Most everyone loves solar power. Who would say no to using the sun’s energy instead of fossil fuels and cutting our electric bills for good? Maybe we should give in to the pressure of all these ads that we’re bombarded with and finally take the plunge.
The truth is, aside from all the marketing noise, solar is great. And costs have come down so much over the past decade (About 8% per year on average). You can usually finance or pay cash (We recommend no leasing) and have a good ROI that rivals the stock and bond markets.
Unfortunately, though, solar electric and solar energy won’t work for many homes and properties.
In this article, we list out the 6 most common reasons why solar panels just may not make sense for your home. We offer solutions though on how to check for each one, and what you can do about it.
We love all things green, sustainability, and solar for sure. But sometimes, you have to weigh the costs and viability of options to make the right decision.
A Quick Note On The Solar Market
Solar power has seen the quickest – almost exponential – growth in decentralized or home energy generation versus any other green technology. The fall in cost has been drastic (and welcomed). Over the past decade or so, solar costs have fallen 82 percent since 2010.
Imagine that – the technology once used exclusively to power satellites is now available to be installed on every rooftop, and it is more efficient than ever.
This great price chart, courtesy of Rameznaam.com, an investing platform on clean energy, shows the last decade and the expected future of prices –
As we can see, costs are and will not be an issue going forward and are projected to only get better. This is why we won’t even include it amongst the reasons for solar energy not working on your home below.
The actual pricing risk is if you were to work with a shady (pun intended) company that overcharges or sells you on an expensive lease contract. We’ve seen this first hand here in Florida when getting bids on solar for our own net-zero home renovations.
Although solar has many advantages, including lower prices lately, it has its limitations. Here are some potential problems with solar energy.
Let’s dive in!
1) Your Location Doesn’t Have a Lot of Sunshine
The main problem with solar is relatively straightforward – you may live in an area with few sunny days. That translates to poor energy reliability and stability compared with other, less transitory renewable energy sources. And if you are going off-grid and plan to use solar as a sole renewable source, this is even more important.
NREL (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) has a great map of the USA showing yearly solar production –
However, the common misconception that you won’t get any solar energy in the non-sunny areas is not true. You will produce a decent amount of energy, even in cloudy states like Oregon, Washington, or places in Europe like areas of Germany.
Still, it is questionable if the solar system investment will pay off in the long run. The return on investment or payback on your money may not be worth it when you compare the installation cost vs. the energy you generate. We explore more on this below.
What to Do About Having Low Sunshine in Your Area
Don’t get discouraged just yet! There are many factors to consider, and some can easily make up for low sunshine. These are all ones that you’ll want to explore in your area –
- What’s your electricity rate? – If your electric bill is really expensive, that drives down the payback and ROI (return on investment) of the whole system, even if there’s not much sun.
- Check local, state, and national incentive programs, rebates, and tax credits – Back when I sold solar energy as my first job out of college in Colorado – the utility company Xcel Energy paid for half the system’s cost. There are lots of rebates and incentives all around the world.
- Add more solar panels – If the sun’s production is generally lower year-round, you can always add more panels to make up for it if there’s room.
2) There Are Too Many Physical Obstacles in the Way
Despite another popular opinion, you don’t have to have a south-facing home on top of the hill to produce solar energy. It doesn’t need to be perfectly California-sunny all the time.
However, a lot of shade will drastically reduce your solar energy production, sometimes to the point of making it not worth it. Here are some common things that block the sun from your solar panels during the day:
- Power lines
- Your neighbor’s house
- Tall buildings
- Trees – but this time on your neighbor’s house. Beyond asking them to trim them or cut them down, there’s nothing you can do.
You get the idea. The problem is particularly pronounced when the sun is seasonally low on the horizon.
It’s also good to note that even a little bit of shading on the panel can bring down the production on the entire output of that panel. If the panels are wired as series like in traditional systems, even one fallen leaf or slight shading from a power line can bring down the production of every panel in that string. Companies out there like, like Enphase, solve for this by using microinverters. We went with Enphase for this exact reason on our own net-zero home renovation project.
What to Do About Shading:
The solution is not always easy. If you have a big enough property, you can possibly build a ground-mounted solar system outside of any shaded area. Also, you can trim or cut down the trees, though many people are reasonably reluctant to do that.
The key is to figure out what you can and cannot do on the property and then determine if that option is worth it.
Northern and Southern Hemisphere:
If you’re in the northern hemisphere (Canada/USA/Europe etc): the sun will sit lower in the sky in the winter. The further north you are, the lower the sun will be in the southern sky. This is also why solar panels on the north-facing roofs produce much energy less than anything facing south for any of us.
If you’re in the southern hemisphere of the planet, the opposite of the above is true. You’ll get way more production with panels on the north-facing roof.
This is all related to how the earth tilts throughout the year based on its axis rotation, and essentially we’re aiming solar panels towards the equator.
So now you know how the sun travels throughout the year for your home. You can now take a walk outside and look around for shading around your roof or property. If there’s not too much shading, you’re possibly a good candidate for solar!
A Great Tool to Check Roof Shading
Lastly, a great tool to actually see what the yearly shading looks like on your home is Google’s Project Sunroof. Just plug in your address and it’ll show you estimates. I personally wouldn’t go off the numbers themselves necessarily because, in reality, it varies so much. But I always use it to look at the satellite images and what might be in the way.
3) Your Roof Is Too Old for Solar Panels
Solar panels are meant to stay on the roof for at least 30+ years. In fact, they often come with a warranty of 25+ years. If you have an old worn-out roof, replacing it before installing the solar system is a major investment.
I would actually hear this all the time when I sold solar energy to homeowners. It’s a tricky spot when your 20-year roof is 15 or 16 years old. Not many people would want to put panels on, only to spend thousands for someone to take them off before the re-roof coming up.
On the brighter side, solar panels protect roofing material from outside elements, so they will likely increase the lifespan of your roof.
What to Do About an Older Roof.
The first thing to do would be to know how many years are left on it. You can then weigh the investment of solar, savings from it, along with the cost to take the panels off.
The lifetime on roofs varies drastically. Asphalt shingles might last 12-20 years. Where a metal, cement, or clay roof might last 80.
Many solar companies offer services to take off the solar panels and to reinstall once a new roof goes on. You would have to call around to get bids on that.
Another option is to simply wait. Depending on how the finances and electric savings shake out, this may make sense.
In fact, many homeowners wait until a hurricane, hail storm, or tornado comes through so that insurance helps cover the damage. That would indeed cover a new roof, an excellent time for new solar as well. Now, I’m not giving any ideas here…I’m just reporting what I’ve personally seen in the field.
For our projects here, I let the spreadsheet do the talking. We calculate the total cost of solar installation, roof replacement costs, and timeline, and cost to remove and reinstall panels if needed. Sometimes, it makes total sense to pay for that in order to get solar years ahead of time.
4) There’s Not Enough Space on the Roof for Solar
Unfortunately, not all roofs are big enough or shaped correctly for installing solar panels. Most solar panels are large rectangles. The ones on our net-zero home here are almost 4ft wide by 6.5ft tall, and there are 24 of them. To fit even a few of these up there takes a lot of roof space. This takes up about 650 sq ft with nothing in the way.
Obstacles on roofs – chimneys, dormers, vents, skylights – decrease the space available to install panels. Therefore, a structurally complex or weirdly-shaped roof may not have sufficient space for solar panel installation.
Oftentimes, especially in homes down here in Florida, hip roofs are the most common. They protect against storms and hurricanes, but that also means the roof faces are more like small triangles versus a larger rectangle shape. If your home is of modest size, sometimes you can barely fit one or two solar panels up there.
What You Can Do About Having Little Roof Space
Sometimes, you’re just out of luck, as this isn’t something you can change. You can try putting a few solar panels on the south, east, and west-facing roof areas to get the most out of it (for the northern hemisphere).
If you have a yard or open space on the ground, think about a ground-mount system.
Or, if you have a driveway, you could make a carport aimed towards the sun.
The same goes for a pergola in the backyard or a fixed shade structure in the backyard. Pinterest has some cool solar pergola examples as well.
5) Your Roof Faces the Wrong Way
Incorrect tilt and angle of your roof can be discouraging if you’re looking at going solar. Going back to the northern and southern hemisphere sections above – you want to face the panels where the sun will be most of the year.
Most home builders don’t ever think about solar or which way the roof faces. There are much higher priorities on their list, mostly to do with maximizing profit, understandably. What this leads to, however, is a 100-year house with no great options for solar panels.
There are a couple of things to know when designing solar energy systems –
- Tilt – This is the vertical “pitch” of the solar panels. 0 degree tilt would be perfectly flat, and 90 degree tilt would be vertical, like solar panels on the side of a building.
- Angle / Azimuth – This is like compass direction. 0 degrees is perfectly north, 180 degrees is perfectly south-facing. For example, in the USA, Canada, and Europe, you want the panels ideally facing 180 degrees south.
No matter where you are in the world, the sun never travels perfectly overhead, so you want to account for this in the solar panel angle.
What to Do if Your Roof Faces the Wrong Way.
This one is more tricky and perhaps better left to a solar company or designer, but there is a way you can tackle this yourself also.
To start with – know that even if your angle is facing the wrong way and away from the sun’s travel, you can still produce power. It depends on many factors, but the more flat your tilt is on the roof, the better the chance of making more solar energy.
A north-facing roof is also not an immediate reason to ditch solar plans. Research shows that north-oriented roofs produce less, but it can still make sense. It may only be 5-20% less than south-facing (assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere again). Not as terrible as you may imagine not knowing the actual figures.
Our favorite tool for designing systems is NREL’s PV Watts Calculator. You can enter all your details and then change the panels’ angle and tilt to see what the yearly production differences will be.
6) It Costs Too Much
This is a big one. While costs are coming down and many of us would love solar, we have many priorities in our lives. Here at Attainable Home, we focus a lot on using sustainability to build wealth and boost personal finances.
But it has to make sense for you. While solar continues to become more affordable, the numbers still have to work. This is also a very personal decision.
Perhaps the first thing to determine is what your goals are for solar energy. Here are some starting points:
- Are you looking to save money on electric bills?
- Are you trying to decrease your fossil fuel consumption and want to be truly sustainable?
- Are you wanting to increase the value of your home?
- Is your primary goal to save on monthly bills so that you can pay down credit cards and other things?
As the famous quote goes:
“Begin with the end in mind.”Stephen Covey
When you have your goals sorted, the decision process comes easier.
Solar Energy Won’t Work as an Investment
When we look at costs, I would recommend seeing it like you would any other investment. There will be an initial cost or cash outlay, with the expectation that this investment will return a certain amount over time in the future. There are a couple of ways to measure this:
- Return on Investment – the return of money over time (yearly solar cost savings) divided by the investment’s initial cost (cost of the system).
- Payback Period – The initial cost divided by the yearly solar electric bill savings.
For example using round numbers:
If your new solar system costs $10,000 to install and savings $1,000 per year all-in:
- Your ROI (return on investment) would be $1,000 / $10,000 = 10%
- Your Payback Period would be inversely $10,000 / $1,000 = 10 years
You’ll have to get specific bids and these figures from the different solar companies (make sure they’re accurate) to see what your house looks like.
A good way to maybe look at it is to see how your solar ROI/payback would compare to things like:
- Paying down your credit card
- Real estate investments
- Anything else you may want to purchase first that has a bigger personal or financial return to you.
Financing Your System
Financing your system can be a great way to not shell out tons of cash upfront. You can also boost your ROI and payback period if done correctly as well.
We actually did a whole write-up on tons of loan options for energy efficiency and renewable loans here.
The one thing we will warn you against is: Do not lease your solar system.
I’ve seen firsthand where this traps you contractually in something that you can’t get out of. Solar companies often require a massive payoff if you sell your house, holding up the sale of it. Often, this payoff amount is multiples above what the system actually costs to put on your home. There’s a lot out there on this topic but be forewarned.
Local, State, and National Incentives
If solar seems too expensive at first, make sure to check on incentives, tax credits, rebates, and other programs.
In the USA, the federal solar tax credit or the solar investment tax credit (ITC) offers each new solar system owner a tax credit equal to 26% of the solar installation cost. The tax credit was recently extended through 2022 at least.
However, some states have additional incentives, which makes them more solar-friendly than others. It’s easier to decide on installing solar if you know you’ll be receiving some state support, especially if your budget is tight.
Our favorite go-to for checking on incentives is the DSIRE website. This is the best resource we know of to see an entire list of incentives, tax credits, rebates, and other programs that will lower your overall solar energy cost.
You can see that solar has a lot of factors involved. Some homes are great candidates for solar energy. And for some, solar energy won’t work at all.
Educating yourself first and foremost will be empowering. The more you know yourself, the more than you’ll be able to work out what will and won’t work, as opposed to what the different solar companies might be telling you.