10 Steps to Take Before Installing Solar

As prices decline and technology improves, installing a residential solar system - also called a photo-voltaic or PV system - makes sense for some co-op members and is something homeowners are considering. However, even with these recent improvements, it's important to find out the facts before committing to a purchase.

Your electric cooperative should be one of your first contacts. Experts at your co-op can answer basic questions, provide resource materials, and direct you to reputable websites, contractors and other experts in your area

Adding insulation, sealing air leaks, and completing other basic fix-it projects make sense for several reasons. You can cut your energy costs immediately and reduce the size of PV system you purchase. If your goal is to lower your electric bill, this may be all you need to do. Your cooperative or one of their energy partners offer energy audits to help identify priority areas for money saving improvements.

Most solar systems are designed to provide you with a portion of the electricity needed but not 100 percent. At night, on cloudy days, and possibly at high-energy-use times, you'll need more power than your PV system can produce. That means you'll still need electricity from your cooperative's power lines. Because these systems are grid-connected, energy can flow both ways. Your electric cooperative sets appropriate policies and rates for connecting PV systems to their lines (the grid)and for purchasing any excess energy your system might provide. As you begin to explore solar system, be sure you ask cooperative experts about interconnection, essential safety precautions, net metering, and any other connection-related details.

Your electric cooperative staff can help review your past energy use, as well as assisting you to determine how potential energy efficiency projects may help lower your future energy use. They can also help you understand how your energy use fluctuates throughout the day, which is another important factor to consider. Having this information will help you determine - with expert assistance - the size and type of system best suited to your situation. For example, if your greatest need for power comes when the sun isn't shining, solar won't help.

Your cooperative does not sell, install, or maintain PV systems at this time, so if you decide to install a PV system, you will either purchase or lease a system from a contractor who is not a part of the cooperative. If you purchase a solar system, you will be the owner, and you'll be responsible for the purchase price, as well as ongoing maintenance and repair costs. If leasing is the option you prefer, you will pay less initially, but you'll likely have higher ongoing costs. In either case, it pays to spend time figuring out all of the expenses you'll be responsible for during the life of the system. These may include installation (in addition to the price of the system), interconnection costs, insurance, taxes, other possible fees. If you are leasing, ask ask contractors about the term length, if the contract is transferrable to a new homeowner in the event you sell your home, potential for price increases, in addition to any questions you'd ask if you planned to purchase a PV system. In the "credit" column of your price comparisons, list any incentives, rebates, and tax credits offered for either a purchase or a lease. Also, don't forget to ask how long the system will function.

Any financial incentives available will help reduce your investment costs. Opportunities are changing each year. Your electric cooperative staff and your contractor can provide up-to-date details about available incentives available.

If you purchase a PV system, you'll need to meet the requirements of your electric cooperative's interconnection agreement. That includes paying any costs of connecting to the cooperative grid. It is your responsibility to notify them in advance about your installation. After the interconnection requirements are met, and the safety and integrity of your system are approved, your cooperative will take care of the connection to the grid. And, as the owner of the system, you'll be responsible for maintenance and system repairs. If you lease a system, your responsibilities will depend on the agreement you sign. Be sure you know and understand what your responsibilities are. 

Most solar systems are grid-connected. Because of the two-way flow of electricity, any excess energy your PV system generates during the day will flow onto your cooperative's lines; therefore, improper connection and maintenance of your system may endanger people and the reliability of the grid. This makes you responsible for the safety of your cooperative's lineworkers and others who may come in contact with a downed power line, and your cooperative's equipment.

Start with a list of options garnered from website research, your electric cooperative, local or state Better Business Bureaus, renewable energy associations, your state energy office, your state Attorney General's office, extension service staff, neighbors and any other local experts you can call on for assistance and advice. Contact several contractors, especially if recommended by multiple state and local experts. Check out other installations the contractor has completed, comparing bids (get at least three), checking references, and thoroughly examining contracts. If possible, ask a contract specialist or lawyer to review the contract before signing.

Keep files on your pre-purchase research and pre-installation data provided by your cooperative, as well as bids, contracts, inspection reports, maintenance records, and all other details you may need to refer to in the future. In addition, you'll want to know about system performance, so set up a system to track and compare your actual system performance with estimates provided by the contractor/installer.