Harnessing the sun’s abundant energy for electricity and hot water has been a noble effort for decades, hampered not only by economics but also by residential aesthetics. During the last few years, though, system manufacturers and solar energy experts have introduced solar electric, or photovoltaic (PV), solutions to meet the public’s demand for both curb appeal and better control of their energy costs.
Modules and arrays designed to fit in with various roofing finishes are all the rage, if not yet the norm. Even better, the solar cell technology within them collects and converts more of the sun’s energy into usable electricity, thus reducing the overall size of the arrays to effectively (if partially) offset more of what’s coming into the house from the local utility grid.
That evolution has enabled mainstream builders, including the nation’s largest, D.R. Horton, to offer PV as an option, or perhaps even a standard feature, in some of their new homes.
And, truly, roof-mounted, grid-connected PV systems are easy to get through approvals, install, and maintain. They’ve undergone extensive third-party testing, certification, and code approvals; require maybe an extra day’s work for a roofer, electrician, or solar sub (though lead times to order and receive the modules need to be respected); and rarely cause trouble for the homeowner.
In addition, the ever-falling costs of today’s photovoltaics, especially of systems that can be sized smaller thanks to high-performance building practices and to offset peak electricity usage (instead of replace the utility grid altogether), can be amortized over a 30-year mortgage, reducing return on investment to a pretty attractive per-month calculation.
And don’t forget federal tax credits, utility rebates, and other incentives that directly or indirectly reduce costs even further.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Integrating solar energy is actually, and ideally, the last step in achieving sustainable and resource-efficient housing. “Solar only gets you so far,” says Scott Kramer, forward planner for Scottsdale, Ariz.–based Meritage Homes. “Most of the [energy] efficiency we achieve in our homes comes from other features. Solar is the icing on the cake.”