The sun's rays are available to anyone for the taking, but it takes a lot of expensive equipment to turn them into power. Solar panels are the least-expensive form of renewable energy, but they still cost three to four times as much as traditional energy. If you're serious about making the switch, don't let that discourage you -- there might be ways to make it happen.
"Grid parity" is a term that's thrown around to describe one of the ultimate goals toward solar power sustainability -- when alternative sources of renewable power (which, in theory, includes other sources besides solar) will cost the same as traditional power. It's estimated that one of the milestones toward achieving grid parity is when the manufacturing costs for solar power infrastructure drop to about 65 cents per watt [source: Hutchinson]. Then, it can be sold at a profit for the companies, but it'll still be easier for homeowners to make the leap.
Before the housing bust, banks were known to lend a little extra to customers who planned to invest in efficient energy improvements and green technology, but it's a bit more difficult now to make such a case convincing. A "green mortgage" might still be an option for homebuyers who have good credit, and reliable numbers that demonstrate good research and commitment should help. A solid argument will show the bank how much the investment will save, and the time period necessary to recoup the costs.
Energy-related incentives and rebates vary so much, and change so frequently, that anyone considering a solar home conversion should take a close look at state-specific benefits. The right combination of grants, tax credits and per-watt rebates might make the initial investment more affordable than many homeowners think. As of 2012, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 still provides owners with a tax credit of 30 percent, or up to $2,000, in the year the system is installed. Beyond the short-term benefits, experts estimate that for every thousand dollars of annual energy savings, the value of your home will rise by $20,000 [source: Solar Energy World].
If and when you sell your solar-powered home, the investment should pay off big-time. Energy costs also vary by location, so living in a less-than-sunny state might still provide considerable benefits (where electricity costs so much that the savings are worth the investment, even if the house doesn't generate as much power as it would somewhere else).
As utility costs rise and your neighbors pay more for power, you might actually be entitled to a refund from your utility company. If your solar panels make more power than your house uses, you can sell your extra power back to the grid. Companies that install residential solar power tout this benefit as an easy way to recoup your investment, but of course, the results can vary widely (and the laws about this also vary depending on where you live). That's good motivation to pare down your family's energy consumption.
Some locales have made an effort to bring solar power to the masses. Berkely, Calif. and Boulder, Colo., have municipal solar programs, in which the city makes the infrastructure investment and recoups the cost through taxes. Other locales offer special loans that are paid back through additional property taxes. And at least one company has come up with a leasing program (kind of like leasing your cable box or satellite dish from your cable company), focusing on states that have particularly high energy costs to appeal to as many consumers as possible.
There is a dark side to solar power -- in some places, it truly isn't feasible. Germany has provided more than $130 billion in solar power subsidies, only to decide in 2012 that those benefits would be phased out. The infrastructure, they say, is too expensive and inefficient to use on a large scale, even if the sun's rays are free. The country's landscape and orientation might just be unsuitable to make the investment sustainable; experts figure that Germany's seemingly impressive solar initiative will have no effect on reducing global warming.
But if you don't live in Germany, the Netherlands, or any other country with notoriously short daylight hours, go outside and celebrate. If you want to convert your house to full solar power, it's probably possible.