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Free solar electricity. Finding a contractor

Free solar electricity. Finding a contractor

    Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination

    CONTACT INFORMATION: Our office is open to visitors by appointment only. Please call or email from 8:00 a.m 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

    • Carbon Neutral Counties Declaration
    • Environmental Quality Advisory Council
    • Fairfax Green Initiatives
    • Green Building and Sustainable Development
    • Joint Environmental Task Force
    • Recycling and Trash
    • Environmental Health
    • Stormwater
    • Sustainability Initiatives Report
    • Trees
    • Noise
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    Going Solar in Fairfax County

    Fairfax County encourages residents to invest in solar energy. By using renewable energy like solar instead of fossil fuels, you help reduce pollution and planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. And solar power can pay for itself in 10 to 20 years, so you’ll enjoy reduced energy bills, tax credits and other incentives, including extra protection from power loss during extreme weather when you invest in storage solutions.

    This webpage provides resources for residents interested in installing solar panels in Fairfax County. For more information about the basics of solar energy, your solar options, and questions to ask solar professionals, refer to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar.

    Solar Benefits

    Fairfax County residents are opting to install solar panels on their homes. Press play to hear from them how they made the switch and how it changed their lives for the better!

    Solar energy uses a renewable energy source – the sun! In addition to reducing your electricity bill, using solar energy reduces your environmental impact and Fairfax County’s carbon footprint. You will also help reduce demand on the electricity grid during peak, sunny hours. Plus, installing solar panels can increase the value of your home. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, every dollar that a solar panel saves you on your electrical bills increases the value of your home by 20.

    Solar Potential

    The first step in getting solar is assessing whether your home or building is a good candidate. A few questions to ask when considering going solar:

    • Is your roof shaded by trees or other obstacles? Direct sunlight for six or more hours a day is ideal.
    • Is your roof relatively new? Solar installations can last 20-25 years, so your roof should be less than five years old.
    • What direction does your roof primarily face? Solar arrays can be configured in many different ways to allow for maximum exposure to sunlight throughout the day but ideally your roof should face south or west for the most exposure.

    You can investigate your property’s solar potential by visiting the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s NOVA Solar Map. You can also estimate the performance of potential solar projects using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s PVWatts Calculator.

    Finding a Contractor

    Certified solar installers can be found through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners®. Visit the county’s Consumer Services webpage for general tips about hiring a contractor.

    By going through a solar co-op purchasing program, homeowners are granted access to a pre-qualified solar installer for a no-cost evaluation of their property and can take advantage of cost savings should they decide to pursue a solar installation. information on solar co-op purchasing programs can be found below.

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    Fairfax County residents should be aware of their rights and the regulations surrounding door-to-door solicitation in the county. If a salesperson comes to your door with information about solar panels or installation, please ask to see their county-issued license before engaging with them. Never provide your personal information (birthdate, social security number, etc.) to a solicitor.

    If you encounter an unlicensed solicitor, please contact the Fairfax County Police non-emergency line at 703-691-2131. information on door-to-door solicitation can be found here.

    Cost and Financing

    Your electricity bill is based on how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity you use. Most homes use between 800 kWh and 1,500 kWh each month depending on weather, home size, energy efficiency and how many electric appliances are used.

    The price of solar electricity is typically expressed in terms of dollars per watt of installed power. Typical pricing for residential systems is in the range of 5000.50 to 4.00 per watt, depending on the size and market economics. A 5 kilowatt (5 kW) solar system will produce about 8,000 kWh of electricity per year. At 3 per watt, that system would cost about 15,000 to install.

    By reducing electricity costs and taking advantage of tax incentives, the 15,000 investment can pay for itself in about 10-15 years.

    Residential solar panels can be purchased outright or financed with a loan from a solar installer, bank, or other financial institution.

    Solar Co-Op Purchasing Programs

    Solar group purchasing programs make getting solar easier and less expensive by providing information and benefits to participants. These programs typically offer:

    • A free assessment to find out whether your home is a good candidate for solar installation
    • Bulk discounts on solar systems, ranging from 10 to 15 percent off
    • Access to a qualified solar installer
    • Discounted opportunities to bundle your solar system with electric vehicle charging stations and solar battery storage

    Additionally, some programs offer participants a complimentary, virtual home energy assessment to help improve their home energy performance holistically. Those who decide to pursue solar through a co-op purchasing program typically receive a 10 to 15 percent discount off current consumer rates for solar arrays and systems.


    County Incentives

    Fairfax County offers a number of incentives to encourage residents and businesses to install solar panels. The county’s Land Development Services waives the permit fee for solar permit applications, and the county’s Department of Tax Administration provides a 5-year solar energy equipment tax exemption. To learn about the permitting and inspection process, refer to Land Development Services’ page about Residential Solar Permits.

    Federal Tax Credits

    The federal government currently offers a tax credit for solar PV system installation, to include the costs of the solar panels, contractor labor costs, balance-of-system equipment, and energy storage devices. Systems installed between 2022 and 2032 are eligible for a 30 percent tax credit. The credit will decrease to 26 percent for systems installed in 2033, to 22 percent for systems installed in 2034, and the credit will expire in 2035 unless renewed by Congress. The installation of the system must be complete during the tax year, and there is no maximum amount that can be claimed.

    Solar Rights

    Under Virginia state law (§56-594), residential customers may install systems up to 20 kilowatts and non-residential customers may install systems up to 500 kilowatts. Electric utilities must credit solar panel owners for excess electricity generated through something called net metering. Your solar contractor should coordinate with your electric utility to replace your standard meter with a net meter after your panels are installed. The net meter is bi-directional, tracking electrons flowing both out of and into the grid.

    Are Offerings for “Free” Solar really Free?

    When Americans hear the word “free,” it sparks interest, curiosity, and, of course, doubt. Is anything ever free? Without getting too philosophical, we know products advertised as free usually have some sort of catch. Unfortunately, solar panels are never free. Because of a high manufacturing cost and the need for an expert to design and install a system, the average American household would need to invest about 15,000-20,000 to have enough panels and wattage to generate electricity to power their home.

    There is no feasible way for a solar company to offer an entirely free solar system to a homeowner. So, if you ever see a promotion for “free” solar, ask questions and research it to understand what “free” means because it will likely affect you financially.

    What “Free Solar” might actually mean…

    For most companies, “free solar” simply means price reduction to the overall cost of going solar. For example, most solar companies offer financing options allowing homeowners to avoid upfront costs and payments. Although it may be a great way to sweeten the deal for curious homeowners, those initial design and installment costs are typically rolled into later payments. You will likely still have high interest rates making the process even more expensive.

    Other companies take this tactic one step further. They promote their customers get solar free for the first 6 to 12 months, when the cost of those first few months to a year will be pushed back to a later date and in many cases at a higher cost because of accrued interest.

    Thus, all prospective solar customers must be careful when it comes to any initial incentives.

    Another tactic many large solar companies use to convince homeowners going solar can be free is by offering a power purchase agreement (PPA) or a leasing deal. In both options, homeowners get a brand-new solar system on their roof with no upfront or long-term costs. However, there is a large downside to these solar deals. When a homeowner leases solar panels, they do not actually own the panels or the power they create. The solar company holds the right to the solar panels and sell back the energy they create to the homeowner at a fixed rate.

    Unfortunately, these “free” leasing and PPA deals leave homeowners high and dry because the solar company reaps all the benefits of going solar (like the 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit and any other state or local incentives) and controls the price of the power generated from the panels. Many PPAs require the homeowner to purchase all of the power the solar panels produce, even if it is more power than they need, so any net metering policies will also only benefit the solar company.

    Owning Solar is the Key to Accessing Free Electricity

    “Free” solar does not exist, but there are ways to unlock free electricity. Homeowners who skip the PPA and leasing deals can own their panels and gain access to maximum savings. With a proper design, a high-quality solar system is meant to cover all electricity costs each month.

    Many homeowners who own their solar panels can get away with monthly power bills only including a small 5-10 connection fee. By going solar, it brings your total monthly cost down. This small connection fee allows customers to stay connected to the grid in case their panels underperform or stop functioning as well as allow homeowners to participate in net metering. Most states offer net metering programs, which gives solar owners the ability to sell back unused electricity to their utility company for energy credits to be used during less sunny months. With some utility companies, homeowners with solar can make money off excess energy, making solar an extremely valuable home improvement.

    Solar panel ownership gives homeowners access to all federal, state, and local clean energy incentives. For example, the government offers a Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) allowing all tax paying homeowners to receive a tax credit worth up to 30% of the cost of all the solar expenditures (including necessary home repairs to become solar-ready). This incentive can help homeowners save thousands on the cost of their overall system, making it significantly easier to pay off in the long run.

    To learn more about what solar incentives are available in your state, read “Your State’s Solar Savings.”

    Important Facts About Solar Lease and PPA Options

    One common response is: “I get the solar panels for free, I pay less for electricity, and I still enjoy the benefits of solar energy. Why wouldn’t I want to use third-party ownership?”

    Sure, it sounds great to not have to worry about ownership, while also helping the planet by using renewable energy. Just keep in mind that choosing a lease or PPA instead of ownership can limit the full benefits you could be enjoying from your home solar panels.

    Lower Long-Term Savings

    To stay in business, the third-party owner takes a cut of your potential savings each month. They receive the full savings from the energy generated by your panels, and pass some of that savings onto you in the reduced rate you pay them for your panels, but you would be saving more in the long run by owning the panels yourself.

    When you purchase solar panels via cash or loan, you will eventually pay off the system. Once your system is paid off, all of the savings after that point are yours to keep.

    The Energy The Panels Produce Is Not Yours

    With a solar lease or PPA, you are still paying someone else for electricity, you’re just paying the third-party owner instead of the utility company. You’re renting the equipment and paying for the electricity, even though the panels on your roof are connected to the house you own.

    Any Tax Credits Go To The Solar Company, Not You

    One of the main perks of owning your system comes from the tax break you get from the Solar Tax Credit and any relevant state-level incentives. If you’re leasing, that money goes to the solar installer instead. They may use some of that money to lower your monthly payments, but they’re going to keep some of it for themselves as well.

    (Note: This is one of the main reasons to use a solar lease or PPA. If you don’t have enough tax liability, you can still benefit from tax-based incentives, even if you don’t qualify for them yourself.)

    The same idea applies to any Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC) you might generate at your home. You get some of the value, but the solar company is going to keep some of it as well.

    It Can Be Difficult To Sell Your Home

    Any lease agreement applies directly to the house where you currently live. You cannot simply remove the panels and move them to a new home. That means you have to transfer the lease agreement to the new homeowner, and they might not want to do that.

    If you want to move and the new owner doesn’t want to take over the lease, you would then have to break the lease, and that could be expensive, depending upon the terms you agreed to.

    The Perks of Owning Your System with a Solar Loan

    As the cost of installing a solar power system continues to drop, it makes more sense to purchase your solar power system. By owning your solar power equipment, you get a much higher return on investment over the life of your system.

    If you’re trying to keep your up front cost as low as possible, you should consider purchasing your solar panels through financing with a zero-down solar loan.

    Solar loans are similar to home improvement loans, in that when you borrow money from a lender, you agree to pay it back monthly, with interest, over the loan’s term.

    Many solar panel companies offer loan options, along with credit unions, and national lending institutions. Some utilities even offer financing programs that allow homeowners to finance solar power systems through them, and repay the borrowed amount through their electric bills.

    These loans combine the best aspect of a solar lease or PPA (paying little to no money up front for your panels) with the benefits of system ownership (more lifetime savings). Since this financing option is more affordable than ever, you’ll be getting the best of both worlds.

    Going Solar Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive

    At Palmetto, we believe that everyone should get involved in the clean energy revolution, but we also want people to make informed choices about solar panel installation. We believe you should only consider leasing a home solar panel system if you don’t qualify for a solar loan, or you don’t have enough liability for the Residential Clean Energy Credit.

    “Free” sounds good in an advertisement, and a solar lease or PPA seems like an easier route for getting solar panels on your home. You save some money compared to paying your utility company, and you get to help the environment.

    However, the most substantial long-term financial benefits come from owning your solar power system. Owning your own solar panels gives you more options, more control, and more long-term potential to maximize your energy savings. Thus, if you’re thinking about getting “free” solar panels, you should consider all of your options so that you can make the best financial decision for your family and home.

    Ready to see how much it would take to go solar? Get started today with a Free Solar Estimate, and find out how much you could save!

    Frequently asked questions

    Maintenance and repairs

    Do I need to do any maintenance? Little maintenance is required with a solar electric system other than washing the panels a few times a year to help keep the system operating at its best.

    Does having solar on my roof mean I am off the grid and not connected to electricity from SMUD? No. Having solar on your roof does not mean you are off the grid. While it is possible to design a system to produce all your power and enable your home to be off the grid, we do not recommend that you install a system that large.

    What happens at night when the sun is down? Do I still get electricity? At night, or on very stormy days, a conventional solar electric system goes dormant. During these dormant times, you will get power from the electricity grid. When the sun comes back out, the system resumes producing energy. If you don’t use all the electricity that you are producing at that moment, you can sell the excess electricity generated back to SMUD.

    What happens at the end of my contract if I’m in a lease or PPA ? Contact your solar provider to discuss the terms and conditions of your lease or PPA.

    Site and product selection

    How can I tell if my house will be a good fit for solar? The typical home will need to have a southern-facing roof with little or no shade. East and west facing roofs also are viable, but their output is decreased by 12%-15% or more over the course of a year. A perfect slope for your roof would be 25% to 30%. While a solar electric system will produce power at a wide variety of slopes and orientations, it is important to try to maximize your output in relation to the size of the system. The best orientation is usually south, then west, then east. Of course, shading can impact all of those decisions.

    How can I calculate the size of the solar electricity system I would need? The size of your system should be based upon your electricity usage patterns, not the size of your roof. There are many variables that determine your system’s production, for example slope, orientation and shading. SMUD will allow your system to be sized up to 110% of the last 12-month kWh consumption or up to 120% for customers on the Solar and Storage Rate (SSR) if battery storage is added at the premises. For more information, contact the solar interconnection team. Visit battery storage for homeowners to see if battery storage is right for you.

    Can I increase the size of my solar electricity system?

    For customers on the Solar and Storage Rate (SSR), SMUD will allow your system to be sized up to 110% of the last 12-month kWh consumption or up to 120% if battery storage is added on the premises. For existing NEM1 legacy customers, if the system size is increased by more than 10% of generating capacity originally approved, or 1 kW, whichever is greater, or exceeds 110% of generating capacity originally approved, you must move to the SSR rate schedule and submit a new Interconnection application.

    Besides the basic warranty, price service questions, what are the other questions I should ask? Always try to get an idea of what is going to be produced by the system. While it is impossible to predict the weather and its impact on the output of your system, there are formulas to determine expected output.

    Will my roof leak or do I need to re-roof my home? It’s not often that your roof leaks. Newer mounting systems have improved resistance to leaks. Your solar electric system will be on your roof for at least 20 years so your roof should be in a condition to last that long.

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    Can I put it someplace else on my property other than my roof? Yes, many properties have large lots or acreage to accommodate ground-based systems or carports with solar installed.

    I am buying a new home and solar is an option. Should I buy the solar? Purchasing solar when you buy a new home can be one of the most cost effective ways to invest in solar. The cost that solar would add to your mortgage payment is almost always less than the savings you would get on your monthly SMUD bill.

    Does SMUD require a building permit if I install my own system? Yes. SMUD requires a building permit for all installations, whether installed by a homeowner or contractor.

    I am re-roofing my house, can I install integrated solar tiles? Integrated solar tiles made to blend in with concrete tiles are mostly used in new construction. For more information regarding solar tiles, contact your contractor.

    Will having a solar system help in the sale of my home ? There are many factors that go into a solar system. Contact your realtor for more information.


    Will a rooftop solar electric system lower my bill? Yes, solar electricity lowers your bill, but you must still factor in the upfront cost of the system.

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