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Do Solar Panels Save Money? Yes. Here's How

Your total savings from solar panels depends on how a few different factors. We break it down.

Solar panels on a roof.
How many years will it take before your solar panels start making you money?
Stephen Shankland/CNET

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

More than 500,000 new residential solar panel systems were put on roofs last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Despite greater uncertainty in the economy and solar industry in 2022, solar panels are almost certain to pay off in the long run. Panels purchased from a reputable solar installer and optimized for greatest energy production will save more money over time. And there are even solar options for renters

Residential solar installation costs vary because of their size, local incentives and local costs, but one average cost of installation is about $20,000, according to the Wood Mackenzie energy analysts. (Wood Mackenzie uses an average installation size of 8 kilowatts and an average of $2.99 per watt. Many residential solar systems will be smaller.) Tax breaks and financing options can make going solar more affordable.

With just a few pieces of information and a little math, we'll show you how to estimate the payback period on your solar panels and find out when they'll start saving you money.

Read more5 Things to Consider Before You Buy Solar Panels

Are solar panels really worth it?

A payback period is the amount of time it takes to earn back your initial investment. Solar panels can help you save enough money on energy bills over time to offset the upfront costs. How much you save per month depends on the size of your solar system, your home's energy consumption and other factors. 

Calculating the payback period will be unique to your circumstances due to the variability of the upfront costs, as well as the difference in energy costs based on your location. But here are some guidelines to help you estimate when you will break even. 

Find out your upfront costs

First, you need to estimate how much your initial investment will be. Along with the system costs, you should include potential installation costs and other fees as part of setting up your service. Check cost estimates in your area and go from there.

Tax incentives can help a lot

Homeowners can receive a one-time tax credit of 26% off the purchase price of a solar system. If the initial solar panel investment typically costs around $20,000 in your area, the tax credit would net you $5,200 when you next file taxes.

What's more, some utilities offer incentives and rebates for installing solar power. Check with your local energy supplier to see if they offer any incentives. 

You need to know how much you pay on your electric bill

This estimate assumes you will get all of your power from solar. While some homes will be able to get 100% of their electricity from solar, or even sell some surplus energy back to the grid, others will still have an electric bill to supplement usage. This will vary widely from home to home, depending on how many solar panels are installed, normal energy consumption and more. Get more tools to calculate your home's potential savings here.

Now you have a sense of how much energy you'll save, login to your electric utility company account and calculate an average of your last several electricity bills. Go back at least six months, if possible, to account for seasonal temperature changes and other fluctuations in cost. Let's assume you get 100% of your usage from the panels and currently pay an average of $125 per month in electricity bills, or $1,500 per year. Now you have the information you need to estimate the payback period for solar panels. 

Estimate how long it will take to pay off your solar panels

First, multiply your solar panel cost by 0.26, which is the tax credit you receive for installing your system. If you spend $20,000 on it initially, your tax credit is $5,200. That takes your initial investment down to $14,800.

Now, let's factor in energy savings. Divide your initial investment by the $1,500 you typically pay the electric company per year; that's how long it'll take for your savings to equal the amount you spend. Using the example above, you'd divide your initial investment of $14,800 by $1,500: The result is a payback period of just under 10 years.

That might seem like a long time on the surface, but solar panels can easily last 25 years. 

You can further expedite your payback period by selling renewable energy certificates, or RECs. These are measured in megawatt hours of electricity that come from a renewable source. Electric companies must purchase some electricity from renewable sources, meaning you could save more by selling energy generated by your solar panels.

One more important thing to know about solar

Some factors could increase your payback period. Before installing solar panels, you need to inspect the condition of your roof. Panels can last 25 years, so if your roof is not in tip-top shape, you might have to make improvements before installing solar panels. If this applies to you, make sure to add these costs to your initial investment. 

Overall, solar power can be an expensive proposition, especially with the upfront costs. However, the long-term efficiency they provide can more than offset the initial investment, leading to savings for years to come.

Save money now: More home energy tips

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