Residents in the Kansas City metro are increasingly choosing to power their homes with rooftop solar panels. It's a choice spurred by both the promise of lower monthly energy bills and concern for the environment. But barriers to "going solar" remain, especially for low- and middle-income households.
The upfront price tag is about the cost of a new car. There is a dizzying array of regulations, incentives and rebates to wade through. And there are other factors that can quite literally get in the way, like shade trees.
Still, the metro's largest utility Evergy says its number of customers in Kansas and Missouri with home solar systems has ballooned from about 200 in 2011 to nearly 5,000 today.
As the region's solar capacity grows, everyone involved in the indsutry has one piece of advice for those considering making the switch: do your research. Here are five factors to consider.
Prices of solar panels have dropped 70% over the last decade, but it's still a major financial investment.
Installing a system to fit even an average home's energy needs will likely cost upwards of $15,000. Bigger systems and those with more premium components will run higher.
"There is kind of a sticker shock," said Jordan Starke, president of Lifetime Solar, a Kansas City-based installer. "They look and say, 'Well, this system costs $30,000. I don't have $30,000. Thanks, but no thanks.'"
Financing is easier than it's been in the past, eliminating hefty out-of-pocket costs. And solar experts say loan payments are often less than a monthly energy bill.
Still, homeowners typically are looking at a long payback period. James Owen, with the nonprofit Renew Missouri, said the initial installation costs make solar not feasible for renters, first-time homebuyers or homeowners with low credit scores.
"You're looking at the main benefit of solar on your home coming anywhere from 10 to 12 years out, which is a lot of upfront commitment, even for middle-income consumers," he said.
Rebates and incentives
Installation costs can be mitigated somewhat by tax incentives and rebates.
The major one is a 30% federal tax credit, which can knock off several thousand dollars. But that tax credit falls to 26% in 2020, to 22% the year after that and is set to expire in 2023 if it's not renewed by Congress.
Northland resident Angelina Lydon recently bought solar panels for her home near Lake Waukomis, paying about $17,000 for the system outright with help from an uncle. She said she expects to get back about $5,000 through tax credits and rebates.
"It's not something I would have been able to do without help and having saved a lot previously," she said
Missouri residents like Lydon also get a rebate from Evergy, the metro's largest utility. Currently, it's 25 cents per watt. Lydon says that could shave off another $1,000 or more on her system.
Kansas does not offer solar rebates.
When you install solar panels, your home essentially becomes its own power plant. On sunny days and during low-usage hours, the panels take in energy, which gets converted into power that's pumped into the utility grid.
This builds up credits, which you can use to take energy back from the grid when you need it, like when you return home from work and turn on your lights and flip on the radio.
To hear Platte City-based solar consultant Bob Solger explain it, settling on the right-sized system for your home's power needs is a kind of Goldilocks problem.
"A system that's too big will overproduce and you'll ultimately lose the value of the energy credits you build up," he said. "But you also don't want a system that's too small, because then you won't be able to produce enough energy for your home."
Solger suggests homeowners look at their last 24 months of energy bills and average their monthly usage to help figure out how big a system they'll need.
Energy Sage offers an online solar calculator where homeowners can enter their address and average monthly energy bill and get back an estimate of the system size that might work for them.
But industry insiders caution homeowners should be wary of solar companies that try to upsell them more than they need.
"We can monitor the output of every single panel we put up there," said Nate Campbell, an installation tech with Lifetime Solar. "We try not to oversell you your system, one in which you overproduce and lose out."
Kansas vs. Missouri
Like a lot of things in Kansas City, the state line could play a role in going solar at home.
Missouri not only offers solar rebates that Kansas doesn't, but Kansas customers of Evergy will also have to factor in the cost of a monthly solar demand charge.
This is a fee Evergy levies each month on Kansas solar customers, based on a customer's peak energy usage. Demand fees can sometimes run to nearly $100 per month and wipe out most of solar system's savings.
Evergy officials say the demand charge is equitable because non-solar customers, in the company's words, "subsidize" solar customers who can use power off the grid while generating their own power. But renewable energy advocates like Dorothy Barnett with the Climate and Energy Project say demand fees are stifling residential solar growth in Kansas.
"That uncertainty makes people reluctant to take the leap," she says, "because they don't know if this investment they're making, is this going to be worth it?"
A bill in the 2019 legislative session aimed at eliminating this demand fee, but Evergy negotiated with renewable energy advocates like Barnett to grandfather in exisiting solar customers so that they wouldn't have to pay the monthly charge.
But if you buy a home solar system in Kansas now and are plugged in to Evergy's grid, you will get charged that extra fee.
Let's say after considering all that, you decide a home solar system isn't for you. (You wouldn't be alone: community solar advocacy group Solstice estimates nearly 80% of Americans currently can't install rooftop solar due to various regulatory, financial and physical barriers.)
But you may still be able to go greener in your energy usage.
Evergy offers customers a solar subscription service in both Kansas and Missouri. Through this plan, customers without solar panels can still buy into renewable energy. On average, Evergy says this adds about $10 to $12 to a customer's monthly bill.
Evergy's manager of renewables, Drew Robinson, says it's a response to customer demand.
"Our customers are saying, 'We want green products, we want renewables, we want to reduce our carbon footprint,'" he says.
In Kansas, a metro customer of Evergy can already choose to offset up to 100% of their entire monthly bill with solar power produced by an array in Hutchinson. In Missouri, the company is signing up customers who will be able to subscribe to a prospective array near downtown Kansas City.
Throughout the month of November, KCUR is taking a hard look at how climate change is affecting (or will affect) the Kansas City metro region.
Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle.