Thinking of Going Solar? Here's what you need to know

So you’re thinking of going solar? You’re in good company. Already more than 1.6 million Australian households and counting have taken control of their energy use and their power bills by generating clean, cheap energy from the sun. It’s nothing short of a rooftop revolution.

Here at Solar Citizens, we get hundreds of questions every month from people looking to go solar. It’s a significant investment, so it’s important to do your research. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the experts at the Alternative Technologies Association to bring you this starter guide to going solar. Here’s what you need to know.

Is my rooftop right for solar?

If it’s sunny, you can put a solar panel on it. To get the most out of your solar power system, you want to avoid too much shade falling on your panels - look out for shadows cast by overhanging trees and nearby buildings. Note that shade falling on one solar panel in a set will reduce output from all the panels unless you have panels with individual inverters fitted. If you live in an Australian capital city, check out The Australian PV Institute’s Live Solar Potential Tool - an online app developed to help you estimate the solar potential of your rooftop.

I don’t have a north facing roof. Can I still go solar?

Conventional wisdom says that it’s best to have north-facing panels to catch the Australian sun. But if you don’t have a north facing roof, never fear. It turns out east, and west facing panels aren’t so bad after all, generating just 15% less on average than north facing installations.

In the end, it all comes down to when you use the power. If you’re an early riser who likes to potter around the house in the morning, east facing panels that catch the rising sun’s rays could be for you. Or, if you’re home during the late afternoon heat, west facing panels that capture the setting sun’s rays could serve you just as well as north facing panels.

How do I find an accredited solar installer?

Going solar is a serious, long-term investment, so it’s important to make sure your chosen solar installer provides top-notch quality products, quality and service. The Clean Energy Council’s solar installer accreditation system can help you make an informed choice.

First, make sure you get at least three quotes from CEC accredited installers for the same size system and compare prices. Second, ask lots of questions. Ask about the type and quality of panels and inverters the installer works with, ask for references from previous customers and ask about the warranties the installer provides. The manufacturer, not the installer will issue most warranties, but a good benchmark is a 25-year panel performance warranty and a 5-10 year factory defect warranty.

What type of solar panels should I buy?

There are three types of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film. While there are all sorts of wacky and wonderful technological developments happening in solar PV, monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are still the most common types used in rooftop installations.

Both types of solar panels are made from silicone - monocrystalline panels are made from slices cut from a whole crystal, while polycrystalline are made from shards cast into blocks. Monocrystalline solar panels are more efficient but more expensive, and polycrystalline panels are less efficient and cheaper.

Which type you choose will depend on your requirements, constraints and budget. For example, if you have a limited budget but lots of roof space, you may go for the less efficient but cheaper polycrystalline panel. Conversely, if you have limited roof space, you might choose the more efficient monocrystalline panels.

Expect to pay around $1 to $1.50 per watt for larger panels and approximately $3 a watt for top-end panels.

Kilo-what? How big does my system need to be?

When it comes to solar arrays, there are no one-size-fits-all rules, and bigger is not always better. First, you have to decide how much energy you want to produce. You may want to offset all the energy you use during daylight hours - you can look at previous power bills to get a ballpark figure. Of course, the more energy efficient your household is, the smaller your solar system requirements will be.

If you have access to a feed-in tariff that is higher than the rate you currently pay for the electricity you may want to produce more than you use and export the rest to the electrical grid in exchange for payment. However, it’s important to keep in mind that feed-in tariffs are on a downward trend so you may not be able to rely on them in the future.

Once you’ve decided how much energy you want to produce, divide the figure by the approximate average peak sun hours per day. For instance, say you want a system to generate approximately 5 kWh per day. If you live in Melbourne, you can expect a little over four peak sun hours per day, on average. Divide 5 by 4, and you get a system size of 1.25 kW. You might adjust this up to 1.5 kW or down to 1.0 kW.

What’s an inverter and why do I need one?

Inverters convert the DC (direct current) power generated by your solar panels into the 240 volt AC (alternating current) power needed by the grid and by appliances in your home. Basically, without an inverter, your solar system could not be used to supply the devices in your home.

If you’re connected to the grid, you’ll need a grid interactive inverter - it merely feeds the energy you produce into the network. This type of inverter requires the mains grid voltage to be present for safety, and this means your solar system will automatically shut down during blackouts.

If you’ve gone off-grid with solar and battery storage, you’ll need a stand-alone inverter. These inverters do not connect to the grid at all. It is also possible to obtain an inverter that will perform as both grid interactive and stand-alone, but these cost considerably more.

Many solar owners are passionate about tracking their system’s output. So it’s a good thing most grid-interactive inverters have at least a basic display, usually a small LCD screen, which will show you the mains voltage, power from the solar array and energy generated for the day, so you can sit back and watch the megawatts tick over. Many inverters also come with built-in monitoring software that is accessible via the Internet.

While there is no such thing as a typical cost, expect to pay $0.7 to $2 per watt for a good quality grid interactive inverter depending on brand, size and features.

How do I know I’m buying good quality products?

The Clean Energy Council offers another handy service to help you avoid buying a lemon. You’ll find a list of approved solar modules and inverters that meet Australian standards on their website, along with links to recalled products

Each solar panel may also have been ‘flash’ tested and certified by the manufacturer, measuring the exact output under ideal conditions. The results of these tests should be provided to your installer by the manufacturer.

How much will I save?

While we can’t say precisely how much you’ll save with rooftop solar, we can tell you that 56% of respondents to our 2016 Solar Census survey are cutting their bills by more than half! 

The amount you’ll save depends on a few different things, including how much you pay for your system upfront, how energy efficient your household is, the types of government rebates and feed-in tariffs you’re able to access and how fair and transparent your electricity retailer is.

Most solar systems pay for themselves within ten years. Considering the lifetime of solar panels is generally 25-30 years, you could make your money back up to three times over!

Energy efficiency

By far the most significant factor affecting how much you’ll save is how energy efficient your household is. One of the key benefits of going solar is the power it gives you to take control of your energy bills, allowing you to monitor how much power you’re generating and reduce how much you use accordingly. There’s so much information out there to help you. The Alternative Technology Association is the best organisation around for expert knowledge on energy efficiency and sustainability. Online tools like the Australian Greenhouse Calculator can help you assess how much energy you’re using currently and what you can do to reduce it. You can also check out Energy Freedom, a new initiative providing expert information on how you can make your home produce more energy than it uses.

Federal government schemes

Thanks to the tireless work of Solar Citizens across the country, the Small-Scale Renewable Energy Scheme withstood attacks from the Abbott Government and is still going strong. Thanks to this scheme when you install an eligible small-scale system you can receive Small-scale Technology Certificates, a sort of renewable energy currency that will help reduce the upfront cost of your system. Your CEC accredited installer can manage the process of applying for and selling these credits for you.

Feed-in tariffs

Another factor to consider is your solar feed-in tariff - the price your energy retailer pays you for the solar electricity you feedback to the grid. In some Australian states and Territories minimum feed-in tariffs are mandated by government, and in others, it’s up to individual retailers to set any price they like. You can compare available feed-in tariff's using this handy factsheet from the Total Environment Centre. 

Beware of unscrupulous power companies

Every day we hear from Solar Citizens across the country who are having difficulties with their power company. We’ve seen everything from long delays connecting to the grid to mysterious fixed charges and barefaced discriminatory fees for solar owners.

Here at Solar Citizens, we work with solar owners and supporters on campaigns that put a stop to this mistreatment. By joining together and taking action, we’ve stopped the introduction of unfair fees in South Australia and Queensland and protected the feed-in tariff in WA. The best thing you can do to hold power companies to account is to sign up with Solar Citizens and take action with your fellow solar owners.

What about solar panels and battery storage?

Until very recently, battery storage for solar was very big, very expensive and found only in the homes of the most diligent and passionate off-grid enthusiasts. That’s all about to change with what some are touting as the “storage revolution.” Home battery storage is becoming more affordable, with the announcement of the hotly anticipated Tesla Powerwall home battery already forcing down prices in Australia. According to the ATA, solar and storage could be an economic no-brainer for some Australians in just 5 years time.

If the cost of installing solar and storage upfront still seems a bit too much, you can always go solar now and add additional storage in a couple of years when the price comes down.

How do I connect to the grid?

For most people in most locations, grid connection is a streamlined process that can be organised by your solar installer. However, if your system size is above 5.0 kW, you will need to negotiate the grid connection directly with the electricity distributor in your area. You may also need to engage an energy professional to help you settle the grid connection process. This could be a lengthy and costly process.

What do I need to keep in mind after my solar installation is complete?

Solar panels don’t require a great deal of maintenance, but there are a few things you can do to make sure they’re safe and performing at the highest possible level. Grime and dust can affect the performance of your panels, so it’s a good idea to clean them every couple of months. In addition to this, your installer will also provide you with a maintenance schedule, similar to the servicing program you get when you buy a new car.

It’s also a good idea to double check that your home and contents insurance policy covers solar panels.

After installation, be sure to monitor your electricity bills for changes in fixed fees or unexpected charges. Do your research into alternative retailers and, if necessary, switch to make sure you’re getting the best possible deal.

Now, kick back and enjoy producing your own clean, cheap energy from the sun!

This article was compiled with help from the Alternative Technology Association, which provides specific advice and support about solar, energy efficiency and much more. You can get a 20% discount on ATA products and services by signing up as a Solar Citizens supporter today. Click here to sign up to Solar Citizens and claim your ATA coupon code.

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