As El Pasoans brace for higher electric bills, some are looking at solar as a smart investment.
With temperatures rising — and El Paso Electric seeking a 13.4% residential rate increase — solar professionals say saving money is the most common reason homeowners go solar. Some El Pasoans have installed solar panels on their homes to take advantage of the region's abundant sunshine.
Are you solar curious and wondering how to make the switch? Have you gotten a quote and are undecided? Solar professionals share how to determine whether solar is a good fit for you and how to compare quotes.
"We are either going to rent our energy for the rest of our lives from the utility or go solar and own it," said Shelby Ruff, board president of the non-profit Eco El Paso and former owner of a solar company. "I'm a big fan of taking my energy independence into my own hands."
How solar power can save you money
El Paso has some of the best solar potential in the United States.
"As you go west towards El Paso, the solar radiance gets stronger and stronger, which means more watts produced for every solar panel," Ruff said. "So the exact same system in Austin that costs the exact same price, in El Paso it will make 15% to 20% more electricity."
According to Environment America, by the end of 2021 El Paso had 70.4 MW of installed solar capacity. That was nearly double the installed capacity four years earlier in 2017, at 37 MW.
Professionals say many homeowners look at solar as an investment that will pay off over time.
"When you decide to install a solar system, you are offsetting your electric bill with this monthly payment for the solar," said Gad Ronat, owner of El Paso-based Solar Solutions. "It's become really affordable."
Unlike fluctuating energy prices from a utility, once you buy solar panels, the price is locked in. Solar professionals say it is a popular choice for people nearing retirement or living on a fixed income.
"If you add up how much you're going to pay in 20, 25 years towards your electric bills, it will be more than what you will pay to get solar," said Roberto Madin of Solar Solutions.
The federal government offers a 26% residential solar energy tax credit. That means if you have taxable income, you can claim a portion of the cost of your solar installation as a tax credit. Reach out to a tax professional to ensure you qualify for the credit before signing a solar installation contract.
According to Energy Sage, average quotes for a 5 kilowatts solar installation in El Paso for customer using the website ranges in cost from $11,942 to $16,158 with a payback period of 11.5 years.
Eco El Paso's Ruff said even a small solar system can lead to savings.
"As long as your bills are over $30, everyone can go solar, because you have some amounts of energy that you can save on," Ruff said. "Even if it's only five solar panels on your roof versus your neighbor that might have 25 or 30."
Sam Silerio, owner of Sunshine City Solar, said homes with solar panels sell at a higher value. Ruff, who has worked with housing developers to install solar, agreed that solar houses are in high demand.
Worried about property taxes? You won't see an increase because Texas code exempts solar panels from property tax appraisals.
Crunch the numbers before going all in on solar panels
Solar professionals recommend getting at least three quotes before signing a contract. Here's what to expect while getting solar quotes:
First, installers will determine if your property is a good candidate for panels. Solar providers will use Google Earth and satellite images of your home and see whether the roof is south-facing and receives enough sunlight. Energy Sage can also offer an initial assessment of your home's viability.
Then the company will determine how many panels you will need to install. The installer will ask for your average electricity usage, based on your recent electricity bills.
Silerio said making your home as energy efficient as possible before installing solar will help you save more money.
"If you can make a tight airship with your home, you might have reduced your solar system size from 12 panels to eight panels," he said.
If your roof is due for a replacement, you're better off making that investment before getting solar, because it could cost more down the line if you already have panels.
When comparing quotes, ask the company what components they are using and how long their warranty lasts. Other factors to consider are installation costs and what options the company offers to service and repair the solar panels.
"If you get multiple quotes the first metric you should look at is the price per watt," Silerio said. "Then you can get the real apples to apples comparison."
Installers offer financing packages but Silerio also recommended reaching out to your bank or other lending institution to explore options.
Ronat said the market has grown significantly since founding his company in 2006. He recommended seeking out companies with fulltime staff in El Paso and a track record of successful installations.
Another option is to join the Solar United Neighbors El Paso cooperative, where homeowners will buy solar panels as a group for reduced costs.
Avoid common connection problems
Once you decide to go solar, you or your solar installer will submit an interconnection application with El Paso Electric. The utility recommends waiting to install the system until the application is approved. Some customers will need to make improvements such as transformer upgrades and meter relocations.
"Like any other investment, customers should take their time to research the best product available and understand the process they will need to follow," El Paso Electric spokesperson Javier Camacho said.
Camacho said some customers experience delays getting their solar system energized because of errors in applications, incorrect contact information and a lack of communication with the utility.
"Communication between El Paso Electric and the customer is integral throughout the installation process, without it can cause delay and/or rejections," he said.
El Paso Electric charges $30 minimum bill
Residential solar users in El Paso typically stay connected to the electric grid. Going completely off-grid requires installing expensive battery systems that are generally not cost-effective in urban settings.
But staying on the grid, and having access to electricity when your panels are not generating, comes at a price. All Texas customers with El Paso Electric must pay a $30 minimum bill. The rule does not apply to New Mexico residents.
This means if you currently pay less than $30 a month for electricity, going solar is unlikely to be cost effective.
Eco El Paso's Shelby Ruff said companies should size systems so customers will still generate a $30 minimum bill. Installing a system that will cover 100% of your electricity needs will incur unnecessary costs.
"If you get down to net zero and have no electric bill, the utility will still send you a $30 bill every month," Ruff said. "You just spent a ton of money extra on producing energy that you're going to now turn around and give to the utility for free."
"Utilities like Austin or San Antonio, and utilities all across Texas that are public and private, are promoting solar," Ruff said. "But that fee is the big rub in El Paso."
El Paso Electric defended the minimum bill.
"Everyone using the grid to deliver or receive energy and using the installed generation capacity to ensure reliability should contribute to the cost to build and maintain this critical infrastructure and perform functions like billing, metering, and customer service," Camacho said.
Ruff, on the other hand, pointed out solar homes help stabilize the grid during peak demand and reduce the need for the utility to build new power plants, saving both the company and ratepayers money.
Residential solar is just one piece of the puzzle
Installing solar isn't an option for everybody: maybe you rent your home, or you don't qualify for financing to pay off solar panels. Maybe your bills are low enough that paying for solar panels isn't economical.
El Paso Electric owns utility-scale solar operations and offers a Community Solar program, where ratepayers can pay for power from the utility's solar installations. The program is currently fully enrolled but customers can sign up to join the waitlist.
Shelby Ruff of Eco El Paso said El Paso Electric should invest in more utility-scale solar so al El Pasoans can benefit from the technology.
"Solar works, batteries work, and now the price is competitive," Ruff said. "It's a no brainer for a city like El Paso where the sun is so rich."
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This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Here's what to know before switching to solar power in El Paso