So you want to go solar? |

So you want to go solar?

Can you do an article on residential solar panels?


Matt B.

Um, sure.

When you say solar, Matt, you probably mean solar electric, also known as photovoltaic ” or just “PV.” But other solar solutions are generally cheaper and easier. So let’s look at those first.

“Passive solar” is merely taking the sun’s direct power into account, such as:

– Using trees to shade summer sun and, when leaves are off, to allow winter sun through;

– Sizing roof overhangs so that low winter sun shines into a home and high summer sun is kept out;

– Installing window shades.

Passive solar techniques can lessen the need for mechanical heating, even in our climate, and should always less the need for mechanical cooling.

The next no-brainer for our climate is solar hot water ” solar thermal if you’re solarly hip). Solar thermal systems cost a small fraction of PV and in many ways are less complicated. Hot sun makes hot water. Done.

OK, now for the solar everyone loves to talk about but no one wants to pay for ” photovoltaic. The haute, science-y name says it all (in Latin, of course) ” light to electricity.

Is that not the coolest thing ever? Of course anything that cool’s gonna cost ya. More on that later. The questions you probably have, Matt, how can I get solar? Should I? Who’ll do it? How much?

First, let me lighten your load, and in so doing, begin to answer some of those questions.

Load refers to how much power you use. The number of panels you need depends on your load. And since every solar panel costs money (lots of it, in the case of PV), you would ideally make your load as small as possible. Remember this: the cheapest energy is the energy never used.

Would you spend $100 to save $1,000? Then first turn your efforts to using less energy and water. Typical households can save 200 percent to 50 percent on their utility bills just by improving the efficiency and efficacy of their home.

Change regular bulbs to fluorescent. Buy energy- and water-efficient appliances. Fix air and water leaks. Weather-strip and seal. Insulate.

None of these changes sacrifice lifestyle or comfort, many improve them, and many cost little to implement but pay big in lower utility costs.

After all that, now look at how much solar will satisfy your reduced load. For a quick, dirty and very rough guess at what you’ll need, try Don’t make your decision based on what it tells you, though. What this site does is help you to find a local professional who can answer all those earlier questions more accurately.

In my opinion you should choose a solar professional who will examine your load and help you reduce it before even talking to you about panels. He or she should also be able to answer the net cost question with all available rebates, tax credits, discounts and other incentives. (To do that dirty work yourself, see

You’ll find that after rebates and all, thermal will typically pay for itself in just a few years. PV takes longer. Usually paying for your system with a deductible home equity loan makes the most sense.

Your solar pro will also be able to tell you whether your site and home make solar a good decision. Shade, for example, can be a deal killer for PV.

Both Xcel and Holy Cross provide “net meter” billing if your PV system is tied to theirs. That means your meter will actually spin backwards when you produce more power than you use. Grid-tied systems will not function if the grid goes down, but trust me when I say you do not want to get into a battery backup system.


So, Matt, given our current energy, security and climate predicament, there is huge renewed interest in solar these days. Many believe it to be the salvation of humankind.

But if we’ve learned anything from our current predicament, it’s the peril of keeping all our energy eggs in one basket.

Even if solar could be the sole answer, it shouldn’t be, anyway. We will need a diverse energy portfolio to meet our future needs. And we should first stop being so dang needy.



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