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During Climate Week in September, we started asking our community to send us their questions about climate change and clean energy. Over the next month, people submitted some great questions. We’ve answered a few of them on Instagram (check out our videos on distributed energy resources and what we hope to see from COP26), but we’ll be rounding up many more here, along with answers from your friendly Arcadia energy nerds.

And by all means, stay climate-curious! Keep sending us any other questions on your mind here.

Q: What should you consider when looking to install home solar and storage systems?

A: We got a lot of questions that deal with different aspects of installing rooftop solar and/or solar storage systems, from knowing whether you qualify for rooftop solar to whether solar storage is worth it. Many of the questions had to deal with picking the best installer or best battery. While we can’t give you individual names, we decided to tackle all of these questions about the process together.

If you’re considering installing rooftop solar panels on your home, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has a comprehensive Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power that contains a ton of helpful information about all parts of the solar experience. We definitely recommend checking that out. But broadly speaking, the first thing you need to do when considering going solar is determine whether you’re even a good fit for rooftop panels. EnergySage, another great resource for all questions solar, lists five key questions that can help you figure this out:

  • How much do you spend on electricity now?
  • What type of home do you live in? Do you own it?
  • Is your roof suitable for solar?
  • What tax incentives and/or rebates can you take advantage of?
  • How much does solar cost in your region?

Armed with the answers to those questions, your next step is to choose a solar provider. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for this; it’s important to do your research. Just like you would when you hire a contractor for any other home project, gather multiple quotes from different solar providers. A couple things to look out for:

  • Make sure you ask questions. Companies should be able to provide you with detailed answers. The Solar Nerd has a handy checklist of interview questions you should ask potential contractors.
  • Listen if a company says that solar might not be a good fit for you. Companies should be honest with you about how well solar will work for you. If they tell you that you’ll need a new roof first or that your house is too shaded for solar to be cost-effective, they’re not trying to discourage you — they’re doing their jobs well.
  • Don’t judge companies based solely on price. Also consider their years of experience and Better Business Bureau reviews.
Solar storage systems

When you install solar panels, any excess electricity that they generate goes back to the power grid. If you install a battery or other storage system with your panels, any power you don’t use right away is stored for you to use later when your panels aren’t producing as much electricity (e.g., at night or during a power outage). Having a storage option reduces the amount of power you have to draw from the power grid.

There are several types of storage, including batteries. Just like with solar panels, the first thing to do when considering solar storage is determine whether you’re a good fit. If you aren’t on a time-of-use rate or you don’t experience frequent power outages, for instance, it may not be worthwhile for you. But there are many situations where installing solar storage is absolutely worth the cost, especially considering that most batteries last 10-15 years.

The best battery for you will depend on your situation. EnergySage breaks down six factors to think about based on your goals for battery storage.

And remember — if you can’t install solar panels for whatever reason, community solar is a great way to get the benefits of solar without the hassle of installing your own panels.

Q: How does a low-income person afford solar panels?

A: According to the US Energy Information Administration, one in three families in the US will experience energy insecurity, or difficulty paying power bills. Installing solar panels can be a huge help because it can lower — or even completely eliminate — electricity costs. But the upfront costs can be a big barrier for low-income households.

There are incentives and tax credits to help homeowners afford renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency has a comprehensive list by state. Some states have also created solar assistance programs specifically for low-income households, as well. In addition, two federal programs, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) through the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) through the US Department of Energy, are starting to pilot programs to include assistance for solar panels.

For families who don’t own their homes, or for whom the upfront cost is still an obstacle, community solar is a great alternative to rooftop solar panels. Instead of installing panels yourself, you subscribe to a local solar farm. When the solar farm generates electricity, you get solar credits back on your power bill. There’s no extra cost to join and, because the solar panels are housed elsewhere, anyone who pays a power bill can join. It’s an easy, direct way to get the benefits of solar energy.

Q: What happens if solar panels don’t produce enough energy?

A: Generally, we get our power from a range of different sources — fossil fuels, nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, to name some of the big ones. The power mix fluctuates depending on season, time of day, and demand. This cool graphic shows the power mix in each state. Right now, solar makes up a fairly small percentage of the power mix in most states. That’s changing, but it means that we still rely on many other sources of energy besides solar.

If you have solar panels on your roof, they’re generating a lot of the energy you use at home. But getting a solar system to meet all of your energy usage may not be realistic — the average US home uses more than 10,600 kWh of electricity a year. A solar photovoltaic (PV) system large enough to generate that much energy could be expensive and take up more space than you have available. There will also be times — at night, or in the winter — when the panels don’t generate as much energy. If you’re using more energy than your solar panels can produce, then you’ll draw energy from the grid, too. Solar storage systems (see above) can help with this, but this is just one more reason to make sure the energy coming from the grid is clean!

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Holly Bowers

Holly Bowers is a copywriter at Arcadia.

Boulder, CO