works

Solar panels use inverters to convert direct current (DC) to the alternating current (AC) provided by the power company.

Some systems use what’s called a string inverter, or a single inverter for the full array of panels.

Increasingly, though, residential installations such as the Wades’ use microinverters, or small inverters attached to each panel. That has helped reduce costs, too. “Everything is preattached,” Verner said. “All we have to do is put the rails up and mount the panels.”

The systems use what’s called “net” metering. Your home uses the power you generate, then turns to the power grid for the rest. When your panels are producing more than you’re using, the excess goes to the grid. At night, when your panels aren’t generating and you use power from the utility company, you get credit for that excess.

“The grid becomes your battery,” Verner said.

Panels work best when facing south, and when the pitch is close to 30 degrees. The direction is more important than the pitch, Verner said. “The closer you are to south, the better.”

Your utility savings will not be the same every month.

The solar equipment is more efficient in the spring and fall, when there’s lots of sun and temperatures are moderate. Panels aren’t as efficient in the middle of summer, even though there’s lots of sun, because it’s too hot. Of course, there’s less daily sun in the shorter days of winter.

In the past, homeowner associations have objected to solar panels, primarily because of the appearance. The law now says that an association can’t block them when they’re placed on a rear slope of the home’s roof, Verner said. “There hasn’t been a situation where we couldn’t do it because of an HOA.”

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