Why Do Homeowners Go Solar? Saving with Solar in North Carolina


Homeowner Profiles: A PV Solar Report Exclusive Series

In this series, we profile homeowners around the country who have gone solar. We interview a range of homeowners to gain insights about their motivations for going solar, what factors they weighed in their decision, and how they went about choosing a solar provider.

If you know homeowners who have gone solar and would like to share their experience, email us at admin@pvsolarreport.com.

John Nelsen wants to be energy independent, but only if it makes sense financially. After years of watching his friends in California go solar for environmental reasons, John did the math to see if the installation prices could be justified. For years, the numbers just didn’t work. Payback periods were too long, and the investment would be an ethical one instead of making sense for his budget. Now that’s changed. Now, homeowners can install solar panels on their roof and generate free electricity after several years, often for an effective cost less than that of a used car. 

As North Carolina has jumped to the number two position nationally for solar installation capacity, a growing market in this space includes residential PV systems. While they still comprise a small percentage of the total energy produced compared to larger utility-scale projects, these rooftop systems represent a field with the strongest potential to affect the electricity-producing landscape.


John represents a new group of people jumping into the solar space. Traditionally, solar panels have been too expensive to justify based on cost alone, so affluent environmentals were the only ones who had rooftop solar panels installed. Now that PV modules have dropped in price and more installers are entering the space, an installed PV system can be justified based on the return on investment.


This past December, John installed a 6,240 watt system on his house in Chapel Hill. He did some online research and contacted Mitsubishi. They referred him to a local installer who handled all the paperwork, engineering, and installation of the solar PV system, which is made up of 24 Mistubishi MLE 260 panels with 24 Enphase microinverters. After several weeks of discussion, this turnkey operation was installed in a few days by Greensboro-based DG Solar for $4.19 per watt.


There are five factors that influence the calculations of installing solar panels: 1) installation price, 2) incentives, 3) system kWh production, 4) average value of electricity, and 5) electric-rate inflation.


For John, the unadjusted installed price came in at just over $26,000. With the 30% tax credits offered by the federal government and an additional 35% tax credit offered by the state of North Carolina, John’s effective price is around $12,000.


Using an online tool developed by the U.S. government to estimate total energy generated based on geographic location, John found that his array will be capable of generating about 8500 kilowatt-hours per year. Duke Energy currently pays 11 cents per kWh for energy put back into the grid, so the estimated payback period shows that John will be receiving free electricity for the majority of the panels’ lifetime warrantee.


The Cisco Systems employee considers himself a data nut, so he scrutinizes all the information provided by the Enphase microinverters. He can see how much energy his panels are producing and how much electricity his house is using in near real time. Having access to this information encourages the household to curtail their electricity usage and increase the size of their array over time. John notes that once household appliances like refrigerators, washers, and toaster ovens are given their own IP addresses, it should be even easier for homeowners to manage their energy usage and become independent of the grid.


“I’ve been interested in reducing my carbon footprint for a while now, but the cost of solar energy in the past was prohibitive,” John says. “With today’s federal and state (NC) tax incentives, I considered the overall cost to be very feasible. I chose a turn-key PV solar solution and I am thrilled with the experience and results. I would definitely do it again, in fact, I plan on adding on to my solar array this year!”


As PV prices continue to drop, John anticipates adding an additional 10 panels on his roof and several more as ground mounts.


To further underline the potential of roof-mounted solar systems, Jim Rogers, the ex-CEO of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, recently said that if he were starting his career today he’d want to be in charge of putting solar on rooftops. Rogers said he would take customers away from the now-vulnerable electric utility monopolies as fast as he could. While Duke Energy is trying to change the rules of regulation to protect its interests, Rogers does not think the company will be able to adapt fast enough to survive with its current business model.


Now that rooftop-mounted solar panels can be justified financially, we can expect a surge of solar capacity in the residential space. As more electric customers realize that rooftop solar systems are within their reach and translate into eventual free electricity, we expect North Carolina will move even closer to the number one spot in the sun.