Despite its ultimately lucrative nature, solar electricity is a costly investment. Up-front costs are the biggest obstacle to solar power for most homeowners, and it’s difficult in a general medium as this to give a truly accurate system cost estimate. Set federal tax incentives make it a little easier, but too many variables (state, utility, solar radiance, energy usage, energy costs, etc.) affect the initial and end costs of the system.
The grand solution to the problem? The solar electricity cost calculator. These interactive tools have been spreading like sunlight across the Web since solar power began its ascent into our national consciousness. Now, nearly every major solar retailer and installer (SunPower, etc.) have a cost calculator built into their site. So finding a calculator is no longer the problem.
Yet because the solar industry is so volatile with new rules, regulations and incentives being instituted on seemingly a daily basis, not every calculator is reliable. In my search for the best online solar calculators, I found several that were no longer up to date, usually providing a very poor representation of available rebates and incentives, and thus an intimidating and inaccurate cost analysis.
I did find one online calculator that was more than satisfying. At Solar-Estimate.org, all you need is your zip code, name of your electricity provider, and either your typical monthly electric bill or your annual electricity usage in kilowatt-hours. There are other variables, such as electric rate, utility inflation rate and the amount of power you want to offset (50% is default), that the calculator assumes for you. But it offers you the chance to customize these assumptions.
What you get in return for this basic information is estimated system size, including roof area needed and annual production estimates, gross installation costs (at $9/watt-also adjustable), available incentives and estimated net cost. It will even estimate loan terms if you so wish.
But Solar-Estimate does not stop there. It goes on to provide a graph of cash flow over 25 years or so, including the point at which the system will break even and start making you money. It figures first year utility savings, average monthly savings, annual savings and the levelized cost of the solar electricity (i.e. $0.13 per kWh).
Increase in property value, return on investment, and a yearly breakdown of incentives, costs and savings by year for 25 years. You get all this information and more within a matter of seconds. It even factors in the cost of replacing the inverter 15 years down the line.
Other Solar Calculators
Of course, if that lump sum is all you’re looking for, then FindSolar.com has a very simple but accurate calculator. And if a solar electricity cost calculator isn’t what you need at present, there are other online tools available to help you figure more intricate details, like the sun’s position in the sky at your location, your daily energy usage and even what you’ll need to power your RV with solar energy.
Remember, however, that even as detailed as Solar-Estimate gets, it is still an estimate. There are more factors, such as your home’s position on its lot, that can only be analyzed by a real person in real time. In other words, there is no online cost calculator that can replace a qualified local solar installer.