Solar panels are no longer a thing of the future. These shiny slabs are appearing on more and more roofs these days, as homeowners are increasingly looking for ways to save money and reduce their carbon footprint. Solar energy can do just that: save you money while helping to save the environment. But installing panels on your roof isn't always cheap and easy, and in some cases, it may not be possible at all. Here's what you need to know about getting solar panels for free.
How Solar Energy Works
Solar panels work by allowing photons (which are individual particles of light) to knock electrons free from atoms, which in turn generates a flow of electricity. The panels contain all of the equipment needed to convert the light into electricity – and specifically, into the kind of electricity that can power all of the gadgets in your house. The panels are able to store electricity they generate, so that your lights, refrigerator and such will keep on running at night and on days when they're not exposed to the sun.
Is Your Home a Candidate?
Solar panels can generate power on overcast days, and some models can even work with a light coating of snow. They do need to be installed in a relatively shade-free area, and in the United States, solar panels will invariably be installed on a South-facing roof, as that's where they'll get the most sunlight. If you don't have a south-facing roof – or if the one you do have is perpetually in shade – you may be out of luck. Some homeowners may be able to install solar panels on south-facing walls or even on the ground if there is available yard space. So if you're lacking a South-facing roof, you're not necessarily out of luck.
Free Solar Via Power Purchase Agreements
Ready to leap in to the world of solar energy? That's great, but it can cost $20,000 (or more) to purchase and install solar panels to power the average American house.
That's if you do it the "traditional" way. The good news: it is possible to get solar panels installed for free.
One of the easiest ways to get no-cost solar panels is to work with a solar energy provider such as SolarCity, which will install solar panels on your house at their own expense, typically with zero investment from the homeowner. The company retains ownership of the panels – and is responsible for maintenance and repair of them – while you agree to purchase solar power from them to power your house. This agreement, called a PPA or Power Purchase Agreement, is offered by a number of companies, including SunRun, Sungevity, SunPower, and RGS Energy.
By entering into a PPA, you're agreeing to buy electricity from the company at a set rate, so it's important to note that your electric bill will not disappear. It may be cheaper than what you're currently paying, as solar rates tend to be lower and do not increase at the same rates as those of traditional electric companies. You also should keep in mind that not all solar systems provide enough power an entire house; if that's the case, you'll still have an electric bill to cover the remaining power you require. And any grants and tax credits that may be offered for installing energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly systems like solar panels will generally not be available to you; the solar companies get those benefits, since they retain ownership of the hardware.
Government Programs for DIY Solar
So, what about those grants and tax credits for installing renewable energy systems in your home? Yes, there are some available, though they vary by state. And they are likely not offering enough money to get all of the money back that you'd spend on installing solar panels. A good place to begin your research is on the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site, Energy.gov. Here, you can search by state to see the tax incentives available to you. Many of these tax credits top out at $1,000, which is helpful, certainly, but not enough to cover the entire cost of installing a solar power system in your home.
Rent or Own?
If you like the idea of owning your solar panels, but don't have all of the cash up front, you can lease the system. Most of the big names in solar, including SolarCity, SunRun, Sungevity, SunPower, and RGS Energy, offer some type of leasing arrangement. Leasing is very similar to entering into a PPA – you pay little or no cash upfront, but you make a payment every month for use of the system and the power it generates. The solar company generally takes care of all of the maintenance necessary on the system.
If outright ownership of your solar system is what you're looking for, be prepared to pay. As mentioned previously, installing and maintaining a system of solar panels to power your house can be pricey. Solar-specific loans are available, however, and some homeowners can use home equity loans to pay. The benefit of owning your solar panels is that your energy bills may zero out. And depending on how much you spend on energy each month, that may be payback enough.