Solar power is increasingly attractive to Californians. The price of energy purchased from local utilities continues to rise; interests rates for an investment in solar are favorable; state and federal incentives exist to make a solar investment more affordable; prices for many types of solar arrays have dropped by 30% since 2010; and many parts of the state are well-suited for harnessing solar energy.
However, knowing how to invest wisely in solar power can be difficult, because few of us outside the solar industry understand what is involved with buying, installing, and operating a solar power array. Finding a reliable company to guide you through to process and get your solar array installed can put your mind at ease and help you turn sunlight into money.
All solar contractors operating in California must be licensed by the Contractors’ State License Board (CSLB). You can check the license status of any solar installer by visiting the CSLB web site. Any recent violations, complaints or disciplinary actions will appear on their license.
All solar salespersons must be registered with the CSLB. All Diamond Certified companies have already been thoroughly vetted for you, including license verification. But if you’re unable to choose a Diamond Certified solar installer in your area of Marin County, you’ll have to do the research yourself.
Finding a Reliable Solar Contractor in Marin County: Knowledge is Power
There are several kinds of solar companies in Marin County. If you think you are interested in harvesting solar energy at your home or business, you want to employ the services of a solar contractor/installer. Some companies serve a limited range of customers. If you want solar power for your home, select contractor that serve residential customers. If you want solar for your business, select installers that serve commercial customers.
A little knowledge about solar power goes a long way and will help you navigate the range of products to find a solar array that will fit your needs. Solar power can provide your home or business with electricity, heating and cooling, and hot water. All types of solar arrays can be used to save you money by using the energy of the sunlight shining on your home or business to replace energy you otherwise would purchase from a utility. Only electricity can be sold to a utility, so only photovoltaic arrays can earn you a monthly check from the utility.
If you want to generate all of your own energy on-site and disconnect yourself from the grid entirely, you will need to invest in batteries and a solar array that generates more power than you need during the day. Most customers in Marin County are interested in staying connected to the grid, though, so a smaller, simpler, and cheaper array probably will fit your needs. This article assumes that you are one of the many potential solar customers who want to stay connected to the grid while using solar to meet some of your energy needs. If you aren’t sure what you want from your solar array, you can go forward to the next section and learn more about the types of solar arrays available.
Solar energy is harvested for four basic purposes:
- Natural lighting
- Heating and cooling
- Transforming directly into electricity
- Concentrating for use in steam turbines to make electricity
Using sunlight for natural lighting doesn’t require you to purchase a solar array. However, if you are in a position to design or remodel your home or business, you would be well advised to take advantage of the sunlight that falls on your building to provide free illumination for the interior. The health and well-being benefits of natural light are widely recognized.
Sunlight can also be used to warm the interior of your home or business as part of a process called passive solar gain. If you are in a position to design or remodel your home or business, discuss passive solar gain with your general contractor.
Solar arrays that capture sunlight’s heat for human use are called solar thermal arrays. Solar thermal can be used to heat water or to provide heating and cooling inside your home or business. Active solar thermal systems, which use pumps to move water and transfer heat, are more expensive and complex than passive solar systems, which use the use the characteristic of hot water rising above cold water to cycle water through the passive array. Though more expensive, active systems have greater lifetime efficiency and so are more cost-effective.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays turn sunlight into electricity. This is what many people think of when they hear the term “solar power”. Although photovoltaic arrays typically use a layer of silicon protected by a layer of tempered glass to convert light into electricity, solar photovoltaic panels also include newer thin film technologies that can be applied to many surfaces in many configurations.
Electricity is the most flexible form of energy in widespread use, so a photovoltaic array potentially is the most useful option. You can install a photovoltaic array to meet some or all of your electricity needs. Anytime you generate more than you need, the extra will be sold to the utility automatically.
Solar concentration involves using mirrors to focus sunlight on a small area to heat a special fluid to very high temperatures. Some utilities use this process in places like the Mojave Desert to boil water to drive a steam engine to generate electricity. This is really a large-scale technology, not a technology suited for your home or business. We mention it here only because you may come across the term during your research, and we want you to understand that this form of solar harvesting probably is not for you.
You should understand from the start that solar is a relatively expensive way to generate electricity. A solar array of any type is a substantial investment. However, a number of factors are making solar more affordable every day. Energy prices are very likely to increase for the foreseeable future.
Oil prices continue to rise; concerns over the environmental impact of coal are serving to limit its expansion and cost-effectiveness; domestically-produced natural gas is being sold on the global market, and so increases in domestic production are not necessarily leading to lower domestic prices; the best sites for hydroelectric power already have been developed; nuclear power faces very strong opposition, and so few, if any, new nuclear plants are likely to come on-line. All of these factors serve to drive up the cost of energy. Your solar panel array becomes more cost-effective as other forms of energy become more expensive.
Other factors make solar power increasingly affordable. Since the first quarter of 2010, the average cost of a fully installed solar system has dropped by 20 percent, while the average cost of photovoltaic (PV) array has dropped by 30 percent. In California, state and federal incentives lower the cost considerably. The fact that you can remain connected to the grid means that you can install a PV array to generate as much or as little of your own electricity as meets your needs.
One advantage photovoltaic arrays have or solar thermal arrays is that photovoltaic arrays are very flexible because electricity can do most of the work that needs doing in your home or business, from powering appliances and computers to lighting and, as needed, cooking, heating, cooling, and warming water.
However, electrical resistance heating is less efficient than heating with hot water from a solar thermal array. Heating water with electricity also is inefficient compared to solar thermal and other conventional means like natural gas. If your home or business isn’t already set up for heating and cooling with electricity, making the change will be an additional investment.
When you are deciding between a solar thermal array and photovoltaic array, you’ll need to do some calculations that will be particular to your home or business. Determine how much of your energy bill is for electricity and how much of it is for hot water, heating, and cooling. All things being equal, you’ll get a bigger benefit from purchasing an array that will provide the same energy as the larger of the two categories.
Bear in mind that you can sell extra electricity back to your local power utility. You can’t sell extra hot water. Either way, knowing how your energy money is being spent in your home or business will better prepare you for speaking with a solar contractor.
Once you feel confident that you understand some of the options available for harvesting solar power and some of the considerations involved, you may want to use an on-line solar investment calculator to give yourself a rough idea of the costs and benefits of a solar investment. One solar investment calculator can be found at the Getsolar.com website. While the investment calculator gives approximate values, using the calculator can help you establish realistic expectations regarding the costs and benefits of a solar investment.
The federal government offers tax credits towards the purchase and installation of PV arrays and solar thermal arrays. These tax credits can be worth up to 30% of the cost of the array. A summary can be found at the Federal incentives for solar page at Getsolar.com. California offers additional state incentives for solar power. Taken together, federal and state incentives can make your solar investment much more affordable. Your locality may also have some incentives from utilities or local government.
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