The Cost of Going Solar (and Why We Haven’t…Yet)

You see them dotting the rooftops in almost every Las Vegas neighborhood; solar panels are a popular option to supplement your home’s electricity supply in the desert. With a husband that’s an electrician, and me an occupational therapist, I feel like we’re always discussing new ways to make our house more functional, efficient, or even innovative. Now thanks to a 20-something year drought, and Lake Mead water levels threatening our ability to make hydroelectric power at the Hoover Dam, it was really time to consider adding solar power to our own home. Here’s what we discovered with a quote from a popular solar company in the area

  1. Solar panels can greatly reduce your electric bill

With an average of 310 sunny days per year, residents of Las Vegas and surrounding communities can definitely count on the ability to create a lot of solar power for their homes. Our home faces the south and in less than 24 hours the solar company was easily able to use detailed satellite images of our roof to plan out the best placement for solar panels on the east and west sides of our roof. It was kind of creepy, our new home and neighborhood are barely on a lot of publicly-accessible maps, but this company got its hands on images that included even every single pipe or vent or whatever coming off of our roof! Initially the company proposed a system that would replace 100% of our electric bill (obviously…that would make them the most money) but once you ask nicely, they can create a quote for a system that would replace just 70% of your usage from the utility company. Essentially, you can save money on up front costs by reducing the number of panels but continuing to pay an electric bill to the utility company. Or you can go all out and buy an awesome solar system (maybe even finance it) and plan to basically have no more electric bill. Win!

Solar panel production and electricity consumption vary throughout the seasons, but a solar system could completely replace our average electric energy consumption during a year.

2. Pools and electric cars make a difference

Ok, so we don’t have a pool, but that pump on our hot tub definitely changes our power usage too. Our hot tub was installed in the winter and we saw a real spike in our electric bill once it started cycling and heating the water. Electric car charging can cause a considerable increase in electricity consumption too, so a solar company will probably ask about the possibility of both pools or electric vehicles at your property. The biggest demand for electricity in the desert is during the hot summer days when everyone in the valley wants to blast their air conditioning. Thankfully, we don’t charge my electric car nor does the hot tub run very much during these peak demand times. Both these things sort of ‘falsely’ raise our average electric consumption- we definitely use that energy, but we don’t really need our solar panels to power them during peak hot daylight hours.

3. You can produce extra energy and sell it back to the utility provider

This is by far the coolest part of the process. If your solar panels generate more electricity that you’re using, they can send that power back to the grid and your energy bill starts earning $$ for you. We haven’t installed a solar system, so I haven’t seen how it would truly work on our NV Energy bill, but boy is it tempting! Here’s where I feel like we’d really be cheating the system- my electric vehicle qualifies us for special electricity rates. If the typical Las Vegan pays 10 cents for a kilowatt hour (kWh) or electricity, my Nissan Leaf qualifies me for different rates based on seasons and peak demand times. I easily qualified for these rates by sharing some basic information and my car’s registration with my utility provider, and now I enjoy electric rates of 5 to 6 cents per kWh for a majority of the day. But watch out, during the peak summer a/c hours our rate spikes to 35 cents/kWh, so we’re definitely incentivized to conserve during those times. Now the math gets really fun, according to our solar salesperson. Our solar panels would be optimally placed on the west side of our roof to produce the maximum amount of electricity during the sunniest, hottest, most expensive times of day. We would barely have to pay the 35-cent rate while sending our excess solar electricity back to the utility provider and earning kilowatt hours of credit on our bill. During off-peak hours we would use our bill credits and/or pay the low rate of 5 cents per kWh. Another win!

4. Solar might not give you all the energy independence you want

We’ve been through blackouts in California years ago, all the way back in 2006. Everybody in the high desert would run their air conditioners and overwhelm the power grid. We’d frequently have to work by flashlight at the animal hospital I was interning at, and by the time I got home at the end of the day all the flashing clocks on my kitchen appliances were a sure sign my house had been without power too. I have no idea how my poor dog didn’t roast to death in his cage with the swamp cooler off for the afternoon. Though my pet and all the food in my fridge have historically survived power outages during the heat, it’s not a danger I’d like to continue to deal with. Our decades of drought in the southwest U.S. have led to quite low level of water in Lake Mead, so much that there are questions about whether the Hoover Dam can keep producing the amounts of electricity we all need. Cue my desire for solar panel quotes! Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that our solar panels might not save us from blackouts. You see, for safety reasons, the power company frequently sets it up so that no power can run from private homes and into the power grid while it’s down (that’d be super dangerous for anybody working on electric lines while they’re ‘off,’ right?). In turn, the system would totally shut down our solar panels and we wouldn’t get to enjoy our own solar electricity if the rest of the city is forced into rolling blackouts. The way around this is to buy a battery to store our solar power, but we’re just not ready to spend four-figures on one of those, in addition to the cost of the entire solar panel system.

5. There are some really nice tax incentives

There is currently a 26% IRS tax credit incentive for installing a solar system at your home. We’d still have to pay for or finance the entire cost of our solar panels and system up front, but then we’d get money back the next time we file our taxes. For our system that would be from $4400 to $5700 we could get back as a refund in the next tax season. Woot woot! That’s a lot of money to get back from the IRS just for buying solar panels.

And the final verdict is…

We’re not investing in solar, yet. Our quote came in at $17,000-22,000 and that’s just not a number we’d like to pay in cash, nor would we like to finance it and have yet another payment to make every month. After a number of years, the system would obviously pay for itself through savings on our electric bill, but we’re just not excited about waiting for that slow return on such a big investment right now. Last year Nevadans voted and made a change to our state’s constitution, requiring Nevada to get at least half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Hopefully this means our utility providers will continue to invest in renewable energy sources so I won’t have to buy and maintain a solar system on top of my own home? I look forward to our state prioritizing and using the cleanest energy possible so we can do our part to protect the Earth. I’m sure someday we’ll again consider getting our own solar panels, especially if the cost of batteries goes down, but next time we need to actually get price quotes from more than one company. Have you found solar panels to be practical in your home or city? I’d love to know!

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