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Solar Power on the West Coast: Does It Pay Off?

California is the clear national leader in residential solar. What about the rest of the coast?

Rooftop solar panels in front of a desert cliff.
Solar panels in eastern Oregon are expected to generate more electricity than on the coast.
Mark Miller Photos/Getty Images

Roof top solar panels are going up around the United States at an accelerating pace. Residential solar installations reached record highs for the fifth straight year in 2021. While the potential lapse of the federal tax credit and inflation and supply chain issues may increase prices, 2022 should see a large number of installations.

The west coast of the United States is an interesting place when it comes to solar adoption. While California leads all states in the amount of solar installed, Washington and Oregon, (perhaps unfairly) known for dreary, gray weather, lag behind the frontrunner. While there are some challenges to looking at solar potential at a regional level (or even a state level), there's still plenty to be gained from taking this view. Along the West Coast, there are some trends, expenses and incentives worth looking at together.

Read CNET's coverage of other regions' solar potential: New EnglandEast Coast and the Midwest.

The cost of electricity

From south to north, electricity costs on the west coast range from some of the highest in the country to the cheapest. Electricity in California cost an average of 20.45 cents per kilowatt hour in 2022. In Oregon, it was 11.17 cents per kilowatt hour and in Washington 9.87 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Average monthly bills in California were $116.94. In Oregon they were $102.32 and in Washington $95.72 according to the same Energy Information Administration report. Even in Washington, which has the lowest average price for electricity, the average yearly costs are over $1,100.

The cost of solar panels

The most common metric to gauge solar panel costs is dollars per watt. To find it, divide the total cost of a solar installation by the system's capacity. The average cost of solar panels in California is $2.69 per watt. In Oregon it's $2.89 and in Washington $2.64, according to EnergySage. That's lower than in many parts of the United States, like New England, where nearly every state averages over $3.00 per watt.

The average cost of solar is $3.28 per watt, according to market analyst firm Wood Mackenzie. (It's important to note that average costs vary from source to source, which get their information from different places.) While solar panels themselves have become much cheaper in recent years, soft costs, which includes sales expenses and labor costs and could be more regionally variable, have fallen much more slowly.

Incentives also impact the cost of a solar system. 

Solar arrays installed anywhere in the United States are eligible for the federal solar tax credit. For any solar system installed in 2022, the federal government will return 26% of the system's cost to you on your taxes. In 2023 the credit is slated to drop to 22% and go away altogether in 2024, barring an extension by the government. Depending on where you live, you might have more incentives available to you.

Solar panels in front of palm trees.

California has the most solar installations of any state.

Raimund Koch/Getty Images

Across California there are municipal and utility-run programs that offer additional benefits, including rebates ranging from $300 to $7,000. California has a property tax exemption for residential solar systems solar panels and localized rebates. Some cities and utilities in Oregon have rebates that range from $900 to $9,000, depending on the income and number of residents of the home. Washington has a sales tax exemption and several local loan programs. 

Each state has allowances for net metering, though at least one utility in Washington has stopped accepting applications and California is in the middle of a contentious political process revising its net metering policies.

Learn more about the incentives specific to you by exploring the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency or research starting with your city and utility.

The solar potential of the West Coast

While California leads the contiguous 48 states in solar installations per capita and has over four times as many solar installations as the next closest state, Oregon (17th most installations per capita) and Washington (24th) fall nearer the middle.

Solar potential can be defined in a few different ways. One is by looking at how much electricity a standardized, horizontal, square meter solar panel would generate in one day. Most of California ranges from about 5.5 kilowatt-hours to 7 kilowatt-hours per day. Oregon ranges from just under six kilowatt-hours daily to closer to four along the coast. Washington ranges from five to four. Four kilowatt-hours per day is close to the lowest rating of anywhere in the lower 48.

Another way to consider solar potential is how much of the average electricity bill solar panels could offset. In California, the average offset is over one hundred percent. In Oregon it's much lower at 60%-70%. In Washington it's below 60%.

These numbers are statewide averages. They won't be exactly what any one individual homeowner will find when they look into solar for their home. The angle and direction of their roof, their energy usage and the availability of local incentives will change the calculus. While it seems like the solar potential of California is clearly higher than Washington, there are bound to be cases in both places that exceed or fall short of the state averages.

The best way to know whether solar is a good fit is to gather multiple quotes and compare them against energy usage, local electricity rates and solar incentives. From this high-level view, it seems that solar panels make obvious sense in parts of the west coast.