What it Takes to Go Solar: Beginner's guide

The Art Barn is going solar! Our 10-panel solar field will be installed in the foreground, at left.
While it's never been simpler or more affordable to go solar, the process can still be intimidating as you try to navigate all the grants, tax incentives, new technology, and solar firms out there to choose from.

As we draw closer to the installation date of our solar panels on the Art Barn, I'd like to take a minute to outline our process so far. Here's a quick rundown of the steps we underwent to get to where we are now.

Photo of a solar farm from Electronic Component News.

  1. Figure out what you want to do. Do you want to go totally off-grid? Are you trying to supplement your energy source? Is this for a seasonal structure or a full-time home or office? Get ahold of some old utility bills and get a sense of exactly how many kilowatts it takes to make that structure tick.
  2. Choose Your Company. There are thousands of solar companies out there to choose from. I recommend going as hyper-local as is feasibly possible—if we found installers as close as Theresa, N.Y., I have to assume every person reading this blog will be able to find a solar installer in his or her county. We got several quotes for the Art Barn, each of which was undercut significantly by 1 Block Off the Grid (1BOG), a  collective solar purchasing company that groups solar customers in a region together to offer pretty outrageous discounts on installation. The company outsources the installation work to local companies (in our case, Finlo Renewable Energy out of Ithaca, N.Y.).
  3. Study up on the Latest Technology, and Discuss with Your Installer. 1BOG introduced us to the world of microinverters, which we didn't know about before. If we had never found out about it, one of the first two companies we talked to would have gone ahead with the installation without incorporating microinverters into the design, thereby weakening the entire system. New solar technology is coming out all the time, so it's important to do your homework!
  4. Settle on a Plan. Here's what we decided on for the Art Barn: a 2.250 kW DC STC rated PV array, including 10 Solar One 225-Watt, 10 Enphase M215 Micro-inverters, and a racking system.  The panels will be arranged on a ground-mounted system in the open field next to the Art Barn. The system will be looped into the grid, which means the power will also backfeed into the house on days we're not using the electric in the barn. Bonus!
  5. Get Your Paperwork in Order. Most contractors will take care of tracking down the forms you need to sign, but so you're aware, there's no shortage of John Hancocks necessary before you get those panels installed. Our short list involved three grant applications, an energy savings action plan form, building permit request, survey map and recent utility bill, and eight photos from the location of the solar field depicting North, Northeast, East, Southeast, South, Southwest, West, and Northwest. No small feat! Make sure you've got a good, trustworthy relationship with your contractor so this process is smooth and easy.
  6. Set an Installation Date. Now comes the easy part! Set your installation date, and start basking in some sun! Your days of getting utility bills are over—with the right setup, you can even get paid back by your utility company as you provide them with power.
Got any specific questions about getting the proverbial solar ball rolling? Shoot us an e-mail at info@betterfarm.org.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.