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Solar energy in Southern California is more efficient, less expensive than ever

Solar energy in Southern California is more efficient, less expensive than ever
Solar panels on a home can generate more energy than the home uses. (Shutterstock)

Look up at the sun (but don't stare) and take note: There's never been a better time and place to "go solar" than right now in Southern California. With a combo of expensive utilities and famously reliable annual sunshine, SoCal residents stand to benefit more from the installation of solar panels than any other American homeowners. Advances in technology have made rooftop solar panels more efficient than ever, able to provide 100% of the average home's electricity needs, and federal and local incentives sweeten the deal.

"Solar technology was here ever since the 1950s, but solar cells' efficiency was not as good as right now," said David Hsu, CEO of Riverside-based SolarMax Technology, which manufactures, installs, maintains and finances solar energy systems across Southern California. "At that time it was only five, six percent [efficiency] — right now it's almost 20%."

Southern California Edison's residential electric rates are the nation's highest by far, according to a survey conducted by Jacksonville Electric Authority for the fourth quarter of 2017. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power's rates ranked fifth highest. Meanwhile, SoCal boasts the sunniest area in the contiguous U.S. (Imperial County, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and Los Angeles proper registers close to 300 days with sun each year.

"If you put solar panels on the roof … in California we have double the [electricity] production, because of the sunshine," said Hsu.

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Made from durable tempered glass, solar panels absorb the sun's energy and turn it into direct current electricity. When mounted on a residential rooftop, an inverter is connected to convert it into the alternating current electricity used in homes. When your solar system produces more power than your household uses, the excess is fed back to the grid — your meter will literally run backwards and a credit will appear on your utility bill. Solar system owners only pay for electricity when they exceed what their rooftop panels produce.

According to EnergySage, the average price of a six-kilowatt residential solar system in California is just over $13,000. Based on the national average of 11,000 kilowatt-hours per year at the state's average electricity rate of just under 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, a typical Californian household would save over $29,000 on electric bills over 20 years by switching to solar.

Furthermore, the cost of installing a domestic solar system is falling. While individual home needs vary, EnergySage reported that in 2018 most homeowners are paying somewhere between $11,000 to $15,000 to install a solar system, after tax credits. That's 6.5% lower than a year ago, and prices continue to drop.

The federal solar tax credit allows individuals to deduct 30% of the cost of installing a solar energy system from their federal taxes. In Los Angeles, LADWP's Solar Incentive Program currently offers an incentive of $0.25 per installed watt of solar power to residential customers — a six-kilowatt system would receive a rebate of $1,500.

While the average proportion of a solar system-equipped home's energy needs met by panels is 84% nationwide (according to EnergySage), Hsu claims that in sunny SoCal, most customers enjoy 100% of their consumption — including air conditioning — being met by solar power.

"We design the system based on the last couple of years of their electricity usage," said Hsu, whose teams also take care of any necessary inspections and permits (and will even talk to a customer's homeowners association prior to panel installation). "It should provide enough electricity … to cover their usage." With installation companies often offering lengthy warranties (SolarMax offers a 25-year warranty on panels, inverters and workmanship) and easy financing options, going solar can be fiscally painless, with monthly payments often lower than a customer's prior electricity bills.

"You are basically getting a 25-year warranty of a product and it will get paid back probably in five to six years," said Hsu.

Most homeowners invest in a solar system because they intend to own their home for many years, and thus reap the maximum ensuing savings. However, should you sell, owning (rather than leasing) a rooftop solar system has been shown to significantly boost property values. A report last year by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab calculated that a home in California with a five-kilowatt solar system will sell for about $20,000 more than one without solar.

Companies like SolarMax are now also offering battery storage for solar power as backup during grid blackouts, which could prove crucial during natural disasters or aid customers who require reliable electricity for equipment such as medical devices or aquariums.

– Paul Rogers, Custom Publishing Writer