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How to Go Solar, Step by Step

How do we get solar energy?  The primary barrier to having more distributed      on-site renewable energy is the lack of knowledge regarding how to proceed.  Organizations with an interest in renewable energy usually begin their climate action plans with the assistance of someone who is an advocate, maybe a solar owner with personal experience. Typically an energetic person will encourage others to form a green team or join an existing group. The initiative can begin from the top down, starting with leadership or a board of directors. The likelihood of a favorable outcome will be increased by support from a manager, pastor or school principal.  Participation of finance and property committees will allow their concerns to be addressed early in the process. The advocates in a family may be children who convince their parents to consider other sources of energy for their home.

The first step for beginning a solar project is to contact the electric utility company (maybe via their website) and determine what their policy is for compensating customer-owned renewable energy generation. Energy produced and used on site is generally valued at retail. The variable in policies is what value they assign to energy sent to the grid.

Solar energy is seasonal, with lower output in winter months and most production occurring during eight months of spring, summer and fall. An array producing enough energy to offset total annual usage will send many of its electrons to the power grid on long sunny days. Your neighbors will pay the utility company for energy you have produced.

Example A:  With net metering, sizing can match energy usage because all of the energy produced has full retail value and seasonal excess energy is credited to offset usage in winter months.

Example B:  If your annual energy usage is 10,000 kWh and the solar array produces 10,000 kWh, less than half of the energy produced will be used on site. If net metering is not available (as is currently the case in Indiana),  you will be paid near wholesale value for most of the energy produced. The excess will be sent to the grid for use by a neighbor who pays the retail price for energy you produced.

 Example C:  If your annual energy usage is 10,000 kWh and the solar array produces 5,000 kWh, most of the energy produced will be used on site, thereby avoiding retail charges. You will be paid near wholesale value for any excess that is sent to the grid for use by a neighbor who pays retail for energy you produced.

The next step is to review electric bills for the previous one or two years with a focus on energy usage measured in kilowatt hours (kWh). It’s about learning how much energy is being used rather than its cost. Average homes use about 12,000 kWh annually. A church might use between 50,000 and 200,000 kWh annually.  Energy usage by businesses or schools may be greater. Seasonal variation will indicate how much energy is used for heating and air conditioning. An energy audit, offered by many utility companies, can identify affordable actions to reduce energy usage, such as attic insulation, LED lighting and programmable thermostats.

Anticipate future plans –  Addition of a room, garage, swimming pool or hot tub will require additional energy. An electric vehicle uses about 1,000 kWh for driving 4,000 miles. Utility companies allow solar production beyond past usage if explained.  Utility companies expect your array to produce nearly the same amount of energy as your typical annual usage. To get their permission to connect a larger array, you may need to explain your anticipated future usage.

Overcoming an absence of state incentives –  Indiana is an example of what is possible in a state with minimal incentives for renewable energy. In 2017 a law to phase out net metering by 2022 was narrowly passed in the state legislature, supported only by the electric utility companies against widespread opposition. Yet Indiana now has thousands of residential solar owners, hundreds of solar school and commercial sites, and more than 50 solar churches served by REMC member cooperatives, municipal owned utilities and the five investor owned utilities.

Actions by the public are indicative of an attitude that the increasing urgency of cumulative effects of climate change doesn’t allow time to wait for support from politicians. Indiana energy sources are largely fossil fuel based, contributing to serious adverse environmental and health conditions. The state is one of the worst for air and water pollution, and ranks in the bottom quartile nationally for some metrics of health and wellness (see references below).

The growth of Indiana renewable energy prior to 2023 has been partly due to conversion of farmland to massive centralized solar projects as utility companies have begun a transition from coal to renewables. The Indiana experience is in contrast to that of Germany’s consistent government support of renewable energy as a world leader for many years in spite of Germany’s having low solar potential, similar to Alaska’s. European priorities place a high value on agricultural land and encourage locating renewable energy sources where the land is unsuitable for growing food.

The German people are resourceful and determined. Likewise, other midwestern states with consumer-friendly energy policies, such as Illinois and Minnesota, are seeing higher growth rates for adoption of renewable energy accompanied by emergence of a robust solar industry.

Cities and states are beginning to adopt regulations requiring solar water heating and electric heat pumps but some homeowner associations have restrictive covenants that have not been updated since the last century. Such covenants can usually be changed by a majority vote of owners.

Location, location, location –  Another initial step is to consider where there is a suitable space on the property with good sun exposure, whether on a rooftop, on the ground or parking canopies. Rooftop sites may be less expensive to install initially but more expensive overall when factoring in the cost of system removal and replacement when shingles reach their end of service life, usually in less than 20 years. Shingles more than ten years old should be replaced before the system is installed. The service life of metal roofs, a half century or beyond, is similar to that of solar arrays. Solar output after 25 years is expected to be more than eighty percent of its original performance.

Ground arrays have an advantage of site optimization, as they can be placed facing south where there is little or no shading. Orientation east or west, if that is what the roof dictates or shading allows, will result in about 15 percent less energy production as compared with south-facing orientation. Solar parking canopies offer added benefits as shelter for vehicles. Midwest locations may consider the SolarCam patented design for increasing annual energy output with manual tilt adjustment, flatter in the spring and higher in the fall. Single axis adjustable tilting can increase performance by twenty percent or more and its cost is similar to that of rooftop arrays.

How large is enough –  Array size is determined by the smallest of three factors: annual energy usage, available space, and the project budget. Utility company renewable energy policies can also have an effect on size. Where net metering is available, sizing can match energy usage because all of the energy produced has full retail value and seasonal excess energy is credited to offset usage in winter months.  Smaller arrays producing half or less of energy used may be preferable in utility service territories where excess energy produced has less than retail value.

AC/DC, batteries and generators –  Solar cells convert photons of light into direct current (DC) electricity that is changed to alternating current (AC) by an inverter.  Some of the DC energy can be stored in batteries and used at night. Having batteries and generators is like having a single-premium insurance policy where the total premium is paid at the beginning and benefits are received over time. Batteries must be replaced every 10 to 15 years and their cost is increasing. A home using 1,000 kWh monthly averages about 30 kWh each day but solar batteries don’t have much capacity, typically less than fifteen kWh for a single battery. A propane or natural gas generator can provide backup power if you have frequent outages.

Vehicle to grid (V2G) –   An emerging best practice that will become more prevalent is to use a bidirectional charger for electric vehicles (EV) with vehicle-to-grid capability when newer EV batteries with 50 kWh or more will soon be able to provide energy to a home or office. Your vehicle with an EV battery may also include features such as heated seats, navigation assist and adaptive cruise control.  Although the batteries are larger than solar batteries, a downside of using an EV to power your home or office is that you won’t have the backup energy for a power outage when the vehicle is not there.

EV charging –  Electric vehicles can go about 4 or 5 miles for each kWh in the battery.  Roughly 1,000 kWh is needed to drive 4,000 miles. Level 3 fast chargers located near interstate highways provide a full charge in less than an hour. Frequent Level 3 charging can shorten battery life due to overheating. Level 2 chargers typically available in parking garages provide 20 to 30 miles range in an hour.

Level 1 chargers plugged into a standard 120 volt wall outlet provide about 5 miles driving range in an hour. Some solar inverters are capable of charging an EV battery with solar energy, bypassing the DC/AC/DC conversion that consumes a small part of the energy. When the vehicle is connected and solar electricity is being generated, the current is never inverted. It sends the DC straight to the car and thus the inefficiency of conversion never happens.

Get proposals –  After approximate cost, location and size has been determined you can request proposals from a few solar installers within 50 to 100 miles. You can either ask for a percentage reduction of your energy usage, suggest how many modules you are considering, or specify a target budget. You can ask about the cost of installing replacement parts under warranty. Some companies charge a mileage fee for traveling more than a few miles. An extended warranty for the inverter is usually affordable. Micro inverters for each module reduce the adverse effect of a failure to loss of production by a single module rather than a complete array.

Preliminary proposals can be provided using online aerial images of the property.  Some companies offer batteries and generators that can be integrated with the solar system. Several Indiana companies are at

Do you want apples or oranges? –  Direct comparison of proposals may be challenging when companies have different products. Performance and cost may be similar but, like Ford and Chrysler;, they are not the same. Equipment made in the USA may qualify for an additional ten percent federal tax credit in addition to the baseline 30 percent credit.

A good metric is cost per watt, calculated by dividing total cost by array size. For example, $30,000 for ten kilowatts (10,000 watts) would be $3 per watt. Solar modules are rated by watts (usually between 350 and 500 watts) under controlled laboratory conditions. One solar kilowatt (kw) is 1,000 watts. Three modules each rated for 335 watts is approximately one kw; thirty modules would be ten kw.

Although you are paying for rated watts under controlled conditions, you actually get the kWh energy produced which reduces the amount of kWh purchased from the utility company. However, attempting to compare performance is subjective. Typical unshaded 10 kilowatt arrays facing south and tilted between 25 and 35 degrees might produce about 12,000 kWh annually, depending on weather conditions and the growth rate of nearby trees. Performance degrades slowly over time. Performance warranties anticipate annual output reduction of about fifteen percent after 25 years panels may continue producing seventy percent of original output after 50 years.  Future solar production will be reduced further as our weather continues trending to frequent extreme events with more clouds, rain and snow.

PVwatts, an online performance simulator provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, gives a monthly estimate of kWh for your location when you enter your zip code and the size and orientation of your planned array.

Financing –  Project funding for nonprofits can come from multiple sources including donations, annual budget, memorials, bequests, endowment, grants and bank loans. Transfer of federal tax credits to a tax paying entity may become a source of funds for nonprofits in mid 2023 after U.S. Treasury regulations are published. Tax equity investor LLCs with a nonprofit partner allow the investor’s return on investment to benefit from depreciation.

Many residential projects are financed with an equity line of credit that is actually a mortgage, sometimes with a variable interest rate. The Clean Energy Credit Union offers an alternative of fixed rate loans secured by the project equipment that’s installed, not by the equity in your home.

Communities with a climate action plan may offer rebates or grants to qualifying applicants. Some states with renewable energy portfolio standards, such as Illinois and Ohio, have programs for solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) that provide payment to the owner for each 1,000 kWh produced. Indiana residents are allowed to participate in the Ohio SREC program because both states share the midwestern energy grid.

A contract is signed when the size and location of the project has been approved and funding sources are identified. The contract covers materials, labor, permits and interconnection agreements in all all-inclusive cost-per-watt charge. Work on site can be completed in a few days after waiting weeks or months for product delivery.

Attitude Shift –  A heightened awareness of how energy is being used is common among solar owners. Annual usage reduction of between ten and twenty percent is not unusual. Appliances with compressors or electric resistance heaters are high consumers. Energy monitors for checking appliances can be purchased for under $50 and are available for checkout from some public libraries. Whole house energy monitors with connections to your electric circuit box will show real time energy consumption by each appliance. Some inverters include an integrated energy monitor connected to the electrical panel. Production data from inverters can be accessed and displayed on a cell phone or a monitor for viewing.


Online performance calculator

Clean Energy Credit Union

List of Indiana solar contractors

List of Indiana solar congregations

Indiana net metering report (solar and wind)

Public health rankings

States ranked by air pollution

State rankings for solar energy

State solar incentives

Nonprofit multi-state resource

Volunteer nonprofit help desk for questions:  send an email to


Category: Solar Basics

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