Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor
In this 5 years solar panel review Matt Ferrell talks about his return on investment after installing solar PV panels on his house.
In this video, Matt talks about the pros and cons of his solar panel installation at his home in the USA, their performance over the years, and the return on his investment. He also delves into the dynamics of adding a Tesla Powerwall into the mix, explaining how it has impacted his overall experience with solar energy.
From cost analysis to production rates and even some unexpected twists and turns, Matt provides a detailed breakdown of his journey.
Please consider that Matt is based in the USA and if you’re considering solar PV investment then talk to more than one independent expert for your location and costs of hardware, installation and compliance. There are hidden costs that some installers wont tell you about that do add up. Also be aware that there are now companies that will supply and install everything for free, giving you free energy, but is anything ever free? Do your homework before jumping on board with any particular supplier.
I myself installed a solar PV array, I shopped around and saved thousands of dollars on hardware and installation. I installed my array as a ground mounted array allowing for easier installation, maintenance and cleaning. Yes, your panels need cleaning and do you want to be jumping onto your roof a few times a year when you may not need to if you have the garden space? For me the investment is worth it, I just like to know that I am producing free energy from the sun. We also have electric company cars so charging the cars when the sun is out just makes the investment in solar all the more better.
If you’re considering solar panels for your home, this review will give you a firsthand account of what to expect. Over to Matt’s review.
5 Years with Solar Panels – Is It Worth the investment?
I’ve been living with solar panels for almost 5 years now here in Massachusetts, and I thought it was time to take a look at how it’s been going. There’s been some twists and turns with solar production and how it’s fared going through the cold and snow. I also added a Tesla Powerwall into the mix after a couple of years. There are definitely some things I wish I knew before getting solar and a battery installed. How has it performed and do I still think getting solar panels was a good idea?
If you haven’t seen my previous videos on my solar panel installation, I’ll include links in the description so you can check them out. For this one I’m going to focus on a few things: the basics of what I have installed on my current home and why; the costs; the production and how it’s been going; what adding a battery meant for the overall performance; and what I wish I had known before getting into this. I think everyone has had that, “oh man … I wish I knew that before I did this” feeling from time to time.
The basics of my solar PV system
To get right into it, my wife and I had solar panels installed in the fall of 2018, so we’re not quite at 5 years yet. However, there’s a reason I’m doing this video now instead of waiting. We’re building a highly energy efficient house right now that’s going to have solar and home batteries as part of the mix. If you’re interested, I’ll include links to videos about that in the description. I’ve been doing a lot of research on evaluating our current system vs. what we’re planning to get, so this stuff is very much in the front of my mind right now. The second reason is that there’s a lot of shifting solar panel incentives around the country and with spring not too far away, I know a lot of people may be looking for some guidance and reviews. And on that note: I’ve got a big announcement I’m really excited to share with you at the end, so stay tuned.
Anyway, on my current house I have a 9.49 kW solar panel array that’s made up of 26 LG solar panels with Enphase microinverters. Unfortunately, LG has exited the solar panel game, so you can’t get these panels anymore (they’re excellent panels). When it comes to solar panels you have two basic inverter setups you can go with: 1) string inverters, or 2) microinverters.
String inverters are kind of like old school Christmas lights. There’s a single circuit that feeds through most or all of your panels and loops back to a centralized inverter that converts the solar panel’s DC electricity to AC for use in the house and grid. The downside is that if you have shade on one panel, it affects all of the panels on the array reducing the power output. You can add something called a power optimizer behind each panel, as well as alter the way the string is run to counteract that issue, which adds to the overall cost. However, what I think is the bigger downside is that if the string inverter goes down for any reason, the entire array that loops through it goes down. No more solar power until that gets fixed.
Microinverters on the other hand don’t suffer from either of those problems. With microinverters you have one installed behind each solar panel and it converts the DC electricity to AC at the panel before sending it down to your electric panel, house, and grid. If one panel is shaded, none of the other panels will be affected. And if one microinverter goes down, only that specific solar panel will go down. The rest of the array will continue to send power to your home as usual. One downside here is cost, because they are typically slightly more expensive than string inverter setups. However, if you add power optimizers to string inverters, that cost advantage is wiped out. What most people would probably say is the real disadvantage of microinverters is that the DC electricity is converted to AC immediately. If you have, or are planning to add, a home battery, you’re adding in unnecessary electricity conversions. You’re going from DC at the solar panel, to AC to be transmitted down to your electric panel, to be converted back into DC to go into the battery, which then gets converted back into AC before coming into the house or out to the grid. There are efficiency losses at each conversion. String inverters can send the DC electricity straight into a battery and bypass a couple of those conversions. I don’t think that’s a showstopper because you can account for that inefficiency at the design phase. Add a couple of extra solar panels, or opt for a slightly more efficient solar panel, and you can make up for those losses. In the end you want to size the system with those efficiencies, or inefficiencies, taken into account.
My house is surrounded by trees on the western side. Our roof also doesn’t face the ideal direction, which would be having a southern facing roof. In our case our roof is basically split east and west, so we chose to have solar panels placed on both sides. That way we’re able to capture more sunlight over the course of the day vs. mainly in the morning or mainly in the afternoon. Between the less than optimal orientation and mid to late afternoon shade from trees our house isn’t an ideal setup, but it doesn’t mean that solar isn’t a good path (I’ll get into why in a bit).
As for the cost, back in 2018 when we had just the solar panels installed (no Tesla Powerwall yet), it cost $29,609 before incentives. That’s about $3.22 per watt. At that time we had the 30% Federal solar tax credit available, which means being able to claim $8,882 off of our 2018 tax burden. This kind of incentive isn’t being pulled from a pool of taxpayer money. It’s pretty much the same thing as the child tax credit families can claim on their taxes. It reduces your tax burden for that year, which probably means you overpaid your taxes from auto withholdings from your paycheck. That could mean a refund, but it all depends on how much you had withheld and how much you owe. You might see the full 30% in a check or only a portion of it. It’s kind of confusing, but in our case we did end up seeing the full amount and sent that directly to the solar panel loan we took out. That knocked our “out of pocket” costs down to $20,727.
On top of that we got into the Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) system in Massachusetts right before they changed it to a new program called SMART. We get a check for $126.22 a month from the SREC payouts, which expires after 10 years. I won’t go into all the details of SREC, I’ve got other videos that deal with that linked below, but the newer programs you’ll often see don’t pay out as much. Even though they pay out less, the newer programs like SMART payout in a more measured way that helps to avoid double dipping. I guess you could say it’s trying to live up to its name. In any case, we’ve received about $6,563 of our SREC payments so far, which means that out of pocket cost drops down to $14,164.
But that leads into how production has fared.
If you saw my 4 years with solar video last year, you’ll know that 2021 was an oddball year. Our solar production was down by about 11.4% from the year before and 3% from 2019. 2021 was the worst year to date. It just barely missed the baseline production number our solar installer had predicted for that year (6,479.6 kWh vs. 6,549 kWh – about 1% off), but the mystery as to why came down to an usually wet summer in Massachusetts in 2021. It was the third warmest summer and third wettest on record, so it was very cloudy and overcast, which knocked summer production lower than the previous years.
How did things look in 2022? Well, it was the best year we’ve ever had. By the numbers looking only at full calendar years: 2019 had 6.7 MWh of production, 2020 had 7.2 MWh, 2021 had 6.5 MWh, and 2022 had 7.4 MWh. Looking at month by month, you can see how much better July through October was versus that period in 2021.
But those are kind of meaningless numbers without some context. How much energy did we use and how much did this save us in electricity costs so far? Where I live we get a 1:1 net metering credit off our electric bill. If we use 100 kWh from the grid, but we export 70 kWh of excess solar production into the grid, we only have to pay for 30 kWh. This scenario is definitely not the norm across the US. Some areas only credit back wholesale electricity costs and other areas don’t credit anything back at all. In my case it’s a pretty nice setup and arrangement with the utility, but if you’re considering this for yourself, you’ll need to look into how net metering works for your area. EnergySage has great details on every state in the US (I’ll link to that in the description too).
We’ve been saving somewhere around $1,500 a year in electricity costs, but we’ve seen that tick up significantly in the past year or two. On average US electricity prices have risen about 14% or about $0.02 per kWh per year over a 10 year span (2010-2020),1 but this past year or two has been dramatic. In 2020 we were paying an average of about $0.22 per kWh, in 2021 $0.24, in 2022 $0.30, and now in 2023 it’s $0.37 per kWh. That’s about a 40% increase between 2020 and 2023. The end result is that my solar panels are saving me more money per year than we originally estimated based on that average increase of $0.02 per kWh per year. Just as an example to show you how dramatic it could be, if you took the total amount my house used (grid or solar) from 2022, it was 12.6 MWh (we average around 1 MWh/month … and yes, I know that sounds like a lot). At $0.22 kWh that would cost us about $230/month. With a rate of $0.37, where we are now, it would average us a bill of $390/month.
To put that into real savings we saw. 2021 fell a little below our normal $1,500 savings because of the lower production, but we still saw about $1,416 in savings. For 2022, with an average of $0.30 per kWh, we saved about $2,285. At this point, almost 5 years in, we’ve saved just shy of $7,000 on our electric bill, so if you knock that cost off of our out of pocket costs, we’re down to $7,164 left. Between SREC payments of $1,514/year and an electric bill savings that could be as high as $2,800 at the current rates, our solar panel setup will work itself off in less than 2 more years. That’s one year faster than we were anticipating.
But what about the battery? We did add a Tesla Powerwall I earned through the Tesla referral program a couple of years ago, so the only out of pocket expense I had was the installation costs. Because of that I’m not going to break down what a true cost of savings would have been, but I am participating in a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) in my area. That’s when your home batteries can be used by the local utility for peak shaving during times of high demand on the grid. It’s exactly what the name implies … a massive, distributed battery system. For me that means during the summer months my battery could be used between 30-60 times during small windows in the evening. Energy use spikes when everyone gets home from work, cranks up the AC, and cooks dinner. The benefit is that I get paid for the utility’s use of my battery. I’ve got a full video that breaks this down, which I’ll link to in the description. But last year I got a check for $772 and this year I got a check for $736. For me this program will only last five years, so if that keeps up it should total somewhere just below $4,000. That can do a pretty good job offsetting the cost of a home battery.
If we also had time-of-use rates, we could use the battery to save money that way too. A VPP plus time-of-use rates could equal a pretty big savings that could really blunt the total cost of a battery like that Powerwall. You might be looking at $12,000-$15,000 or so to install one Powerwall in my area. So obviously for me if I had paid full price for the Powerwall, the VPP program by itself wouldn’t cover the full battery, but it does help. A battery is also more like a backup generator, which helps with quality of life … so the ROI has a very different calculation. It comes in handy when there’s a power outage in the winter because a downed tree limb took out the power for half the day.
What I wish I had known
So what is it that I wish I had known? Well, there’s two things that jump right out for me from my experience. First is the importance of hiring the right people to install panels and battery. I used Energysage to find my solar installer and had a fantastic experience. It was so good I’m sticking with the same installer for my new house. However, when it came to the installer for my Tesla Powerwall, it was a completely different experience. The waitlist for Tesla to install my Powerwall was a very long time, so I opted to go with a third party to do the installation. Tesla recommended an installer, which is who I went with … I mean … Tesla was recommending them, so I put my trust in that. To say the experience was bad would be an understatement. The quality of the work was highly questionable and when I mentioned that I was going to be talking about the negative experience in a video, they threatened to sue me. After that happened I did some digging into them and found a trail of questionable work and tactics, so I really wish I hadn’t taken the recommendation at face value. My bad. Thankfully all of the issues I had have been resolved by a different company, so all is good.
The second thing I wish I had known beforehand was how solar panels behave with snow and rain. I’m not talking about snow covering the panels and blocking energy production, but what happens with that snow. Solar panels are a bit like having a metal roof. It’s a slick surface that water and snow will slide off of very quickly. In the case of snow, you can end up with terrifying snow avalanches sliding off your roof all at once. You’re talking about tons of snow falling 10, 20, or 30 feet depending on how high up your roof is. The reason this happens is that the snow that makes contact with the glass surface starts to melt relatively quickly. As soon as a fine layer of water builds up between the panel and snow pack, it’s like greasing the skids … and down it all comes. You can also have issues with rain. If your panels are installed near the edge of the roof, you have to remember that the sheets of rain that flow towards your gutters are picking up more speed on the glass surface vs. an asphalt shingle, as well as the fact the water raised up an additional 3-5 inches from the roof surface. Depending on how close the panels are to the edge roof, the water may just shoot over the gutter. Not the end of the world, but something to consider. In my case that wasn’t a problem, but the snow issue was concerning. I got a roof rake with a long extension pole. Anytime there’s more than 4 inches of snow on the roof, I’ll go out there and do a controlled removal. The last thing I want is someone coming out the backdoor or garage to get hit. Overall, I don’t think that’s a showstopper by any stretch, but if I had known ahead of time I may have talked to my installer about adding snow guards in certain locations to prevent the avalanche.
As I mentioned, I’m going to be moving in a few months, which means that I’ll be selling my house. It’s shown that solar panels can increase the resale value of your home because it produces its own electricity. In my area, here in Massachussetts, solar panels are pretty popular, so I expect that to play out in my case. But I am looking forward to sharing how that actually plays out.
The solar guide
That brings me to the big announcement I mentioned at the beginning. This one actually makes me a bit nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before. A lot of you have reached out to me for help and guidance on getting solar panels for your home. Asking me to review quotes, give feedback, tips, and questions to ask installers. And that’s exactly why I created the “Achieve Energy Security With Solar” guide! It can be overwhelming because you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve been there. I want you to feel confident about what you actually need for your home and personal goals. After going through this guide, you’ll be able to figure out how much solar energy you need, what kind of equipment might make sense for your house, and how to vet a qualified solar installer. This will even help you decide if solar actually is the right move for you or not. I’m launching this guide today, which is still in beta, at a discounted price for a limited time. Go here for more details and to become a founding member. As part of this initial offer I’m going to be holding a group Zoom call to answer questions you may have after going through the guide. I’m really excited to help as many of you as I can to go through this process, and to evolve the guide over time. Once you buy the guide, you’ll get any updates I make to it for free. Check the link in the description if you want to learn more.
So at the end of the day am I happy with going solar? That’s a big yes. It’s achieved all the goals my wife and I had hoped for. No, it didn’t cover 100% of our electricity use, but that was never our goal. We wanted to reduce our electric bill, take some control over how our electricity was getting generated, and have a system that could carry us through a blackout … all in a financially responsible way. All the boxes were ticked for us.