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These two solar energy options could save you tens of thousands of dollars — here's everything to know about making the switch

If you're considering a switch to solar, then the first big decision you'll need to make is how you want to access this cheap, clean, abundant energy source.

If you’re considering a switch to solar, then the first big decision you’ll need to make is how you want to access this cheap, clean, abundant energy source.

Photo Credit: iStock

It's never been clearer: Solar power can save Americans tens of thousands of dollars while keeping the planet cooler. 

The hard part, though, is making the switch. The research alone can seem daunting, given the amount of information to assess. 

Hardly anyone has time for that kind of deep dive, so we've done the legwork for you by making it as clear and straightforward as possible for you to power your home with solar.

Where to start 

If you're considering a switch to solar, the first big decision you'll need to make is how you want to access this cheap, clean, abundant energy source. There are two main options: 

  1. Adding rooftop solar panels: Best for homeowners, bigger savings, greater upfront costs

  2. Joining a community solar program: Best for renters, cheaper transition, no installations necessary  

The benefits of rooftop solar

Installing panels in your home is the better-known option, and the benefits are clear. 

Forbes estimates that, including the upfront costs, a robust rooftop array could ultimately save you between $25,500 and $33,000 on energy bills over the lifetime of your panels (between 25 and 30 years) — and those estimates assume that electricity rates won't rise, meaning the savings are probably even more significant. 

Rooftop solar can bring benefits in more ways than one. Apart from the energy savings, your home's value will increase. One 2019 study by Zillow found that adding panels will raise a house's sales price by over 4.1%, on average.

For many, independence is another major upside. If you fit your solar system with a battery backup, you can keep your home's lights on even during power outages. 

And beyond the personal benefits, swapping to solar will keep thousands of pounds of planet-heating pollution out of the air each year. 

Those advantages outweigh the costs several times over. That said, solar panels are not a cheap investment — some estimates put the national average at close to $16,000 before tax credits.

What is community solar, and why choose it over rooftop panels?

Rooftop solar panels aren't for everyone. 

Beyond the hefty sticker price, some homes aren't great fits for solar panels. Many houses have obstructed views of the southern sky necessary to maximize direct sunlight. Other times, pesky HOAs can limit home improvements like adding panels.

And perhaps most crucially, altering rooftops isn't an option for the millions of Americans who rent. 

The solution? Community solar. You can think of it as a subscription service similar to Netflix or HelloFresh (and some programs are even free).

The savings aren't as outstanding compared to rooftop programs, but by joining a community solar program, you could still expect your annual electricity bills to drop between 5% and 15%

After you subscribe, nearby solar farms feed power to the grid and then give you access to cheaper, cleaner energy. 

Basically, by signing up for community solar, you're "leasing" or, in some cases, purchasing nearby panels and benefiting from their cheap power — without any installation costs or maintenance. 

If you've chosen rooftop solar … 

If you've decided that rooftop solar panels are for you, you'll need to figure out several key pieces of information.

Compatibility, compatibility, compatibility. Not all homes can support panels. It's critical to determine whether your roof faces the right way, is the proper shape, or can support the weight of panels. 

Finding a solar panel installer who'll determine your roof's compatibility and a cost estimate is an enormous first step. This Forbes Home tool provides free quotes on solar installation based on your energy bill, zip code, and the shape of your roof.

CNET, the tech media site, has a list of the best solar panel installers in the U.S., in addition to essential questions you should ask your installer. 

Once you determine that your roof is compatible with adding panels, you'll need to figure out how many panels you'll need.

Luckily, the Department of Energy has a tool — the PVWatts Calculator — that can help you determine how much sun you may get that can be converted into solar power based on your home's location. It even works with Google Maps to show your house and let you draw your desired solar panel area on it. (Google runs its own similar tool too, called Project Sunroof.)

The tool can also help you estimate cost and energy savings and a recommended system size.

For reference, an average 2,000-square-foot home may need between 16 and 21 panels to fully power itself. 

And, of course, there are costs to consider. In addition to purchase and installation costs, you'll need to pay for yearly maintenance, cleaning, and inspections. Forbes estimates the cleanings cost you about $150 and another $150 for inspection.

It's a big investment, but the payoff is the tens of thousands of dollars you can save by installing panels.

If you've chosen community solar …

Now that you've determined community solar is preferable over rooftop panels, your next step is to find a program. The majority of states have community solar projects that are available for most residents.

One great service is Arcadia, which will find local community solar programs in your area. All you need to do is input your ZIP code and electric company, and Arcadia will immediately give you options to sign up for. 

Solstice, another solar energy company, provides two tools to make the process simple. The first helps you check whether any community solar programs are available to you based on your location. Another tool shows you how much cash you'd save each month.

How much money can you get from the government to go solar?

The Inflation Reduction Act is now making it way cheaper for Americans to power their lives with clean energy. One of the IRA's biggest financial incentives is a 30% tax credit for installing solar panels. 

Those tax breaks add up fast. Rewiring America, a home electrification nonprofit, estimates that this 30% IRA credit will save homeowners $4,600 on average. 

Local solar incentives, like sales tax exemptions, may also be available in your area, so do some research first. It could save you even more cash.

But if you're a renter or think community solar is the simpler option, don't worry. You still might be able to access the financial incentives. Through the IRA, you should be able to benefit when joining a community solar program.

If your local community solar program uses an ownership model, meaning you buy some of the solar farm's panels, you'd still get 30% off. And if the program uses the standard subscription model, the cost can still be lower thanks to the IRA.

Of course, everyone's IRA benefits will differ slightly, so it's a good idea to check out this IRA Savings Calculator to see exactly how much you could get back by switching to solar. 

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