Going Solar: Tips for Your Home

By Jon Fisher, The Nature Conservancy

We all want to decrease our energy use, both for the sake of our wallets and the benefit of the planet. But is putting solar panels on our home rooftops the best way to do that?

Residential solar systems (especially photovoltaic or “PV” systems) are substantially less efficient than their commercial counterparts. One estimate (admittedly controversial) from UC Berkeley professor Severin Borenstein says that residential PV systems cost roughly twice as much as their commercial counterparts (40 cents/kWh vs 20 cents/kWh)1.

Commercial systems have many advantages over residential: they are typically developed in locations with lots of sun, they can take advantage of innovative technologies that don’t work at small scales, they can utilize larger storage cells, and many other reasons.

Which brings us back to the question of why so many people love the idea of putting solar panels on their roofs. In talking to friends and co-workers who have solar panels, there seem to be two common reasons: the appeal of being energy independent and an “every little bit counts” desire to do their part to help. Installing solar panels on your own home is a more readily achievable goal than successfully lobbying to change the way we subsidize different kinds of power plants.

The good news is that there’s an often overlooked form of residential solar power that is almost always far more efficient than photovoltaics. Solar Water Heating Systems (SWHS) are typically much cheaper than PV systems, and focus on using heat from the sun to produce hot water (which is much simpler than converting sunlight to electricity).

While PV systems may take decades to pay for themselves (although this varies considerably state by state due to considerable variation in both subsidies and how much sun is available), solar water heaters can pay for themselves much more quickly. There is an excellent article on payback times in Home Power magazine (note that it doesn’t include subsidies, which vary substantially by state and city).

When subsidies are included, I found out that for my condo in Arlington, VA, a SWHS would pay for itself in 2-4 years as opposed to about 30 years for a PV system. Since SWHS are much more efficient than PV systems (in electrical energy equivalent per area), you could even install a solar water heater and still have room for some PV panels if you wanted them and the local conditions are favorable.

While I am excited about the evolving technology behind commercial solar power plants, using the sun to heat water in your home is a no-brainer if you can afford to pay for the initial cost while gas savings pay you back. As the cost of natural gas rises (and drilling puts more pressure on natural areas) this will likely become even more appealing.

Those still interested in residential PV systems may be interested in a cost calculator, and if you really want to understand the technology the Department of Energy has a very detailed handbook available which covers both PV and SWHS. Installing a PV system in your home is still a great idea if you’ve already taken care of easier green improvements (including a SWHS) and still want to do more, especially in states with lots of sun and good subsidies.

If you’re on the fence, an energy audit is an excellent way to find out what the easiest and most effective changes you can make around your home to ensure that you can put your conservation dollars to the most good.

1. Note that Dr. Borensteinís estimates are controversial; read one of his major analyses of solar’s costs and benefits, two critiques of his work (by Bill Powers and Tom Beach/Patrick McGuire), and his response to those critiques.

Jon Fisher is a data management specialist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s leading conservation organization. He has studied forestry, environmental biology, stream ecology, environmental engineering and how technology and spatial analysis can improve wildlife management at airports. He also loves to cook delicious vegan food. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

(Image: President Nasheed of the Maldives installs solar panels on his home in Male, Maldives. Source: 350.org via a Creative Commons license.)

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Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago


Eric L.
Eric L.3 years ago

I took it upon myself to design a solar heater for my home. It worked so well that I wrote the manual for how to build it. I can't wait for others to catch up and finally do something about saving energy and saving money. If anyone reading this post can use a source of heating whether it's for their home or their clothes dryer, you can order my manual for $4.95. It explains how to build a solar air heater that will help save oil, electricity, and money. The materials are low cost and the unit can potentially pay for itself within one winter depending upon your heating use. Yes, it can be run off grid with a pv panel. If anyone is interested in ordering the downloadable manual, you can read more on it at http://diy-solar-heater.com.

Alice D.
Alice C.3 years ago

Clinton to Solar Companies: "You Just Can't Be Deterred"

This afternoon at Solar Power International 2012, Former President Bill Clinton offered words of encouragement and admiration for solar companies in America and around the globe.

Addressing the crowd whom he acknowledged are “people who represent what I believe in,” the former president said that “creative cooperation” is the only way for industry to make big accomplishments at home and abroad. “There is not a single successful example on earth of a country that is succeeding who doesn’t have shared cooperation,” he said.

According to the Solar Electric Power Association’s Julia Hamm, who introduced Clinton, he had always wanted to speak at Solar Power International but his schedule and the show schedule were simply never aligned. This year, however, to the delight of show organizers SEPA and SEIA, he showed up in Orlando at precisely 4pm on Wednesday to address a packed auditorium.

In his speech, Mr. Clinton acknowledged that he was “preaching to the saved” but emphasized the dire need for the solar industry to set the record straight regarding the economic and environmental benefits that solar power and other renewables are already providing to various parts of the globe. He said that most Americans don’t know that Germany has netted 300,000 jobs in solar energy even accounting for the draw that the feed-in tariff has had on its economy. He said th

Jon Fisher
Jon Fisher3 years ago

Since I seem not to have expressed myself very well, I just wanted to try once more to clarify the intent behind this article. I am NOT in any way advocating that people shouldn't invest money in conservation. I am thrilled that people are willing to spend significant money to "green" their lives, and I wish more people had the same drive! However, many people I speak to are making decisions on HOW to spend those dollars without carefully considering how they can have the biggest impact. There is so much successful marketing around many green living products (solar panels, efficient windows, appliances) that it can be tough to find real data to guide your choices. That's one reason I recommend energy audits in the article; they are experts who can help you ensure that you can have the biggest impact possible with the money you spend.

Michael C.
Michael C.3 years ago

What I am witnessing is a lot of White Noise. Think excuses, "I would have voted but it might have rained." Just White Noise.

We installed SOLAR MODULES over 30 years ago, and I too, tried to find an excuse to not INVEST in renewables. Yes, it was expensive, our newest group cost $5.28 per watt and we have 3000 watts, nearly $16,000 USD, yet we had so little choice.

My advice, do your homework, use the term INVESTMENT, not cost.

Currently, Solar Modules are at their lowest cost in history, completed systems are also lower than ever before.

We have not had a electric bill for 30 years, you could have done the same, expect that all the White Noise got in the way.

Americans can never realize an Arab Spring, their just too lazy, besides if you want liberty, there is always the movies.

First Solar sells Modules for $1.00 per watt. Question...Who owns First Solar...WalMart.

Kimberly McMahen
Kimberly McMahen3 years ago

This costs less than a second car garage newly built

Chloe Moll
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you

Peter Mengos
Peter Mengos3 years ago


Tana D.3 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Solar isn't an option at the moment, but we'll definitely check into this.

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for the article.