If you’re thinking about adding solar panels to the rooftop of your Waxahachie home, you’re not alone.
The complete failure of the Texas power grid in February 2021 and ERCOT’s request that you please not use your air conditioner just as temperatures reached the high 90s at the start of June have many in Ellis County looking to take power generation into their own hands.
Solar panels are among the simplest options for declaring your energy independence. Composed of photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity, charge controllers that manage that power and DC-to-AC inverters that convert the current for home use, solar rooftop systems can turn any home or business into an independent power source.
Although a simple solution to your power needs, rooftop solar systems do require some specialized knowledge to design and install. So, to help with some basic questions you may have about how to go solar in Waxahachie, we consulted two experts in the industry for answers:
Paul Westbrook is a retired efficiency expert in the semiconductor industry who volunteers with the North Texas Renewable Energy Group, a non-profit group that connects renewable energy experts with novices who are interested in alternative energy solutions for their home or office. Paul is an early adopter of rooftop solar panels. He’s also author of the book, The Joy of Efficiency: How to Live and Work Better with Less.
Hanna Mitchell is the Texas program director for Solar United Neighbors, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that helps homeowners and businesses find out if going solar is right for them, and if it is, how to avoid common pitfalls and get the best price for an installation.
Can solar panels help to reduce or eliminate my electric bill?
Yes, solar panels can indeed reduce and almost totally eliminate your electric bill, Paul says. In fact, for 11 months in a row, he says his monthly electric bill has been just $24.40 — the minimum base fee that his utility provider charges just to stay connected to the power grid.
How Paul gets his power for next to nothing is simple: his solar panel installation produces more power during the day than he uses. The excess power is exported back to the utility grid, and his electric company credits him for that extra power. Then, when he needs more electricity than his system can produce, especially at night when it produces no power, he taps into that credit and effectively gets his power for free.
“I’m getting a pretty good deal for 24 bucks a month,” Paul says.
Will my utility provider buy back the excess electricity that my solar installation produces?
Hanna says that overall, most utility providers have some kind of program that allows the excess power that your system produces to benefit you, and local residents who are serviced by Oncor have more flexibility in finding an electric provider that will offer them the best deal when it comes to exporting excess power back to the grid.
“For folks who are in Oncor service territory or center points that service the territory. We’ve partnered with Texas Power Guide to provide custom retail plan analyses that will allow solar owners to better pick and choose which retail electricity plan will best complement their solar,” she says.
Navarro County Electric Coop, which serves part of Waxahachie and its vicinity, offers net metering for so-called distributed generation. In this arrangement, excess power is exported back to the grid for an energy credit, which can be tapped into during the same billing cycle. The credit does not carryover into the following month, and no payment is made for unused credit. If you export 5 kilowatt-hours of power to the grid during the day, and then use the same amount at night when your solar installation isn’t producing power, then you’d have effectively used no electricity during that day-night period when it comes to your bill. Navarro charges a minimum charge of about $35 per month to stay connected. A properly sized rooftop solar system could help Navarro Coop customers limit their yearly electric bill total to less than $450 — that’s $450 for the whole year.
Hilco Electric Cooperative also has net metering within each billing cycle: every kilowatt-hour exported to the grid equals a one kilowatt-hour credit for offsetting power usage when the panels are not producing electricity. Credits do not rollover to the next billing cycle, and no payments are made for unused credits. The base monthly rate is $26.25. A properly sized rooftop solar system could therefore help Hilco customers have electricity bill totals of less than $350 per year.
Would solar panels have kept my home powered when the Texas electric grid failed in February 2021?
As to whether or not solar panels will keep your home appliances up and running even when the Texas power grid fails, Paul says it depends on whether you have battery backup or not.
If you invest in battery backup which stores the excess power your installation generates throughout the day, then a so-called gateway switch would kick in within milliseconds of a power outage, keeping your house powered up for as long as the batteries have energy.
Without a battery backup, your solar panels are of no use during a grid failure, even if the sun is shining.
“The the issue with rooftop solar is it has an Underwriter Labs, UL 1741 safety disconnect. All rooftop solar has to disconnect from the grid if the power goes down so that you’re not accidentally back-feeding power,” he says.
This disconnect is a safety feature that prevents utility workers from being injured or even electrocuted by power being fed back onto the power lines by solar panels.
“But how it could help is during the February outage, when they were cycling power on and off every 30 minutes or every hour, when my power came back on, I was getting sun on my panels for part of that time. And so, I was actually producing some of my own power. Even if I wasn’t producing all of it, I was reducing my load on the grid, so maybe they didn’t have to turn off quite as many other substations. If enough of us were doing that, we actually would reduce the strain on the grid,” he says.
Paul says he’s not yet added battery storage to his system because except for last February, he’s experienced very few power failures. Homeowners whose power goes out often may find a battery backup system more worthwhile.
How much does a solar installation cost?
Hanna says that in Texas, solar installations have an up-front costs that range from $11,000 for a smaller, 4-kilowatt system to $22,000 for 8-kilowatt systems. A review of your electric bills over the last year can help you determine what size you would need, and Federal credits that have been extended for another year can reduce that cost by several thousand dollars — as much as a fourth of the total cost.
With such an up-front cost, how will I save money?
By choosing a system that reduces your monthly electric bill to just the base fee and then financing your up-front costs over several years, you can effectively replace your electric bill with a rooftop solar bill — dollar for dollar. This has the effect of locking in your utility rate now no matter how much utility rates increase in the future.
Then, when you pay off your installation costs, all the power generated afterward is free of charge.
Paul says he paid for his system in about 8 and a half years, but he thinks it’s more important to think of the investment in view of the 20- to 30-year lifespan of the solar system installation.
“I always caution people not to get too caught up on the word payback,” Paul says. “I always tell them to think about it as you’re doing an investment, and that investment’s going to return about 8% per year over 25 years, with very little risk — less risk than putting that money in the stock market.”
Nevertheless, he says now that his system is paid off, “everything for the next decade plus is just gravy money for me.”
How Long will a solar installation last?
Paul says systems can last 20 to 25 years, and most likely longer than that.
Will rooftop solar affect my home value?
Hanna says the experience of the real estate agents whom she’s dealt with have seen home values increase after a rooftop solar installation. In fact, a typical solar system can add $15,000 or more to home resale value, depending on the size of the installation and its age.
“We lean on the input and expertise of realtors who will generally say if you can showcase that your home has a very minimal, perhaps almost no electricity bill, that is really an asset for future buyers,” she says.
Will rooftop solar damage my roof?
Hanna says that as with any home alteration, a reputable contractor will be able to install rooftop solar installations without damaging your home. She does caution, however, that installations should not be made on homes that are halfway into the lifespan of their roofing. For example, if your home has asphalt shingles that are 35 years into a 50-year warranty, it only makes financial sense to replace those shingles before mounting the solar panels.
As for the panels themselves, Hanna says “most panels on the market are tested by the manufacturer to withstand an inch of hail falling at 55 miles per hour. And they’re also going to be wind tested. And these are wind tested to withstand 144 mile-per-hour winds, and that’s something that’s enforced through local permitting agencies. And the manufacturer warranties are going to cover system defects.”
Also, solar panels are can be mounted to any structure, not just a roof. Anyone with enough property can mount them to stands that are some distance away from the house, or on the roof of a nearby barn or metal building, as many properties in Ellis County have. Carports are another option for solar panels, as are poolside cabanas.
Will my city or homeowners association (HOA) approve a solar installation?
Hanna says Governor Greg Abbott has just signed legislation that gives greater freedom to homeowners who want to install rooftop solar, and that Texas already has fairly solar-friendly laws in place.
“There’s a property statute and a further clarifying law on the books that actually restricts the right of an HOA to deny a color application. And if there’s a request to move your system, say from the front of your roof to the back of your roof, and it would reduce the amount of electricity that the system will produce by more than 10%, that’s something that they can’t legally do,” Hanna says. “There was actually a bill just passed this past legislative session, Senate Bill 398, which is designed to limit the authority of municipalities to restrict solar beyond what can be done by a homeowner’s association or local utility safety protocols.”
Will rooftop solar increase my homeowners insurance?
Hanna says that if you opt for rooftop solar and your insurance providers wants to increase your premiums, maybe it’s time to shop around for another insurance provider.
“We do recommend that people let their homeowners insurance know that they’re installing solar so that it can be covered. And in most instances, this should not raise your homeowners insurance by much. In a few anecdotal instances, we’ve heard of people’s homeowners insurance going down if that particular company has a commitment to sustainability. If it looks like it’s going to increase by much, we encourage people to shop around for different policies,” she says.
How can I get started with rooftop solar?
If you’ve decided to add rooftop solar to your home and declare your energy independence, Paul says you’ll first want to improve your home’s efficiency. Adding insulation to the roof, caulking doors and windows, and ensuring that your home makes the best use of the energy you use to heat and cool it will not only bring a financial payback, it’ll also affect how big of a solar system you’ll need.
“That’s always step number one. If you don’t need much energy, everything else becomes so much simpler,” he says.
The North Texas Renewable Energy Group welcomes new members and can put them in contact with trustworthy experts. NTREG also conducts an annual solar home tour that showcases local homes that have opted for rooftop solar.
Hanna says Solar United Neighbors has several recommendations on how to get started with rooftop solar and offers a free guide on the topic.
For homeowners in the same geographical area, like North Texas, SUN has a coop program that can group buyers together so that they can make a group purchase from the contractors they choose and save a substantial amount of money on the total cost. The coop process therefore helps buyers to get more for less while avoiding some of the pitfalls that buyers can make when they go it alone.
SUN is a contractor-neutral organization — choosing the contractor is at all times the responsibility of the homeowners — but the organization can offer advice on how to find a reputable contractor and navigate the purchase and installation processes.
“When solar is combined with storage, that can really provide individuals with resiliency to extreme weather events,” Hanna says. “We really encourage people to explore solar if they are interested in locking in long term energy costs and having a little bit more energy independence.”