How to Calculate the 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit for Solar

If you’re buying a solar energy system today, one of the most generous solar incentives that you’re entitled to is the 30% federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC).  But not everyone who goes solar is eligible to receive it, and for those who do, there are different ways to calculate it. Below is a FAQ layman’s guide to the solar federal ITC, but please confirm all of this information with your tax advisor.

ITC Taxes photo_The Federal ITC and How to Calculate ItWhat’s a Tax Credit?

A tax credit is not a tax deduction. With a tax deduction, you deduct some amount off your gross income to determine your taxable base income. A tax credit is much better. It can be used to pay off your owed federal taxes. So, it’s sort of like receiving an IRS gift card.

Who is Eligible to Receive the ITC?

Any U.S. tax payer who purchases a solar or other renewable energy system is eligible to receive the 30% solar ITC. However, if you installed your solar system with a solar lease or a solar PPA, then you’re not eligible, since the leasing company owns your solar system, so they will receive the ITC. But most leasing companies take the value of the 30% ITC into consideration when calculating your lease rate, so you do benefit indirectly.

How Do You Calculate the 30% Solar ITC?

Calculating the 30% ITC differs for homeowners and commercial businesses. Homeowners calculate the 30% on the net installed cost; i.e., after you’ve deducted the value of any state or utility rebates.For example, say the total cost for your solar installation was $15,000 and you received a utility or state rebate of $3,000, your total upfront expense is now $12,000.  Consequently, to calculate the 30% ITC:

30% x $12,000 = $3600 tax credit that you can use to pay your taxes to the IRS.

For commercial businesses, the rebate is calculated on the gross installed cost of the solar system; i.e., before deducting for any local or utility rebates. So, using the same example:

30% x $15,000 = $4,500 tax credit that your business can use toward Federal businesses income taxes.

You might think that businesses get a higher ITC formula. However, the IRS considers the $3000 utility rebate as earned income, and therefore the business has to pay tax on that $3000. For residential homeowners, the IRS considers the $3000 as a “reduction in value,” sort of like a sale discount, and therefore it is not taxable.

Is the Value of the 30% ITC Refundable?

What if you’re eligible to receive the ITC, but you don’t owe any taxes this year? Will the IRS send you a refund check for $3000, using the above example? Unfortunately, the 30% ITC is not a refundable credit. However, you can use its value for up to 5 years after installing your solar system, so you’ll be able to use it partially or fully for the following year’s tax bill, or for subsequent years.

Once again, we’re not tax attorneys, so please be sure to verify all of the above ITC information with your tax representative.

In summary, the solar ITC is a very valuable solar incentive if you’re going to purchase a solar system with either cash or a home equity loan. For homeowners that finance their solar systems with a solar lease or a solar PPA, it’s indirectly included in your monthly payments.


Photo Credit: David Reber’s Hammer Photography via Compfight cc by-sa 2.0

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Why Solar Installations Are Growing So Fast in the Middle Class

One of the main misconceptions about solar power is that it’s only affordable for rich environmentalists. But a new study shows how far off that notion really is.

Using U.S. census data and public solar installation records from California, Arizona, and New Jersey, the report from the Center of American Progress shows that 60% of home solar installations occur in neighborhoods with median household incomes that are between $40,000 to $90,000—solidly in the middle class.

We’ll get to some reasons why solar is becoming so popular with middle class home owners, but for now, take a look at this graph from the study to see the details of these numbers:

Middle Class Solar

The same study also showed that from 2011 to 2012, the growth of solar installations in these three states also came from people with median incomes ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 in both Arizona and California and $30,000 to $40,000 in New Jersey.

Why Solar Is Growing So Fast in the Middle Class

While this latest study shows that the majority of solar installations in these states are coming from middle class homeowners, it does not go into the reasons why solar has become so attractive for these people.

Most industry analysts would credit the growth in middle class installations to the new ways to finance solar, namely with solar leases and solar PPAs. These two new solar financing methods allow homeowners in California, Arizona, and New Jersey, as well as Colorado, Oregon, and Hawaii to go solar with no upfront costs—and still get guaranteed savings off their utility costs.

The other draw to homeowners is that solar leases and solar PPAs don’t require a down payment. That means that you don’t have to dip into savings or get a loan, and you can reserve your home equity for emergencies. Meanwhile, the solar lease will still allow you to get 10% to 20% savings on electric bills with no upfront payment.

The other reason why middle class homeowners may be attracted to solar recently is that solar panel prices have come down in the last three years, and that’s reducing the overall installation cost for everyone. In fact, solar panel prices have come down 80% between 2008 and 2012.

For those middle class homeowners who have weathered the recession and seen their home equity return, solar now makes more financial sense than ever.

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‘Tis the Season for Snow and Solar Panels. What to do?

NREL solar snow_Tis the season for snow and solarOne of the myths of solar is that it doesn’t work in cold climates. In fact, solar panels are more efficient (produce more energy) in colder climates, such as Colorado and New Jersey, two leading states for solar installations.

The downside of winter is that there are fewer hours of daylight, so there are fewer hours of solar production. And then there’s the occasional snowstorm….

How do you clean off snow from rooftop solar panels?

Believe it or not, the best and easiest way to get snow off a rooftop solar array is to do nothing. Zip. Zero. In the words of Tony Soprano, forget about it.

There are several reasons for this method. First, it works! The winter sun does a great job of melting the snow off of the solar panels. It may take a day or two after the storm, but roofs typically have enough of a slope to let the warm sun and gravity do the trick.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, you could be risking your life or cause yourself serious injury if you try to brush the snow off yourself. Even without snow, rooftops are dangerous. With snow and ice, they’re even more hazardous. Having snow on your panels for a day or two will lose about five dollars or less of your energy savings, so it’s not worth risking a fall for that.

“Don’t go up on a snow covered roof unless your name is Santa Claus or you have some other kind of magic. Not worth it,” says Carl Siegrist, a solar consultant and member of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), the leading solar installer testing and certification organization.

You might think about getting a long pole squeegee or brush and combing the snow off, but here again, it’s dangerous. You could have 100 pounds or more of hard, frozen snow fall on you, once again, risking injury.

Finally, consider that improperly cleaning off snow or ice may damage the solar panels. Jeff Spies, a solar roofing expert and board member of NABCEP cautions, “If you are going to remove snow, take great care to avoid scratching the modules. If there is ice buildup on the glass, do not try to remove it by scraping, as you can damage the micro-etching of the surface of many glass modules, reducing module efficiency.”

Whether in the sun, rain, or snow, Spies recommends never cleaning solar panels with harsh chemicals or abrasive materials. Even a dirty mop could scratch the solar panel’s micro-etching. If your solar panels are soiled, some water with a little bit of soap and a hose is all you need.

Removing snow from ground or pole mounted solar panels

For ground or pole mounted solar PV panels for home or commercial applications, you’re on the ground, so it is safer to remove snow with a soft brush. However, the same scratching risks apply.  So, just brush off the loose snow, and once again, don’t try to scrape off any frozen snow or ice.

If you have more questions about snow and solar for homes or commercial applications—or any questions about solar at all, please feel free to contact an REC Solar expert. Start here.

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5 Really Cool and Useful Solar Powered Gadgets

There’s something really cool about solar gadgets. They usually have a sleek high-tech modern design, and they’re also very practical for our energy hungry and unpredictable world, when you never know when you’ll need extra power.

With that in mind, check out these 5 products to solar energize your life, home, and home-away-from home.

Solar Powered Pool Cleaner

While it’s great to have a home swimming pool, few people enjoy the cost and/or effort to clean it. Now, there’s a solar powered answer: The Solar-Breeze robotic pool cleaner.

It’s the same concept as the Roomba, that little robot vacuum cleaner that automatically runs through your house vacuuming while you play or go to work. However, this solar robot cleans the leaves and debris off the surface of your pool. It also carries chlorine tablets that add chlorine to your pool, another time-saving task.

The manufacturer says that the Solar-Breeze is designed to clean over 90% of the pool debris before it sinks to the bottom, which can save a lot of energy on pool filtration pumps and the time doing bottom cleanings. Plus, no need for a pool skimmer. Take a look at this customer review:

WakaWaka Portable Solar Power Charger

Today, there are many choices for portable solar chargers. Some come with a built in battery, while others are just portable solar panels without any battery backup.

One of the more recent battery-based entries is the WakaWaka Power, a solar powered charger and a lamp.  With a fully charged WakaWaka, you can charge your iPhone in about two hours. It also serves as a lamp that can be on for up to 80 hours, depending on the brightness you need. Plus, WakaWak can set off an emergency SOS light signal.

As far as solar recharging goes, the panel itself isn’t very powerful, which means it’s going to take eight hours or so to fully recharge the battery with sunlight alone, but you can instead recharge through an outlet and be prepared for that day when you only have sun to charge. There are also some charity benefits to WakaWaka. See their video:

Solar Power Generator

While the WakaWaka may be good for a day hike or a my-cell-phone-is-dying-emergency, for power outages or camping trips that last a few days, you might prefer a more hefty solar battery generator from GoalZero.

GoalZero provides a wide range of Yeti solar-charged battery kits that can not only charge your cellphone or multiple cellphones multiple times, but it can even power a refrigerator or an electric hand saw. The largest 30 watt solar charger will fully recharge the Yeti battery in 22 to 24 hours, so really that means it will take two days if you’ve totally exhaust the battery, which would be unusual unless you had all of your gear plugged in 24/7. Check it out.

Solar Hot Water Thermal Boiler

If you’re off grid camping or hiking, you might need more than electricity, like…a hot cup of coffee or Mom’s chicken soup. As long as there’s daylight, the SunRocket solar kettle and thermos will be able to make that cup of Joe you’ve been craving in the mountains and keep it warm for hours.

The SunRocket uses an evacuated vacuum tube (the same technology used for solar thermal panels) with reflective panels to heat up to 17 ounces of liquid in as little as 30 minutes, according to the manufacturer. The video below shows it heating snow into boiling water in about two hours, but air temperature liquid should heat up to 170 degrees in around 90 minutes, depending on the sun intensity. Once hot, the thermos can hold heat for hours.

Ultra Luxury Solar Powered Tent

Finally, this ultra-luxury Leav Tent isn’t on the market yet, but it’s so cool we had to include it. Designed by Benjamin Charles, a French industrial designer, the Leav Tent is a mobile platform-based tent with collapsible solar electric panels and solar hot water panels. So, you’ll have both running hot water and electricity as you “rough it” out in the campground.  The kit also includes a kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, and a living room. Naturally, those rooms are all very cozy, but you’ll have all the comforts of home…if that’s what you’re looking for in the wilderness.

While all of these solar gadgets are great, they all have limited uses. If you really want to take advantage of the full potential of solar power, get a free solar quote from REC Solar. It’s easy and it’s educational, too. Start here.

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Commercial Solar Financing: Leasing Your System vs. Owning It

Lease-v-Cash-purchase-One of the biggest concerns of anyone going solar is the upfront cost and/or how to finance it. With commercial solar systems, you basically have four main options:

  1. Purchase with Cash or a Loan
  2. Solar Lease
  3. Solar Power Purchase Agreement (Solar PPA)
  4. Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE)

We’ve discussed PACE financing in a recent post, so let’s go over the other three:

Paying for Commercial Solar PV with Cash or a Loan

If you have the capital, paying for a commercial solar system with cash is the most cost effective way to go solar. REC Solar’s commercial financial analysis tools can give you specific numbers, but it’s not uncommon to achieve payback in 5 to 7 years. After that, you’ll be decreasing your operating costs with free solar power for the remaining life of your solar installation. Since solar PV systems last 25 years or longer, those savings could be significant.

The other advantages of a cash purchase:

  • You receive the Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which reduces your gross system cost by 30%.
  • You’ll get another IRS tax deduction in the form of Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), which accelerates the depreciation of the solar installation over a 5-year period.
  • You’ll receive any available state or utility rebates or tax credits.
  • You’ll collect the proceeds from the sale of any available Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) generated by the solar system.

These same advantages apply for a business loan, although the payback will be slower due to interest charges. However, with today’s low interest rates, your ROI and IRR should still be substantial. (Contact REC Solar to run the numbers specific to your business.)

Aside from the upfront cost, the only real down side of the cash purchase is the fact that your business is responsible for operations and maintenance (O & M). The good news is that solar maintenance costs are minimal, requiring occasional cleaning of the solar panels and replacing the inverter every 12 to 15 years. If you’d rather not handle these issues, you can always contract with REC Solar for O & M services.

Paying for Commercial Solar with a Solar Lease

There are two common types of commercial solar leases. The first, a Capital Lease (aka Finance/Non-Tax/Buyout), is similar to a long-term loan with a small buyout payment, typically $1, at the end of the term. The second type, an Operating Lease (aka Tax/True/FMV), is the most common type, so we’ll focus on that:

The Operating Lease’s biggest advantages are that there are no or very little upfront costs for installing the system and the client does not need tax appetite. Therefore, your business cash flow will stay fluid, and you can use your capital for other investments. On top of that, you’ll still save 10% to 15% off your electric bill with a solar lease. Other advantages:

  • Off balance sheet accounting treatment and lease payments can be deducted as an operating expense.
  • Faster path to system ownership and greater long-term savings than a Solar PPA, typical lease terms are 7-9 years in length.

A solar lease is a great deal if you want to save working capital or don’t have the necessary tax appetite to take advantage of the ITC and depreciation. However, there are some caveats:

  • Over time, you’ll save less with a solar lease than you would with a cash purchase.
  • Since you don’t own the system, the solar leasing company will receive all of the tax incentives; however, applicable rebates and revenues generated from SRECs are still enjoyed by the customer.
  • The leasing payment is fixed during the term; however Operating Leases require an end of term buyout, typically 20% of the principal balance.

Paying for Commercial Solar with a Solar Power Purchase Agreement (Solar PPA)

By far, the most common type of commercial solar financing today is the solar power purchase agreement (solar PPA). Solar PPAs are very similar to a solar operating lease: You still get the solar system installed for little or no cost, and the monthly payments are typically less than the current electric bill. However, you don’t own the system or get any rebates or tax incentives.

The greatest difference between a solar PPA and a solar lease is how you’re billed. Instead of a flat monthly lease payment, your solar energy production is precisely metered, so your business only pays for the amount of power that your solar panels generate that month. More importantly, the solar rate is always designed to be lower than the utility’s electric rates.

Other differences between a solar PPA and a Lease are the length of term and service. While solar lease terms range between 7-10 years, PPA’s are often 20-25 years with Performance Guarantees and O&M Contracts included in the price.

As a simple example, if your utility is charging you an average of $.25 per kWh for its power, the solar PPA company may charge you a rate of just $.20 per kWh, saving you 20% of your electric bill for the next 20 years.

As with solar leases, commercial solar PPA structures can vary widely and are negotiable. Some may have a flat kWh rate for 20 years, while others may have an escalator.

Whether you choose a purchase, lease, or solar PPA, REC Solar maintains relationships with many solar financing companies, and we have excellent financial analysis tools to discover the most cost-effective financing method for your business. Click here to get a free estimate and specific savings numbers for your business.

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