Dear Umbra,

I live on Long Island, N.Y., and am interested in getting solar power for my home. I am not sure, however, if that is viable in this area. Do you have any recommended reliable sources that I can reference? There is just so much confusing information in the marketplace.

Thanks,
Rick
Port Washington, N.Y.

Dearest Rick,

Don’t thank me until you’ve tried my recommendations in the marketplace.

Solar power to the people.

Photo: iStockphoto

Your county’s rating for solar is “good,” according to Findsolar.com, a private/public collaborative website that has various worksheets helping you figure out what solar can do in your area, what size array you might need, how much it will cost, etc. (I am missing the necessary information that would help me give you a more complete answer, such as your utility.) Findsolar also has contractor listings and many handy tips on preparing for, choosing, and installing solar systems. There are other resources to divine your solar potential, such as NASA’s very detailed Surface Meteorology and Solar Energy data retrieval site, and the moderately detailed National Renewable Energy Laboratory solar performance calculator. But Findsolar is a good first step.

I’ll talk about solar water heating and passive solar design in the next few weeks, but you sound like you’re thinking about solar electricity. Sun availability is one concern, another is what zoning laws apply to your solar daydreams, a third is whether net metering is available to you in Port Washington, N.Y. When your photovoltaic system supplies your home electric usage, any extra is sold to the local utility, making your electric meter run backward, and you still buy power from the utility when the solar doesn’t provide power. This is net metering, and is generally the relatively easiest and cheapest way to go. If Port Washington doesn’t permit net metering, you would need to buy storage batteries; this can be prohibitively expensive where the municipal power grid is easily available (if you are far from power lines, solar can be financially comparable to bringing power lines to your home). Your questions should be easily answered by a contractor or the local land-use and planning office.

If you do decide to invest in solar panels, the payback period is a long one, and you will be highly motivated to conserve — because if you are net metering, you want to use your own power whenever you can, not buy it from the utility. Additionally, when you buy solar (as when you buy a home heating system) an important planning aspect is sizing the correct system to your needs. So before going solar, it makes sense to tightly button down your house. The smaller your needs, the cheaper the system. Do your best to make your power usage as small as realistically possible before you get someone to size your array. All the basic conservation measures apply, from light bulbs to efficient washing machines to power strips turned off at night. The internet can offer thousands of conservation checklists and home energy audits to start you on your load-reduction project; here’s one from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

After you’ve worked on the changes necessary to make your house more energy efficient and received your new energy bills, return to investigating your solar potential. Do a few calculations of your own using the Findsolar resources, and then I think you’ll just need to start calling contractors. Best of luck.

Sunnily,
Umbra