Solar party: neighbors make learning fun

New take on Tupperware parties: Get the information with your community, over wine and cheese

Enter Noel Cotter, president of Luminalt He suggested a system combining two solar panels (three if we also chose to install radiant heating, which is tempting) with a 120-gallon stainless steel water tank. 

The tank not only lasts 30 years (compared with the average hot water heater's 8- to 12-year life expectancy), but also comes with a backup natural gas heater, so you aren't stuck with cold showers in cloudy weather. Noel also told us about a federal tax credit and a state rebate program that's in development, which would further reduce up-front solar costs.

If all this sounds confusing, well, it is ― and we're still mulling over our options. But I'm confident we'll proceed with using solar for electricity, hot water, or both.

Home energy costs aren't going down anytime soon, so if you're thinking about taking the leap, at least start the conversation. There are many smart people out there working to make solar a party to which we're all invited.

What I learned at the solar party

Orientation Not every roof is positioned or angled to take full advantage of the sun's energy. South-facing is ideal but not required.

ClimatIn assessing your situation, the representative will take into account rainfall and cloudy days, as well as altitude, humidity, and more subtle factors. The system should be designed for the worst month, so that you'll have enough electricity all year.

Cost The rough figure I'd had in my head was $40,000. But I discovered that, largely due to government incentives and rebate programs, we'd be able to have a system installed for closer to $10,000. Even better, we could avoid that up-front cost altogether and lease a solar system from SolarCity for about $68 per month.

Got too much energy? I had assumed that if, over the course of a year, you generated more electricity than your household could use, then you could sell it back to the utility in exchange for a check. In reality, most households use about as much energy as they produce over the course of the year; in months when they produce excess, their account is credited for months when they produce less ― say, in winter. But if you do make more than you use annually, that electricity just goes back to the grid.

Info  SolarCity (888/765-2489); Luminalt  (415/564-7652).

To learn about whether solar is right for you, visit researchsolar.com

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