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Solar Panels in Columbus? How to Know if They Would Work on Your Home

Brent Warren Brent Warren Solar Panels in Columbus? How to Know if They Would Work on Your HomeA home in North Linden with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Photo courtesy of Ecohouse Solar.
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The first question that solar installers and other advocates of solar energy in Columbus often get asked is a simple one: isn’t it too cloudy here for that to work?

The answer is an emphatic no, they say. Although it may take longer to reap the financial rewards of installing solar panels on your roof here than in a sunnier place like Arizona, Columbus has more than enough sunlight to make a solar investment worthwhile.

In fact, as local installer Ecohouse Solar points out on its website, Ohio gets about 30 percent more sunshine a year than Germany, one of the world’s solar energy leaders.

Even armed with that knowledge, though, it can be daunting to research all of the solar options out there, and a challenge to figure out whether or not an installation would work on your home. With that in mind, Columbus Underground recently spoke with Johnathan Gioffre, owner of Modern Energy, who offered some advice for those homeowners who may be interested in solar but have no idea where to start.

Step one: get a shade analysis.

“Invite a solar pro to do a shade analysis,” said Gioffre. “Typically there is no charge, and once they do that, you can sit down with them and talk through the options and decide if it’s feasible.”

Although there are some cut and dry facts about panel placement that apply to any location (for example, a south-facing roof is best), much will depend on the specific conditions of your property, on your budget, and on your long-term plans.

A professional analysis can get you the actual numbers you’ll need to make a decision — how much it will cost to install, what it will save you on your energy bill and how long it will take for a system to pay for itself with energy savings.

Buy or Lease?

The most straightforward way to get solar panels onto your home is to buy them. While some people can afford to buy them outright, most will take out a loan, either from a bank or from the installer, and then make monthly payments until the unit is paid off (a relatively small, 4kW system can cost as much as $15,000, including installation).

The savings on your electric bill start the day the panels are installed. Gioffre said that a typical installation generates between 60 and 80 percent of a home’s total energy usage.

The average payback time on the loan, meanwhile, is between seven and 10 years (and could be less with a larger up-front payment). After the panels are paid off, you continue to benefit from lower electric bills, and without the monthly payment.

“You have true free power (at that point),” said Gioffre. “Ownership is the best bang for your buck…you own that system forever.” He added that studies have shown that an installed system retains 95 percent of its value over the first five years, meaning that much of that initial cost could potentially be recouped when the home is sold.

Leasing a system means that a third party owns the panels. Your monthly payments will be less than a loan payment, and you will benefit from lower electrical bills, but at the end of the lease term, you don’t own the system that is installed on your home.

An installation on a garage roof in the Jeffrey Park development. Photo courtesy of Ecohouse Solar.

Learn the lingo: the Power Purchase Agreement option.

There is a third way to get solar panels on your home, and it’s one that has been pushed aggressively in recent years by a number of national companies. Called a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), it works like a lease except that instead of a monthly payment, the homeowner is charged for the power produced by the solar panels.

The monthly charge is fixed, and when combined with a reduced electrical bill for the house, the overall cost for a homeowner is generally less than what they were paying before the agreement.

“It’s zero money down, there’s a simple monthly bill, it’s an easy entrance (into solar), and that’s what these companies are pushing,” said Gioffre, “but at the end of the day, it’s not an investment…there’s no financial gain like if you buy outright.”

With either a PPA or a lease agreement, if you decide to sell your home before the contract has expired, the new owner would have to sign onto it. That could make your home harder to sell, or potentially “lead to some legal headaches,” according to Gioffre.

Both leases and PPAs have been most popular in states with high electricity costs. They have been less quick to catch on in Ohio, which boasts some of the lowest energy prices in the country.

Belong to a Homeowners Association or live in a Historic District? Do your research.

There are no uniform rules governing solar panels in historic districts in Columbus, although both the city’s Historic Preservation Office and the German Village Society have utilized existing guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior to assess individual requests. Those guidelines favor panels that are not visible from the street, and that are placed on non-historic additions.

Houses in more recently-built subdivisions can also face hurdles. Gioffre said that Homeowners Associations often do not account for solar panels in their rules, and that means that a lot of requests are turned down by HOA boards. Solar advocates advise that homeowners emphasize the positive aspects of solar installations, like increased property values, when submitting a request to their HOA.

Don’t wait: a key tax credit is set to decrease in 2020.

Thanks to a federal solar tax credit first established in 2005, 30 percent of the cost of a solar system can be directly deducted from your tax bill. That can mean a substantial savings for those that buy their systems (if you lease or sign a PPA, the credit goes to the company that you lease from).

The tax credit is scheduled to be eliminated completely for residential systems by 2022. It will step down in increments; first to 26 percent in 2020, then to 22 percent in 2021, and finally to 10 percent for commercial systems only in 2022.

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