I have been asked a few times why I decided to go solar. I am not someone that has ever been considered an environmentalist. I leave that to my sister. However, I can say this decision was all about green. As in money.
A few years ago, we moved from Folsom, CA to Cameron Park, CA. A distance of about 12 miles. In Folsom, we had natural gas for heat, the clothes dryer, the stove, and the hot water heater. In Cameron Park, we are 100% electric. In Folsom, electricity was provided by SMUD, in Cameron park it is PG&E. I never knew what a difference it makes. Our combined gas and electric bills in Folsom rarely exceeded $200 a month, and were often half that. My first power bill in Cameron Park exceeded $600. Talk about sticker shock.
We did what we could to reduce the electric bill. I replaced the 15 year old AC unit with a brand new one. I was promised 20% savings on electricity the first year. It was more like 5%. Not good enough. Electricity prices kept increasing, and my monthly bill remained way too high. I kept hearing ads for solar on the radio promising savings, but I didn't think it was real.
I called a few companies, and had them come give the sales pitch to us. I did the math, and the payback periods for buying the system were long. I am an engineer, I put the data in spreadsheets, I ran projections. Even with the government incentives, the numbers didn't pencil out. I dropped it for a few years. More ads came along, promising new pricing models. I took a look again.
This time, the numbers came out closer. I could achieve $60-$70 a month in savings with no upfront costs. This was better, but would require me to commit to a long term contract. Another company came in, and the numbers were similar. I was on the fence. Then, Real Goods came back with a new promotion. I could get the same pricing they had offered before, but the first year would be free. Now, instead of saving $60-$70 a month, I would be saving over $200 a month the first year. I finally pulled the trigger.
Results so far have been in line with expectations. One thing I learned is that PG&E net billing method calls for me to pay only some of the taxes each month, resulting in a bill of about $12. At the end of a year (I assume after my February bill), PG&E will send a bill for the net cost of what I used. This essentially means they are providing me with a free loan. Another side benefit.
The key thing I have found is to take a look at all the data the salesmen throw at you, and make sure to do your own analysis. Your savings can vary quite a bit depending on the plan you pick and how much you invest. Sometimes, investing a little more actually lowers your savings quite a bit. Always run the numbers, and figure out where your break even point is.