Your 2019 guide to getting solar panels for your home in Iowa
This page is a complete guide to the complicated and sometimes confusing process of installing solar panels on your Iowa home. Since there's a lot to consider, we've separated the page into sections to help you find what you are looking for. If you find this page useful, please share it with someone who might also find it interesting!
** What's new for 2019 **
Anyone who’s ever spent time here in the Hawkeye State knows how beautiful it is. More than just windswept plains and farmer’s fields, Iowa is home to some of the most beautiful prairies and savannas anywhere in the world, and is also home to several varieties of grapes that are turned into delicious Iowa wine. Those of you that live here know what we’re talking about. That means you also know how important it is to protect that environment by getting off of dirty energy, and onto clean sources like solar.
Fortunately, the solar incentive landscape is almost as pretty as the Iowa prairies. There are no big utility company rebates here, but a nice state tax credit helps with some cash back in the first year, and payback timeframe and return on investment are a little better than average.
Sadly, despite the moderately good news above, Iowa has suffered from court battles and utility reluctance when it comes to allowing third-party ownership. So no $0-down leases or Power Purchase Agreements for you, unfortunately.
Thankfully, there are other options. Read on to find out the best way to go solar in Iowa!
Questions? Our network of solar experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page. You can get discounted on-grid pricing as low as $4,000/kW! This is paired with the Iowa solar incentives you see below.
The Solar Strategy section is focused on the 3 ways of paying for solar in Iowa, so you can decide which is best for you. We've created a tool that asks you a few questions and recommends whether you should pursue a solar lease, loan, or outright purchase. Then, we provide detailed analysis of how each works.
The Policy Information section contains all our latest research on the rules set by lawmakers and the Public Utilities Commission, which determine how easy it is to go solar in Iowa. These policies and rules govern everything from renewable energy mandates to interconnection, and have a huge effect on the viability of solar.
Finally, the Solar Incentives section includes information about money-back rebates and grants, tax credits, and tax exemptions for going solar in Iowa.
Click any of the boxes below to go to that section of the page, or scroll down to read the page in order.
|Your Iowa Solar Strategy|
|Comparing Solar Investment Options|
|Paying Cash for Solar in Iowa|
|Solar Loans in Iowa|
|Solar PPAs in Iowa|
|Solar Purchase Payback Time in Iowa|
|Iowa Solar Policy Information|
|Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)|
|RPS Solar Carve-Out|
Your Solar Strategy in Iowa
Figuring out the best way to go solar in Iowa can be a little daunting. From loans and leases to power-purchase agreements, there are a lot of options out there. To help you pick the one that might be best, we've created the handy decision tool below.
We'll ask you a few simple questions about you and your home. Once you're done, we'll recommend a good option. Further down this page, we provide cost estimates and example return-on-investment calculations for all the various options:
How to pay for solar panels in Iowa
The chart above shows the 25-year returns for an investment in solar whether you choose to purchase a system with cash or pay over time with a loan. Since utility companies in Iowa are actively fighting against allowing homeowners to get solar through a third-party agreement like a lease or Power Purchase Agreement, we included two different sizes of solar loans—one for people with a lot of equity (or credit), and one for people with just a little.
As you can see, the purchase option leads to the highest dollar-amount returns over time, but it also requires a big up-front investment. A better option is to take a solar loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC). You'll put $0 down and end up with a big, big tax break at the end of the year.
Your loan payments over 15 years will be more than your electric bill savings, but you'll still come out thousands of dollars ahead by the end of your panels' 25-year warranty, with the potential to continue the savings long into the future.
Read on to find out more about each option.
Option 1: Paying cash for solar
Paying up front used to be the only way to get panels on your roof, and it's still the option that allows you the most control, but it isn't the best option from a percentage return on investment standpoint—that award goes to the solar loan option.
Still, an outright purchase returns the most money over time, because you own the system from day one and reap all the benefits. The 30% Federal solar tax credit, combined with Iowa's own tax deduction and electricity savings, bring your first-year costs way down.
In our example, you put down $21,250, but by the end of year 1, incentives and energy savings will erase a bunch of it. Over 25 years, your system will have produced nearly $14,000 in income.
Net Present Value: $1,369
Net Present Value (NPV) measures how good of an investment something is, compared to the best alternative. We use a 6% return to evaluate all solar investments, and Iowa's $1,369 NPV on a 5-kW solar system means you'd be that much better off investing your money in solar in here over 25 years than in, say, stocks. With investment return like that, you'll be padding your wallet while you save the planet. Good job! But check out what happens to NPV if you buy the same system with a loan that you can pay back over time.
Here’s how the numbers work for an Iowa solar purchase with a 5-kW rooftop solar system:
- Installing a typical 5kW solar system should start at about $21,250. Don’t worry–with tax credits and energy savings, it'll be a lot cheaper after year 1.
- Since the Feds calculate their incentive based on actual out of pocket costs, no state rebate means a bigger federal solar tax credit. Subtract $6,375 (30% of $21,250) for a new price of $14,875. Note: you can take the credit over as many years as necessary to get the full amount.
- Iowa gets in on the game with its own 18% tax credit, netting you another $3,825 total. We estimate about $1,000 in each of the first 3 years, and you can take over a total of 4 years if necessary. If you know your annual Iowa income tax, this credit will wipe it out, up to $3,825.
- Don't forget your first year’s energy savings, which we estimate to be about $749. That brings your cost after the first year to $13,126.
- By the time your system pays itself back in year 13, you’ll be seeing over $1,000 per year in savings until the end of your system’s 25-year warranty, and the panels will probably keep working for longer!
- When all is said and done, our 25-year estimate shows a total net profit of $13,826, with an internal rate of return of 6.8%. That's better than a 25-year investment in the stock market!
- On top of those returns, your home's value just increased by just about $19,000, too (your expected annual electricity savings over 20 years)!
- In addition to all that cash (and home value), you’ve created some green for the earth as well by not using electricity from fossil-fuels. In fact, the energy you’re not using has the carbon equivalent of planting 104 trees a year, every year your solar power system is humming.
Keep in mind, the numbers above are based on an average home in Iowa. If you're ready for a custom quote for a solar panel system, our network of experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page.
Option 2: Using a loan to pay for solar
It's simple: taking a loan to pay for solar is a great idea. Someone else (your bank) puts down all the cash, while you get the big first-year tax credits—then your system produces electricity that helps offset the cost of loan payments. It's like investing in a business that's already successful.
As you can see from the chart above, you'll start out with a big windfall, because even though you're not putting any money down, you get the Federal 30% tax credit for the whole installed cost of your system. Then, over the 15-year repayment term of your loan, you'll be spending more than you're saving in electricity costs, essentially investing a total of about $5,500 until you pay the loan off.
But from there, it's up-up-up! After your loan is paid off, you'll be saving more than $1,000 per year in electricity costs from your fully-owned solar panels. You'll end up over $6,783 to the good after 25 years, after which your panels will likely still work; they'll just be out of warranty.
A solar purchase like this will make sense for you if the following is true about you and your current situation:
- You can qualify for a solar loan or home-equity line of credit (HELOC) for $21,250, with a fixed rate of 4.5% or lower and a 15-year repayment period.
- You have an appetite for making money with a long-term investment, while also producing benefits for the environment.
Net Present Value: $3,097
Net Present Value (NPV) measures how good of an investment something is, compared to the best alternative. We use a 6% return to evaluate all solar investments, and Iowa's $3,097 NPV on a solar loan means you'd be that much better off investing your money in solar over 25 years than in, say, stocks. That's a huge number, and it shows how getting a loan for solar is so much better than the alternatives. You can rest easy with an Iowa solar loan knowing you're doing right for your pocketbook at the same time as you're doing right by the planet!
Here’s how the numbers pencil out for an Iowa solar purchase with a solar loan:
- Installing a typical 5-kW solar system should start at about $21,250. That's how big your loan will need to be to cover it.
- The electricity you'll save in the first year of operation would have cost $749, but your loan payments will total $1,886, for a difference of $1,137, or about $95 per month.
- That's not so bad when you consider your tax savings for the year will be $7,375! You'll come out more than $6,200 ahead in year 1, and you'll get a $1,000 tax credit in years 2 and 3 as well!. That should help ease the burden of loan payments for a few years.
- When your loan’s paid off after year 15, you’ll start to see over $1,000 per year in savings until the end of your system’s life.
- For our 25-year estimate, you'll see some great returns, to the tune of $6,783, even after all the payments.
- And the future is going to look a little brighter, since your system will mean green for the environment. It'll be like planting 104 trees every year!
Keep in mind, the numbers above are based on an average home in Iowa. If you're ready for a custom quote for a solar loan, our network of experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page.
Option 3: Buying the electricity, not the panels with a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA)
Iowa does not offer solar Power Purchase Agreements or leases. Perhaps it would be a good idea to contact a solar advocacy organization and ask them to fight for solar in your state!
Iowa Solar Policy Information
Ever wonder why solar seems to be everywhere in some states, but not in others? We did too.
State legislatures and public utilities commissions can enact rules to make solar power accessible for everyone. Favorable rules explain why some of the cloudiest states—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, are doing so well with solar, and yet some of those with the most natural solar resources—like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia—are doing so poorly.
Below is important information about the public policy, rules, and economic reasons that affect your ability to go solar here in Iowa:
A Renewables Portfolio Standard (“RPS”) basically requires a certain percentage of a state’s energy production come from renewable sources by a specific date in the future. A great many states have passed such standards, sometimes with goals as high as 30%, even 50% renewable energy production in the near future.
So, where is Iowa in this awesome environmentally-friend policy trend? Sadly it’s still mostly in the solar dark ages (pun intended). Iowa technically has an RPS, but that RPS is perhaps the smallest and least effective we’ve seen of any state that has any RPS targets at all. How bad are the Iowa RPS targets? Pretty bad; they mandate only 105 MW of renewable energy from the state’s two investor-owned utilities – MidAmerican Energy (“MAE”) and Alliant Energy Interstate Power and Light (“AEIPL”). While that target has been declared met for years, based on the state’s remarkable 5,177 MW of wind-energy generation there is not a peep coming out of Iowa about increasing those pretty low standards, or including any requirements specifically for solar.
Iowa really needs to get with the program on this one. Colorado, California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and a whole bunch other states have legislated strong renewable energy goals to ensure a bright future for solar power. In fact, the absence of an RPS is probably the biggest reason that Iowa lacks (as we’re about to see) the financial incentives for solar that we see in those other states.
What's an RPS? Your state legislature paves the way for strong solar energy incentives to flourish by setting standards for renewable energy generation within their territories. Those standards are called the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). If utility companies do not meet these standards, they must pay alternative compliance fees directly to the state. Many utilities then determine the best ways to source their energy from renewable sources that are less expensive than this fee.
An RPS is a mandate that says "Hey utilities! Y'all now have to make a certain percentage of your electricity from renewable sources. If not, you'll have to pay us huge fines." The consequences are good, because utilities usually try to meet these RPS standards by creating solar power incentives for you, the homeowner. Read more about Renewable Portfolio Standards.
RPS solar carve out
A solar carve out is basically a mandate that goes along with the RPS, and states that a certain amount of the renewable energy produced in a state must come from solar. Iowa hasn’t included a solar carve out in its RPS, perhaps too satisfied by the performance of the wind energy sector. But in a state that gets as much sun as Iowa does, we think the legislature is missing a great opportunity to bring Iowa into the future and bring costs down for interested homeowners.
What's a solar set aside? A solar set aside guarantees a specific portion of the overall renewable energy mix generated comes from the sun. For those states with progressive standards, high alternative compliance payments, and clear solar carve outs, the faster those areas become ripe for solar.
Some states have higher alternative compliance fees than others, and some states have more progressive alternative energy standards and deadlines than others do.
For instance, New Jersey has an overall RPS of 22.5% by the year 2021. That requires local utilities to source 22.5% of their energy mix from renewable sources by the year 2021. Pretty good. However, New Jersey also has a specific solar set aside of 4.1% by 2028. That’s the type of firm commitment which really gets the industry rolling forward. No wonder why New Jersey is one of the hottest solar markets right now!
Iowa Electricity Prices
Iowa pays an average price of 12 cents/kWh for electricity; a little more than half a penny cheaper than the U.S. average. While Iowans at least don't pay those high electric prices that the coastal cities pay, we wonder how many homeowners here have thought about why electricity is relatively cheap.
It might have something to do with all of all the dirty coal we’re burning here to produce it in massive, inefficient, earth-killing ways. When all that fossil-fuel burning starts to catch up with us (and with the fossil-fuel supply), energy isn't going to be so affordable anymore.
You know what your neighbors will think you are with that shiny solar system humming along, producing clean, efficient, (still) cheap power? A genius! The best thing about a solar installation is that it keeps producing for you, long after it’s paid for itself; even when everyone else is complaining about paying too much for electricity!
Why are electricity prices so important? Because that is what solar power is directly competing against. The cost to produce power with solar is relatively constant (of course how much sun hits your area has an effect), so if you are paying $0.40 per watt for power, then you make FOUR TIMES AS MUCH as the guy or girl paying $0.10 per watt electricity.
The caveat here is that if the $0.10 per watt person has a HUGE rebate, they may be better off than the $0.40 per watt person. Because of that, states without any renewable standards tend to be heavily reliant on cheap coal for electricity, and also have very low electricity prices. When electricity prices are artificially low, that hinders the ability of solar energy to achieve meaningful payback in the state.
Iowa Net Metering
Net Metering requires your utility to monitor how much energy your solar power system produces and how much energy you actually consume, and make sure you get credit for the surplus.
Iowa was one of the first states in the country to get on board with net metering, passing its first standard way back in 1984. The state's current net metering policy is solid, but not spectacular. First off, the net metering policy applies only to MAE and AEIPL – municipal and cooperative electric utilities are not covered. Second, MAE and AEIPL used to have to cut you a check for any surplus you generated, but more recent changes now allow the utilities to carry your surplus forward toward future bills, rather than actually giving you cash back. Don’t get us wrong –savings are savings– but we sure do like it more when the cash goes straight to you every month.
What is net metering? Net metering is the billing arrangement where you can sell excess electricity back to your utility for equal the amount you are charged to consume it. The more customer friendly net metering policies, the higher the grade.
The grade here specifically reflects individual solar system capacity, caps on program capacity limits, restrictions on “rollover” of kWh from one month to the next (yep just like cell phone minutes), metering issues (like charges for new meters), Renewable Energy Credit (REC) ownership, eligible customers and technology (the more renewables the better), being able to aggregate meters across the property for net metering, and safe harbor provisions to protect customers from solar tariff changes.
Iowa Interconnection Rules
Interconnection reflects how easy it is to connect your Iowa solar panels to the grid. Since Iowa calls for reviews of solar installations, external disconnect switches, and extra insurance, that adds unnecessary cost home solar systems. We recommend that the legislature pass updated rules that help reduce costs for homeowners looking to go solar.
Interconnection rules are a little technical, but they basically allow you to “plug in” to the electric grid with solar panels on your roof. The more complex, out of date, or nonsensical the state rules are for plugging into the grid, the lower the grade.
Specifically, the grade reflects what technologies are eligible, individual system capacity, removing interconnection process complexity for smaller systems, interconnection timelines and charges, engineering charges, prohibiting the requirement of unnecessary external disconnects, certification, spot interconnection vs. wide area interconnection, technical screens, friendliness of legalese, insurance requirements, dispute resolution, and rule coverage.
Solar Incentives in Iowa
Next to high electricity prices and net metering, solar incentives have traditionally been the most important factor for whether home solar power makes financial sense in a state. In the past, some states with otherwise lousy policy had tremendous incentives that drove down the up-front cost of going solar so much that homeowners could save oodles of money even without net metering or a good RPS.
These days, the big incentive most people can get is the Federal Solar Tax Credit that earns you 30% of your costs back after just 1 year. State incentives play less of a role than in the past, but some really good ones are still out there, ready to help homeowners go solar and save money before you know it.
Let's see how Iowa measures up:
Iowa Solar Power Rebates
Iowa lacks a statewide rebate program to encourage renewable power, solar or otherwise. In some other states missing statewide programs we’ve seen utilities come to the rescue with strong solar power rebates of their own. Not so much in Iowa, where utility-backed rebate programs have been exhausted or phased-out. Of course, a more robust RPS with a solar carve-out might convince the utilities to start offering rebates to homeowners to help them meet the new standards...
How do solar rebates work? Similar to getting a rebate card from your local big box store for a dishwasher purchase, state legislatures also provide rebates for solar panel purchases to spur on investment and create new jobs. If you purchase the solar panel system yourself, you qualify for this free cash, which many times is a lump payment back to you. Some solar installers like to take this amount directly off the total installed price, and they'll handle the paperwork for you to make things a lot less complex.
The availability of state and utility rebates were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. The better the rebates, the higher the grade.
Iowa Solar Power Tax Credits
15% of Costs, up to $5,000
Even without great statewide rebates, there are ways to reduce the cost of going solar. Iowa offers a personal tax credit equal to 50% of the federal solar tax credit of 30%. Both can be claimed on your yearly tax returns for after a solar installation was completed on your home. Individuals and businesses are eligible for a state tax credit up to a maximum of $5,000. Any excess credit (i.e., if your credit reduces your tax burden below $0) may be carried over for up to ten years, which is great news for Iowa homeowners interested in solar power.
New solar owners in Iowa must apply online by May 1st of the year after installation. Each year, the state has a $5 million cap for all tax credits, but timely applications will be put on a waiting list for the next year's limit. Once your application is approved, a tax credit certificate will be mailed to you. Read more about Iowa solar tax credits here, and apply here.
About state solar tax credits: State tax credits are not technically free money. However, they are 'credits' and not 'deductions' which means that if you have the tax appetite to take advantage of them, then they can be a 1-to-1 dollar amount off your taxes instead of a fraction of the cost of the system. So that means they can be an important factor to consider. In certain circumstances, state tax credits can provide a very powerful incentive for people to go solar.
(Keep in mind, we are not tax professionals and give no tax advice so please consult a professional before acting on anything we say related to taxes)
The availability of personal tax credits for solar energy were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. The higher the tax credit amount, the higher the grade.
Solar Power Performance Payments
12.5 cents/kWh, FEC customers only
Back in 2007, the Iowa legislature provided for a renewable energy credit (REC) payment program to help MAE AND AEIPL purchase renewable energy from homeowners to meet the state's small 105 MW renewables target. Since the RPS goals were met long ago, the REC program has gone the way of the dinosaur.
There is one bright spot (pun intended) in the state, though: In Kalona, Farmers Electric Cooperative (“FEC”) has introduced a performance payment plan that will buy the electricity your panels produce at $0.125/kilowatt-hour (“kWh”) up to your usage amount. FEC buys electricity from you above your usage at $0.06/kWh.
$0.125/kWh is a pretty solid price—a little above Iowa’s retail electricity rate (covered above). To enroll, you must enter a 10-year contract. FEC also allows its customer-owners to buy solar panels in its community solar garden, and has been recognized by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories as a leader in green power programs. Nice job, FEC!
Now, let's be clear, here: if the entire state offered a plan like FEC's, with a fixed contract payment that paid above current retail rates for solar based on your usage, and paid a fixed wholesale price for any overage, we'd award it a B+. The only better performance payments scheme is an SREC market coupled with high RPS goals and strong Alternative Compliance Payments.
In this case, FEC is bumping the whole state up a little with its excellent program.
Explanation of performance payments: Performance payments represent a big chunk of the financial rationale for going solar, and in many instances they make your decision a wise one. For certain states, if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, not only will you be cutting your electric bill down to size, but you'll be getting paid additional cash from your utility company. Pretty awesome, huh? Not only are you generating electricity for yourself, freezing your own popsicles with sun, and feeling like you’re doing something smart for your children or any of the other 4 reasons people go solar, but you are getting PAID!
Utility companies are paying people with solar panels on their roofs because their states say they have to, otherwise they will pay a fee. Therefore, the payment amount to homeowners is typically a little bit less than the amount they would be billed for by the state. For states with these alternative compliance fees, Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) exchanges have popped up. In the above chart, we outlined an estimate of yearly payments a homeowner might expect from the utility company for the SREC credits from their solar energy system.
Expected SREC payments were calculated by using the latest trade values in the SRECtrade database. The availability of feed-in tariffs were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. The higher the expected monthly payments, the higher the grade.
We've got a great article if you like to read more about what SRECs are and how to earn them.
Property Tax Exemption
100% for 5 years
Your solar power system adds value to your home. A bunch of value – like, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars of value. Normally all that added value comes with added taxes. In Iowa, however, the increase in property value resulting from the installation of a solar power system is exempt from all associated property taxes for five full assessment years. That’s not the full (i.e. doesn't expire) exemption we’ve seen in a lot of other states, but it IS a nice chunk of change you won’t be responsible for paying.
About solar property tax exemptions: Property tax exemption status is a pretty big factor when putting together your investment considerations. Some argue that solar power adds approximately 20 times your annual electricity bill savings (if you own the system and are not leasing). Other studies seem to indicate a home price premium about equal to solar panel cost, minus any incentives like the federal solar tax credit.
For many average-sized solar power systems on a house, that can mean adding $20,000 to your home value. And if you don't believe us, believe the bean counters: Many banks and solar financing companies now offer traditional style equity-based home loans for installing solar. An additional $20,000 in property tax basis in many states amounts to a big chunk of change owed back to the state. However, many states have complete exemptions from added taxes when you install solar on your home!
The availability of a property tax exemption for solar energy was sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. Grades in this category are basically all-or-nothing. Either you got it or you don't. Thankfully, many states have "got it.".
Sales Tax Exemption
Another chunk of change you won’t be responsible for paying is the 5-7 % sales tax (depending on where you live) attached to most other items. Yep, Iowa exempts your solar power system from this one too. Good show, Iowa! You just made up for a bit of that incomplete property tax exemption with a simple and smart law that we’ve seen too many other states miss.
What's the deal with solar power sales tax exemptions? When states give you a sales tax break on solar, we notice. You should too. State sales tax exemption status for the purchase of solar energy systems were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. Sales tax exemptions, if present, were all 100%. A handful of states are completely exempt from sales tax regardless, and therefore received ‘A’ grades by default (OR, DE, MT, AK, and NH).
The consensus on Iowa solar power rebates and incentives
Iowa is far from the worst state we’ve seen regarding solar policy, but it’s also far from the best. What’s the bottom line here? The background policies are OK, with adequate grades in net metering, interconnection, and tax exemptions. What’s missing is solar power rebates and performance payment incentives. Money. Dinero. Moolah, people! Cold hard cash. The cost after year 1 is adequate, but not outstanding for a state with friendly foundational policies. Because starting costs remain somewhat high and there are no ongoing performance incentives, the payback timeframe on a solar power system here remains a fairly slow 12 years. Again, not the worst we’ve seen, but a long way from good. While we were tempted to give out a “B-” because of some friendly solar policies, without a strong RPS we’re still in “C+” territory here. Time to get on it, Des Moines!