$10 electric bill! Is solar power worth it?

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- In the dead of winter or the blazing summer heat, you’ve probably been stuck with some pretty high power bills.

To help, more homeowners are using the sun to cut their bills.

Solar power can save you a lot of money, but can you afford it? Or a better question: can you afford NOT to?

Forest resident Gary Sullivan is a firm believer in solar power, he says he’s always had a goal of having an energy efficient home.

“The house was sort of designed with solar in mind,” says Sullivan.

He did his homework, and finally the time was right. "The technology is very solid and the costs have come down significantly in the past 10 years to the point that solar is competitive with any other form of electricity,” adds Sullivan.

Sullivan had been saving up. His 7.5 kilowatt system generates about 60% of his electricity needs, and cost about $25,300 dollars. With the 30% federal tax credit it was right around $17,700 out of pocket. But he immediately started seeing the savings. “And the net effect of that is my electric bill's gone down from around $2,600 a year for electricity to under $1,000 at this point so my electric bill will be under $1,000 a year.”

The calculations show he should recoup his initial investment in seven to nine years. That's about average for most installations, and after that, it's just straight out savings.

Dave Wall runs the solar installation company Affordable Energy Concepts locally.

He believes the average homeowner can go solar and should, “well they should because the price of solar has dropped dramatically, I mean it's since I started the business in 2010 the price of solar has dropped 50-60% and the technology of solar has increased to the point where you're getting more production for the same size system,” he said.

For his own home, he took out a home equity line of credit to cover the installation costs, but he also suggests new home construction is an ideal time to install solar power, as you can roll it into your mortgage.

Though he's a big advocate, Wall warns you do have to have the right conditions for solar to work for you. “If you've got no south facing roof without shade you're not going to have a good investment no matter how affordable the system is,” he says.

Here's how it works: unless you invest high dollars in a battery storage system, you're still connected to the grid, and you still pay your power company for their service. You only generate power when the sun's out. What you’re not using, goes back to the grid. At night or on rainy days you draw from the grid. The power company gives you credit each month for the electricity you've generated versus what you've drawn in.

“The only time where I pay more for electricity is in the winter when the demand for warming and heating the house is high,” says Sullivan. “That's when I have an electric bill. In the summer I have basically a nominal bill somewhere around 10 dollars a month, even with the AC going full blast.”

Wall considers it a solid investment in your home. But there's still that sticking point of the up-front costs. Not everyone has a big chunk of money sitting around in their bank account, and there’s not a lot of financial help available. “I would hope over time the state of Virginia would be more aggressive in other financing options," says Sullivan.

In fact, the advocacy group Solar Power Rocks gives Virginia a D Rating as far as solar power incentives and regulations, whereas one state north, Maryland, gets an A.

Maryland offers tax credits, rebates, and other incentives to help homeowners afford the cost of installation.

Virginia hasn't been as welcoming, but the state did establish a 15% tax credit 10 years ago, but never funded it.

“The questions have always been is that more important than teachers or is that more important than sheriff salaries or state police, and to this point we've said no. So we haven't actually funded that program but we have it in place," explains Lynchburg state Senator Steve Newman.

But, solar advocates point out more solar friendly regulations aren't in play either.

If you’re interested in solar power, a reputable solar dealer will do all the calculations for you, be honest about the expected payback time frame, and tell you if your house is not a good candidate.

Power companies also check behind them so you don't install a system larger than you'll use, and to make sure the hook up will go smoothly.

Click here to look at incentives and rebates available in Virginia.

Click here to look at Virginia companies, policies and resources.

Click here for a look at a general solar calculator.

Click here for information on solar power from the Virginia DEQ.

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