HOUSTON — Solar energy is changing the way some people power their homes, but the process can be overwhelming and expensive.
A new co-op initiative in Houston is helping to educate the public about the process and does the bidding for them. Participants say, so far, it is paying off.
“I’m super excited. I've seen friends who have gone solar and they posted stories about, like, well, you know, my bill is down this much over this month. I've been like, wow, maybe I should look into that. I’m just here in this house with my daughter so we don't use a ton of electricity. But even keeping it cool for just the two of us, we'll see it run into $253 a month. It would be nice to look at a June power bill and only see $150 on there,” Tim Cragins said.
Cragins recently decided to convert his Spring Branch home to solar power. When he first learned of the potential savings of converting to solar, Cragins was intrigued, but not sold.
“I’ve always been worried that we’ve got two big trees, a front yard, and back yard, like, I don’t know if I’m a good candidate. I don’t know who to talk to and I don’t know if the math checks out ... if I get my money back,” Cragins said.
Cragins said the City of Houston’s co-op initiative with Solar United Neighbors and Sunshine Renewable Solutions made his decision easier. Experts educate co-op members who are interested in learning about solar to navigate the process and they do the bidding for them. Dori Wolfe is a coordinator.
“It’s like buying a car. You have to either put down a chunk of change or get a loan. But unlike buying a car, this investment actually pays itself off after 10 to 15 years,” Wolfe said.
Solar customers have three buying options. They can pay for it outright, lease or finance the panels.
Sunshine Renewable Solutions said it costs anywhere between $20,000 to $50,000 depending on how much sunlight your house gets, how many panels you get and how you finance it.
Wolfe said buying options have helped Houston compete with other big cities.
“We are growing the fastest as far as incorporating solar into our rooftops,” Wolfe said.
But Houston still lags behind San Antonio, Austin and El Paso in terms of residential solar per capita, according to a report by the Environment America Research and Policy Center.
When compared to other states across the country, Texas comes in 23rd with just over 300 installations for every 100,000 people. Hawaii ranks first with 6,403 solar installations, followed by California with 3,073, and Arizona with 2,290.
Rice University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Daniel Cohan has been tracking solar trends and policies across the country.
“There aren’t nearly as many incentives in Texas as some states have provided. States like North Carolina and California historically provided a lot of incentives for solar that haven’t been provided here and electric rates are a bit lower in Texas than in some other states,” Cohan said.
Cohan is convinced solar has a powerful future in Texas. He’s already converted two of his houses.
“It made financial sense,” Cohan said.
Cohan monitors the energy and cost savings through an app on his phone.
"The meter keeps track of how much power that I’m consuming and how much power I’m providing back to the grid. Virtually 10 or 11 months out of the year, I wasn't paying an electric bill. I was paying back the solar panels. I now have paid off the solar panels, and I just get that electricity for free,” Cohan said.
To get the most out of your money, Cohan recommends making your house more energy efficient by updating insulation, switching to LED lighting and getting a programmable thermostat.
“People can still make the solar choice. but, you know, they are missing out on the low-hanging fruit, the most money-saving opportunities,” Cohan said.
Cohan admits solar is not for everyone.
“There are a few reasons why solar wouldn’t make sense. One is if your roof is very shaded, then you’re not going to be able to get much power from the panels. The other big limitation is, if you’re renting, you probably don’t have a choice of getting panels at all. But even if you buy a home and you think you might be leaving it or selling it within a couple of years, it probably won’t pay back in time,” Cohan said.
Cragins may be one of the newest people to come online, but he said he has done his homework and now he's eager to see the savings reflected in his bank account.
“I think even after a year or so, just being able to look at a full year’s worth of lowered bills or non-existent bills, it’ll be easy to project from there how I'm doing and when I can expect to kind of find a return on that investment,” Cragins said.
Our experts recommend if you’re thinking of going solar, the sooner the better. The 26% Solar Investment Tax Credit goes down to 22% in 2023. It is set to expire in 2024 unless Congress renews it.