Puget Sound Energy began recording data for the solar panel array at my house in mid-October last fall. The race was on: at what point would I be selling the utility clean power from my panels faster than I would be buying carbon-based, “dirty” power from them?

Predictably, through the short, dark days of fall and winter, we needed to buy more power from PSE than we were selling back to them. Round about February, though, as I read the numbers on my meter I began to notice a change.

The number of kilowatt hours returned to the grid was beginning to increase more rapidly than the number of kilowatt hours supplied by the grid.

March and April confirmed the trend: the “returned” measure was chasing down the “supplied” number, slowly but surely.

At last, on Day 250 of having solar panels (June 23), we have achieved net-zero! This means:

  • The dirty power we bought from PSE over the winter has now been offset by an equal amount of clean power our panels have produced and pushed out to the grid.
  • The panels have produced power in excess of what was pushed out to the grid, enabling us to meet our household needs with renewable solar power.

Of course, it is true that the calendar will inexorably move towards a less favorable solar season, again. It is possible that “net zero” is a temporary victory. What will be particularly revealing I think is how the numbers stack up exactly one year in. That will give us an annual baseline measure against which to measure future performance as well.

Arguably the most important choice you’ll make if you go solar is who’s going to make your panels? I considered four different manufacturers, and discovered that return-on-investment was just one of several values at play in my decision. Here’s my list of pros and cons, at a glance:

Manufacturer Pros Cons
  • most powerful, efficient modules
  • most attractive modules
  • manufactured in Mexico
  • relatively high price per watt
  • slower ROI
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • delivery delays reported
  • least attractive modules
  • manufactured in Oregon
  • Green Brand certified
  • relatively low price per watt
  • attractive modules
  • fast, reliable delivery
  • slower ROI
Silicon Energy
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • attractive modules
  • announced that no new orders would be accepted in 2014

Itek, located in Bellingham, and Silicon Energy, located in Arlington, are the two in-state manufacturers you can choose from if you want to take advantage of the attractive incentive program currently in place in Washington. Through this program, you can earn 54 cents per kilowatt hour produced by your solar array if you have bought panels and inverters locally. This is the biggest reason why ROI is quicker for consumers with these in-state panels.

By contrast, if neither your panels nor inverters are manufactured within state lines, you earn 15 cents per kilowatt hour. It’s still a nice perk of going solar here, but it’s obviously considerably less, and the ROI for consumers who go this route could be double the amount of time or more.

I was disappointed that Silicon Energy essentially played itself out of the competition for my business by stopping new orders for the year. I would have liked to support a small in-state business.

Itek struck me as a safe, solid choice if I were determined to get those in-state incentives and enjoy the quickest ROI. But ultimately I rejected their panels for aesthetic reasons: their clunky appearance, with old-school gridlines and overly-visible framing, just didn’t appeal to me. My hope is that in the future they will offer more variety in their lines.

So that left me with my two out-of-state options (there are, of course, many more, but it helps to place some limits on the range of choices). For sheer efficiency and aesthetics, SunPower would have been my choice. Their modules are rated at 320-330 watts, while the others come in at 270-280 at this writing. And their Signature Black Solar Panel line is as elegant as I’ve found on the market (all black, no visible gridlines or framing). But I really value local and U.S. made products, and the fact that SunPower is neither was a negative mark I would find it hard to live with, much less sell to my wife!

Although SolarWorld has German roots, its U.S. headquarters in the Portland area produces American-made panels. I have some family ties to Oregon, and frankly Portland seems as local to me as Bellingham or Arlington. It is just an unfortunate river that gets in the way of SolarWorld panels qualifying for the Washington state incentive.

More importantly, because they are a larger and more established company, SolarWorld could get their product up on my roof in about a month, with no delivery delays or drama surrounding inventory. SolarWorld is the only one of the four that had been certified green, a compelling selling point in a competitive market. And finally, from a design point-of-view, their black frame line is second only to SunPower for visual appeal.

The ROI for my SolarWorld array is projected to be 13 years. It is certainly possible that technical advances in panel efficiency in the future will make that feel like an albatross around my neck. But for me, competing values such as reliability, aesthetics, and “local-enough” were enough to impact my choice of manufacturer.

The up-front cost of installing a solar array on the roof of a home has often been cited as a barrier to entry for an ordinary homeowner. But now financing the system is pretty common, whether through a leasing arrangement or a low-interest loan. And when you can “go solar” for hardly any money down, all of a sudden it isn’t hard to imagine neighborhoods dotted with paneled rooftops.

Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union (PSCCU) is offering low-interest loans to cover up to $35,000 of the cost of installations purchased through the Go Solar Seattle Northwest campaign. This means in most cases you can get those panels up and producing juice for you without putting a dent in your savings.

Photo of people signing up for solar site assessment

Attendees at a Go Solar Seattle Northwest workshop in December sign up for a free site assessment from Sunergy.

For example, say you’ve got a moderate-sized home, and after consulting with a solar professional, you’ve determined that you want a system that costs $20,000 total. You’ve planned ahead a little, so you can afford to pay for half the system when it is installed, but you’ll need to finance the rest of it.

You go see one of the loan officers at PSCCU, and because you’ve got a respectable credit rating, they can offer you a $10,000 loan at 5 percent interest. You can pay off the balance of the loan over a leisurely 15-year period if you like.

The really cool thing for you as a borrower is that that new solar array on your house isn’t just sitting around doing nothing; it is working on your behalf, every day (or nearly every day), creating value as power that you can use yourself or sell back to the utility. State of Washington incentives are structured such that if you buy in-state solar panels and inverters, you can realize a 10 percent per year return on investment.

In other words, the cost of money from the credit union (4.49-7.99 percent) is easily offset by the return from the solar installation itself (approximately 10 percent).

Shannon Ellis-Brock, Chief Operating Officer of PSCCU, says the loans make good business sense for the credit union as well: “Our small credit union was just given an award for being 5th in loan growth for all US credit unions in 2012. This was in large part from growth in Energy Smart loans (which include solar) and our commitment to offering Washington homeowners a way to finance green projects.”

But for Ellis-Brock, the reason for partnering with a program like Go Solar Seattle Northwest goes beyond just dollars and cents. “Credit unions were founded on the principle of people helping people – we have expanded on the principle and not only are we helping people, we’re helping the environment, helping to reduce our reliance on foreign fuels, and making use of an energy supply that is free and will be around forever,” she added.

This combination of long-term idealism and here-and-now pragmatism is a healthy sign of a maturing renewable energy movement. Bankers absolutely have their role to play in this. As Danny Kennedy writes in Rooftop Revolution (2012): “Financial engineering allows you to pay for your solar panels over time instead of up front, and this is probably the most important innovation in the solar industry in the past decade” (p. 99).

Renewable energy policy and discussion can get a little abstract. That’s why I’ve teamed up with Joe Deets, co-founder of Community Energy Solutions, to write this FAQ based on what we’re hearing from ordinary people as they consider installing solar panels on their rooftops.

Check it out here: http://cenergysolutions.org/top-ten-questions-asked-by-go-solar-workshops-participants/

And here’s a brief excerpt:

“Don’t look now, but the “rooftop revolution” is gaining traction right here in Seattle. The Go Solar Seattle Northwest workshops being held in neighborhoods like Ballard and Phinney Ridge are drawing a large number of your neighbors to listen to professionals in the solar photovoltaics (PV) field. The attendees are full of questions about the campaign, ranging from technical, to financial, to just practical inquiries about how it all works for an ordinary homeowner.The following article contains the top ten questions asked by those who attended the Go Solar workshops.”

Savvy homeowners are beginning to shop around for something a little unexpected: energy. No longer strictly the purview of big utility companies or off-grid eccentrics, rooftop solar arrays are becoming more of a mainstream home improvement option for ordinary consumers.

Though costs have come down, and state and federal incentives help sweeten the pot, a typical installation is still a five-figure affair ($15,000 – $30,000), roughly similar to buying a new car. “Shoppers” in this new market will want to proceed deliberately, do their homework, and not have to contend with a high-pressure pitch from some showroom salesman.

And that’s precisely what’s so refreshing about what’s going on in some Seattle neighborhoods right now. The Go Solar Seattle Northwest campaign is a collaboration among two non-profit groups, Community Energy Solutions and Sustainable Ballard, a small local solar panel installation company, Sunergy Systems, and other key partners. And it’s hitting just the right note with homeowners who are curious about going solar.

The campaign is primarily organized around four free workshops, presented on neutral ground at places like the Ballard Public Library and Phinney Neighborhood Center. At the two that I’ve attended so far, small groups of 20-30 program registrants listen attentively to a straightforward, factual, friendly presentation from Joe Deets of Community Energy Solutions and Howard Lamb of Sunergy. The audiences are ready with intelligent questions, and aren’t shy to ask them at any point during the 90-minute session: how quickly can I see a return on investment? How will this affect the integrity of my roof? What do I have to do to clean and maintain the modules?

For Deets, taking a collaborative approach to this campaign made sense on a number of levels. “It was only natural that we approach Sunergy Systems as the installer. Sunergy is the largest solar installer in Washington, they have an excellent reputation, and couldn’t be more local, with their office right in Ballard. They recommended that we talk with Jenny Heins of Sustainable Ballard as another partner. Jenny knows everyone, and has really helped us get the word out. We are thrilled to have such excellent partners in this campaign.”

Indeed, the project dovetails seamlessly with the mission of Sustainable Ballard, which was originally formed in 2003 with energy independence as part of its core philosophy. In return for its grassroots expertise and neighborhood communications efforts, Heins said that the non-profit receives $150 for every sale.

And rounding out the collaborative effort is Silicon Energy, a module manufacturing company in western Washington. Registrants may select from four different module manufacturers, but Stu Frothingham of Silicon Energy is always on hand at the workshops to answer questions, and may even invite you to hop up and down on the world’s most durable module!

Photo of solar panel

Silicon Energy module on display at one of the workshops.

Though internationally the solar industry is robust and mature, here in the US it really does feel like an emerging sector, very small-scale still. For this reason, highly collaborative efforts such as the Go Solar Seattle Northwest campaign and others similar to it, may be exactly the right model for disseminating information and connecting small, local businesses to a potentially enthusiastic customer base.