Solar panel experts discuss their benefits and misconceptions
Who we talked to
John Berton, owner
Green Lizard Solar LLC
Mark Bortman, owner
Andrew Koyaanisqatsi, president
Solar Energy Solutions Inc.
What's the benefit of using solar panels?
Andrew Koyaanisqatsi: I can't think of a better reason than to make the planet inhabitable for tens of thousands of years in the future. There are lots of economic reasons to go solar. In Oregon, we have a state income tax credit of up to $6,000, and [some] customers may be eligible for up to $20,000 through the Energy Trust of Oregon [a group that encourages state residents to use energy-efficient technology and renewable resources].
John Berton: You produce some of the energy you use from the sun. You also reduce reliance on burning fossil fuels, which increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and tie the United States to suppliers of those fuels. As more people become aware of environmental issues, they value sustainable energy systems more. As fuel prices increase, these systems will become even more interesting to potential buyers.
Mark Bortman: Solar energy has no pollution or chemicals. Energy from the sun is free and unlimited. Solar panels save money. When the sun's shining, they produce more electricity than you use, and you can sell extra power to the utility company.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell recently signed a bill that could provide up to $100 million for loans, grants and rebates.
There's also a [Pennsylvania rebate] program in the works, but details haven't been worked out.
What are installation requirements?
Koyaanisqatsi: In Portland, you need a roof that's [expected to last] 15 years or more to get some available incentives. You also need unobstructed solar access year-round. If you have lots of trees, the roof won't have enough access to sunlight. Panels should be placed on the roof facing either south or west to get the most sunlight.
Photovoltaic systems can be $20,000 to $100,000 - they're about $9 to $12 per watt, and there's no limit on the number of watts. What limits you is space on your roof and your pocketbook.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems generate electricity, while solar thermal systems generate heat for water.
How does the installation process work?
Berton: We visit the site to determine the space available for installation and the customer's intent. The process takes about a week - we put the mounting system up, install the wiring or plumbing, then install the panels and interconnection.
Bortman: The first step is a site survey to see how suitable the location is. We check the area, and the tilt and slope of the roof. After the survey, we'll give a quote and spell out how much electricity the homeowner can expect the panels to produce and how much money they'll save. Installation takes about two days.
How durable are solar panels?
Koyaanisqatsi: They aren't fragile. I'm not gentle on things, and I've yet to break one. There's no maintenance on a solar electric system. PV panels come with 20- to 25-year warranties. We warranty all installations for two years- parts and labor.
Berton: Most come with a 25-year warranty. It's not likely they'll be damaged by the weather, and maintenance is virtually nonexistent. Repair costs aren't great if the systems are properly installed.
Bortman: The panels typically last 40 to 50 years. They're virtually maintenance-free, but after about 10 years you may need to replace the inverter, which converts electricity the panels produce into electricity your appliances can use.
Do people have misconceptions about solar panels?
A federal tax credit allows homeowners who install solar panel systems to be reimbursed for 30 percent of the cost.
Koyaanisqatsi: I used to hear all the time [that people] didn't like the way they looked, but I don't find that perception is prevalent anymore. Did anyone care how the first generation of satellite dishes looked? No - they wanted access to 200 stations. Escalating energy bills - now that's ugly. People will look for reasons to either go solar or not go solar. It's the same with buying a [Toyota] Prius or using compact fluorescent lightbulbs. There are a million reasons to do or not do something.
Berton: People often comment on their look. If we'd grown up with panels on our roofs, they'd be just part of the scenery. Many people have misconceptions on how much power is produced. We often get people who plan on producing all their electric power with a few panels or think they'll heat their entire house with two panels on their roof. We explain they'll produce a percentage of their power, not all of it.
Bortman: A common misconception is people thinking they won't have a utility bill at all. If they want their bill to go away entirely, they'd need to purchase a large enough system for the size of the home and batteries to store the extra energy. If they don't want batteries, they can use net metering with the utility company. You still have a bill - it's the net of what you've used minus what you've sold [back to the company] - but it'll be drastically reduced.