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Should you wait to get solar panels?

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 11/29/2016 in
Updated 10/01/2019

Scientists and researchers are cranking away at technology advances in all corners of the world in many disciplines, including solar power. It always seems like the headline-grabbing breakthroughs in today’s laboratories will turn into new products that are light-years ahead of what we currently have. As you may have noticed though, our cars still aren’t flying (yet).

Awareness of pending breakthroughs can be damaging, as it leads some of us to wait for the next big thing, instead of jumping on technology that will make our lives measurably better right now. That’s why we’ve prepared this handy guide of the up-and-coming solar technologies you’ve probably read about. We’ve slotted them into 3 categories for easy understanding:

  • What you should wait for
  • What you shouldn’t wait for
  • What you can add later

but first…

Why wait?

This is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. It seems most people want to wait until solar is either less expensive or more efficient or both. But there is a really strong argument that waiting at all is silly.

Look at it this way: economics teaches us that saving money now is better than saving money later, and experience with disappearing solar incentives tells us that you’ve gotta get while the gettin’ is good, so to speak.

As of late 2016, the federal government still offers its tax credit of 30% of the costs of solar. We’re not trying to act like we’re running a protection racket here, but the way things are going, that’s a real nice tax credit you got there… it would be a shame if something happened to it.

No joke, though: If you’ve been thinking about getting solar panels and you’re not sure if now is the time, you should know that now is the time. Taking a loan for solar and paying over time, while seeing huge tax savings right off the bat, is a no-brainer. Buying solar this way leads to better-than-average returns in nearly 3/4 of the country.

Check out how it works by looking at this example from Minnesota:

That big tax credit makes all the difference there, so don’t wait past 2019, when the residential solar tax credit is set to “step down” (unless somebody decides to kill it sooner). So why not connect with a local solar expert to learn more about solar for your home?

Stepping down the solar tax credit

What you should wait for

The question we asked above is “why wait?” Well, there are some good answers: If you’re already thinking about replacing that roof in the next 5 years you should probably wait. That’s because replacing a roof once panels are up there is more expensive than without.

If your roof needs to be replaced soon, getting it done before you put panels over it is essential, but in this case, waiting might mean you can get Tesla’s new solar roof tiles instead of a roof plus solar panels, and gently pat two birds with one hand (we don’t condone violence against birds).

If instead you want solar power for your house but have an aversion to the way solar panels look on your roof, Tesla’s tiles will probably make you very happy—depending on the cost. They’re real purdy:

And they make electricity, too!

We’ve previously discussed these solar roof tiles, so check that out if you’re interested.

Finally, if you’re in a place right now where you don’t have income to take advantage of the tax credit, but you expect to have that income in 1-2 years, you should probably wait. Prices will get cheaper, and the closer to the date of installation you can take the tax credit, the better.

What you shouldn’t wait for

Here’s where we list all the fun and exciting new technologies that are either currently available and undesirable or at least a few years and a few million R&D dollars short of being ready for the marketplace. You’ve got your thin-film solar, your solar window glass, your solar roadways, your solar turf grass… okay we made that last one up. Basically, anything you might read about in, oh, say a Time Magazine article is not going to be ready for your home.

The technologies out there right now are either not feasible on a small scale, like solar window glass; not as affordable or efficient as traditional solar cells (thin film, including amorphous silicon, CdTe, and CIGS panels), or not even close to ready for prime time, as is the case with the tin perovskite cells mentioned in the Time article above.

Basic rule: anything that is reported as being recently published in a scientific journal probably isn’t going to be on the market before a newborn baby is out of diapers. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be a revolutionary technology, but it means that there will be a long wait before someone from the nearest solar company will be attaching it to your roof.

It takes a while (and a whole lot of money) to go from proof of concept to proven winner

Now, thin film solar has its place—especially anywhere where it’s really hot, like the desert. In super hot conditions, thin-film technologies maintain efficiency much better than traditional solar cells. But even in those situations, standard mono-crystalline photovoltaic panels have gotten so inexpensive and are generally so well-made that you’d be hard pressed to make another choice, given a flat, sunny surface and a decent credit score.

Waiting hurts

The thing is, waiting to get solar actively undermines the most compelling reasons in its favor: you put off saving money, and you put off reducing your carbon footprint. So if you’ve got a roof and you’re prepared to spend the cash or get a loan, get solar sooner. The technology has already matured, it’s nowhere NEAR obsolete, and it’s already cheaper than electricity from the utility company in most every state.

What you can add later

Batteries, batteries, and more batteries. Storing solar energy for later use is a hot topic. Well, sometimes it’s cool, as in the case of the Ice Cub, a way to pre-charge your air conditioner with solar-electricity-cooled ice, ensuring super-cold solar-powered A/C even when the sun isn’t helping you kilowatts!

But again, back to Tesla (sorry, they just know how to throw a party), they’ve just released the second version of their Powerwall home battery, and it’s 20% cheaper than their first version. If that happens again for 1-2 years, you’d be looking at a battery that’s big enough to store all your panels’ electricity for the cost of less than a dollar per day over its 10-year lifespan.

But why get a battery when you can just sell the extra power to the utility company? Well, that’s a good point… for now. In places like Nevada and Hawaii, solar batteries like the Powerwall are close to breaking even or beating the grid, because of new high fees on solar owners, and reduced payments for that solar energy, too. Look for future fee increases in Arizona, Maine, and other places, too.

Finally, you can add more panels to an existing installation. But don’t intentionally choose a small installation now, because it will cost more on a per-watt basis to install, and again, money now is worth more than money later.

Going forward, you’ll be able to stick a battery or more panels into your system more or less whenever you choose, but when you’re connecting with an installer, be sure to talk about the possibilities, to make sure you get an inverter setup that can handle the energy of any future panels you install, and also shunt energy to future battery storage.

Last modified: October 1, 2019

2 thoughts on “Should you wait to get solar panels?

  1. Avatar for Anonymous Anonymous says:

    We are a church that is interested in solar. We need information on how to set up a structure so that we can benefit from the ITC and depreciation of assets tax deductions. As we understand it, this is done by having a third party that owns the solar asset that has a great enough tax liability that they can take advantage of these tax incentives. This would be passed on to the church as a savings. We need information on how this is set up.

    1. Avatar for Ben Zientara Ben Zientara says:

      Hi, anon! We’ve actually got a blog post about your situation, with some links to stories about churches that did exactly what you’re talking about. Check it out here: https://www.solarpowerrocks.com/solar-politics/churches-are-going-solar/

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