Solar energy newcomers and longtime aficionados can tour solar-powered homes virtually in Michigan and across the nation.
The National Solar Tour is hosting a series of live and prerecorded programming online including solar home tours, panel sessions and even a movie screening.
While the live tours end Saturday, many of the videos and photos will be saved online for viewing after the event, allowing people to continue to see virtual tours of solar homes around the country instead of just locally.
Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, this year’s virtual programming is different from the 24 previous tours. In a normal year, participants visit some of about 900 sites across the nation for tours with the owners, said Ben Delman, the tour’s communications director.
But Delman hopes participants will still take away the idea that solar energy is accessible and feasible for a large number of homeowners, and that the transition allows participants easier access to tours and information panels.
John Sarver, who lives in Okemos near East Lansing, created a virtual tour of his home for the national tour. Sarver’s solar setup consists of seven traditional solar panels that sit on top of the shingles on his roof, as well as a roof-integrated panel that serves as a section of his home’s roofing in place of shingles for aesthetic reasons.
The panels generate about 3.4 kilowatts of electricity. That’s enough to cover about 70% of the power needed for his home.
“If you want to help the planet, and your own pocketbook, one of the best things you can do is to go solar,” Sarver said.
Two years ago in Grand Rapids, Bob Synk installed solar panels on his garage. This year he’s providing a virtual tour of his home while installing a new set of solar panels.
Synk hopes that once the new panels are set up they will meet almost all of his electricity needs with solar energy. Panels on his garage now cover about one-third of his power needs, including enough juice for two electric cars.
He also tries to use the majority of his electricity after 7 p.m. because electricity costs slightly more from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The extra power he generates during those hours that funnels into the utility company’s grid his home is connected to earns him more credit back than the other hours of the day.
Both homeowners said they chose to go solar mainly to reduce pollution by using less coal and natural gas.
But they also cited economic benefits.
Despite solar energy costing less than energy from a utility company, the common hurdle for those interested in converting to it is the high upfront cost of installing solar panels.
“The problem is that you have to pay for it all up front,” Synk said. “But then you’re saving money every month. Most people want to know, ‘What’s the payback time? At what point does my monthly savings add up to what I spent?’”
Synk predicts that the system will pay for itself in 15 years or less, despite having west facing panels that don’t generate as much energy as south facing ones. In general, a payback time of about 10 years is common, he said.
Now may be the best time to invest in solar as cost has dropped significantly over the past 10 years and those who make the transition can qualify for federal tax credit, Sarver said. “This year is particularly a good year to go solar because the federal tax credit last year was 30%, this year it’s 26%, next year it’s 22% and then it’s gone for homeowners.”
The Michigan Saves program is a state-sponsored financing program that can be used for these kinds of improvements and that may also be helpful for those looking to make the change, Sarver said.
The 2020 National Solar Tour also features Michigan solar homes and buildings in Cassopolis, Macatawa, Dearborn and West Bloomfield as well as a Grand Rapids area tour, a Lansing area tour, an Ypsilanti self-guided tour and the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association Solar Home Tour.
Those interested can see the tour schedule, RSVP for an event or access the online programming on the National Solar Tour website.