Every year, it gets easier to install solar energy at home. Still, the idea of getting rooftop panels can inspire a host of questions: Will the process leave you elbow-deep in paperwork? Is solar affordable? Can panels produce enough electricity to power your house? And can you install them even if you rent your house or apartment?
The process can seem intimidating at first. So learn from the 1 million homeowners who have already installed rooftop solar. Meet two Audubon staffers from two different states, and read about why they made the switch at home and what the process was like. For more details on how solar works and how to get it, check out these frequently asked questions.
John Rowden, California
A few years ago, when John Rowden (Audubon's director of community conservation) moved to Los Angeles, he wasted no time in giving his house a green makeover. With the help of his husband (and their rescued dog, Zipper), he tore non-native plants from the yard, landscaped with drought-resistant native plants, and strung a clothesline outside to air-dry the laundry. But he knew his green makeover wouldn’t be complete without rooftop solar panels to cut down on carbon pollution.
Thanks to southern California’s mild weather, Rowden’s house has neither air conditioning nor heat. But it still uses electricity to power the lights, washing machine, and other appliances—electricity produced by power plants that burn fossil fuels and emit carbon pollution. As an environmentalist and bird lover, Rowden wanted to contribute as little as possible to climate change, and solar panels seemed the best option. He says it’s easy to take electricity for granted when you turn on a light switch or use the microwave, but “connecting the dots back to the source can be a pretty powerful motivator” to make a change.
“We all have impacts [on the environment],” Rowden says. “We can’t exist in the world without impacts. But whatever I can do to minimize that makes me feel better.”
So when he ran into a representative from a renewable energy company at the hardware store, he already knew he wanted to sign up. After a home visit to assess his roof and discuss his family’s energy needs, the solar company took care of the rest: They managed the permitting process, sent people to install the panels, and scheduled the necessary inspections with local agencies. And with their help, Rowden took advantage of solar tax credits and rebates to recoup about half the cost of panels. “I found the whole process to be really easy,” he says.
It took about four months from start to finish. The panels went up on the roof in summer 2015 and now produce more electricity than the household needs. Any excess power feeds back into the power grid to be distributed to other homes and businesses; in return, the Rowden family gets money back on their monthly electricity bills.
Perhaps even more satisfying than saving money is saving carbon. On a website, Rowden can track in real-time how much pollution he’s kept out of the atmosphere since installing the solar panels. “2.8 tons of CO2—equivalent to not driving a car for 6,621 miles!” he says—and the numbers keep ticking up. “I am thankful every day that I’m not drawing power from a coal-fired plant somewhere.”
Alison Holloran, Colorado
Alison Holloran (executive director of Audubon Rockies) lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, two kids, three dogs, and a flock of five chickens—and the whole family shares a passion for the environment. She does her part by biking to work each day and gardening with native flowering plants to benefit birds and other pollinators. But she wanted to do more. And so in 2014, the family decided to add solar to their rooftop.
“We really looked at it as a way of trying to decrease our footprint, to do better things for the environment, and that’s what drove us,” Holloran says. “[I want] to do some really great things for my kids’ generation and my generation.”
One day she found a flyer in the mail from a solar power company that offered easy panel installation. She called them to schedule a visit, and found out that her house made a good candidate for solar power. The company made the process “really painless,” she says. They coordinated with the local electric utility and installed 18 panels on the garage roof within a few months; they continue to provide support and repairs whenever she needs them.
Holloran says that going solar might sound a bit daunting, but she found it simple and rewarding. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she says. And there are monetary benefits, too. The solar panels usually produce enough electricity to meet all the household’s needs; monthly electric bills are about the same or even lower than before. There’s a little shortfall when heavy snows bury the panels, but those losses are balanced out by extra energy production during the summer, Holloran says. “I love those bills that say, ‘Hey, you put back into the grid.’”
Holloran has recommended solar to everyone she knows—for the tax rebates, monetary savings, and for the environmental benefits. And she’s happy to talk about solar with anyone and everyone. “We live in a really quiet neighborhood, but there have been quite a few people who drive by and, if I’m out in the yard, they stop and ask me about the panels,” she says. “In the world today and everything we’re facing politics-wise, it’s kind of nice that people give a hoot.”