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Solar at Home


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It Used to be a Super Pain to Shop for Solar Installers, but No Longer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Whenever a dinner party has an awkward pause and could use a horror story to liven it up, I tell my story of shopping for solar panels. My wife and I started in 2008 and spent months finding an installer. Some never returned phone calls. Estimates ranged over a factor of two. It was hard to tell which was worse: their knowledge of physics or of finance. Call me a stickler, but think that anyone asking for $40,000 of your money should know the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour. We also kept hearing about how our home equity would increase—highly questionable, from what I’ve seen of how buyers and appraisers value a house.

In the end, we went with 1st Light Energy, the only company whose sales rep could quote inverter specs from memory and spent hours with us at our dining table going over the numbers. Unfortunately, he knew rather less about organizing work crews and screwed up the installation. It took his replacement months to put things right. In retrospect, we dream of how nice it would have been to have customer ratings and unheroic financial analyses.

Finally, someone has developed a website to provide just that. Launched last month, EnergySage aspires to be the Expedia of solar and eventually of other green technologies such as solar thermal and ground-source heat pumps. A similar service, Solar Choice, operates in Australia, but I believe this is the first in the U.S.

On the site, you set up a profile with your address and either type in your electric bill or upload the PDF. EnergySage automatically emails installers in your area to work up an estimate; a homeowner might expect three or so responses within a few weeks. They come to you—no phone tag required. The service is free to customers; installers pay a commission if they get the job. The site presents the quotes in a standardized format, looks up the government subsidies available in your area, and calculates the payback period rather than accept the installers’ analyses.

Already have an array? Then enter it in the site as a case study for others to learn from. I added mine and was gratified to learn that it has an investment return of 17.8%. You can also rate and review installers and equipment suppliers. EnergySage’s CEO, Vikram Aggarwal, says the company plans to add other features such as bank loans, discussion forums, independent equipment tests, automatic retrieval of electric bills directly from utilities, and estimates of prevailing market prices—doing for renewable energy what the Blue Book does for used cars.

Not only is this great for homeowners, it hastens the day when solar power will reach parity with fossil fuels. The panels have been getting cheaper and streamlined installation systems are cutting labor costs, so the sales and marketing costs loom ever larger. They now account for a tenth of the total, on average—10 times more than in Germany. By providing a central clearinghouse for referrals, EnergySage should help to reduce these soft costs and fire up installers’ competitive spirits. A little less drama in the purchase of a solar array would mean fewer stories to regale your friends with, but more photons knocking electrons into our power grid.

Screen shot courtesy of EnergySage

George Musser About the Author: is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He focuses on space science and fundamental physics, ranging from particles to planets to parallel universes. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Musser has won numerous awards in his career, including the 2011 American Institute of Physics's Science Writing Award. Follow on Twitter @gmusser.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jerryd 8:55 pm 03/28/2013

    I’d first learn about solar fairly well before doing this as you can save 50% if you do. Get your quotes in 2 parts, for the parts and for the labor/install.

    Think about buying a kit or make your own from places like sunelec grid-tie kits are around $2k/kw. Then bolt your own together and hire someone if needed to wire it in. No reason to pay over $3k/kw at most.

    And you don’t need to put it on the roof but in the yard or as a porch, awnings, carport, shed, etc saving all those engineering bills, etc they try to foist on you.

    Congrats on your 17% return on investment!! Not sure why people invest in the stock market when well done PV in many places makes far more for 2 decades+!!

    Link to this
  2. 2. SolarAdvocate 1:35 am 03/29/2013

    Check out SolarReviews.com. The site has 10,000+ independent customer reviews of solar installers. It’s essentially the TripAdvisor for the solar industry.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sethdiyal 5:26 pm 03/31/2013

    Solar sales dudes are such merciless liars they’d make a used car salesman blush with embarassment.

    I looked up a claimed install jan 2011 on the recommended solar sales site – a 6.8 Kw 100% solar heated home in Salisbury, Ma about 60 miles south of Baltimore. Using less than 25% of the heat and electricity of the average American home the poster claimed to be 100% heated and wired with the PV array.

    http://www.energysage.com/project/6457/solar-photovoltaic/

    Unsubbed $36K 16K after subs, at home improvement loan rates and 2% annual maintenance works out 44 cents a kwh and 20 cents a kwh unsubbed. The current electrical rate in Maryland is 6.8 cents a kwh.

    Despite obvious payback period of never and a negative rate of return the site claims a 40 per cent rate of return.

    They should be put in a prison.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sethdiyal 5:27 pm 03/31/2013

    Sorry 8.6 cents a kwh in Baltimore.

    Link to this
  5. 5. sault 12:16 pm 04/3/2013

    @ seth:

    Still claiming that Massachusetts is “about 60 miles south of Baltimore”? Geography FAIL. Still claiming that this array has a negative rate of return even though they’re making $1800 ANNUALLY right off the bat? Gimme a break!

    Link to this
  6. 6. fafcosolar 2:57 pm 05/22/2013

    Thanks for bringing this site to my attention. I have signed up my company in Southwest Florida to offer services at EnergySage. We would love to be part of a site that gives people searching for solar energy contractors a real and fair comparison. As you mentioned, meeting your contractor and gaining a level of trust is absolutely key. We’re frequently up against competition that gives false expectations about performance. We are able to come in and provide real answers and education without sales pressure. It works great for us!

    Jason Szumlanski
    VP/GM, Fafco Solar
    http://www.solarsouthwestflorida.com/

    Link to this
  7. 7. novelremodeling 7:25 pm 06/5/2013

    That is so horrible that you had to go through something like that. We as solar installers should value ourselves a little more and learn the business in more depth before trying to pitch a deal that wont go through. I mean i know that many companies tried it and it works 30% of the time and they bank on that, but realistically 7/10 people should purchase solar panels not 3/10. thats bad figures in my head. What makes a homeowner willing to spend 30-60k on a new solar system? Educated, well spoken solar installers that have the knowledge, and expertise to get the job done right!

    check us out http://www.novelremodeling.com

    Link to this
  8. 8. solarleadpros 1:47 pm 07/11/2013

    A similar site to get quotes, that I have personal experience is http://www.solarsavingsamerica.com. No offense but contractors are terrible marketers, like you say. Some good advice for installers to improve their marketing and consumer communication can be found here http://solarleadpros.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/downsides-of-doing-your-own-solar-marketing-part-1/
    A note on financing: Installers are either afraid of giving “financial advice” and/or have no idea how good the ROI can be for consumers. Suffice it to say this: If you put $0 into an investment, and it saves you $50 to $250 per month, what is your ROI?….its incalculable because its infinite….much better than the 10% ROI in the stock market.

    Link to this

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