Calculating Payback for a Photovoltaic System
It would be nice to say that calculating
your payback on an investment in a solar photovoltaic system were
really easy. Unfortunately that is not always the case.
There are several reasons for this. First, each state in the
U.S. has different tax incentives and rebates for solar energy. The
incentives are great and can make a huge different in the initial cost
and therefore the payback time for a system, but each state approaches
the incentives slightly differently so you have to take your state's
specific incentives into consideration.
Second, if you have gone with a gridtied PV system, and most
people these days do, then you have to consider how netmetering
works. All states are required under federal law to provide net
metering but each state is allowed to implement it differently. In
some states you always get paid a flat retail rate regardless of when
the electricity is generated. For example, if the utility rate was
$.18 per kilowatt hour then you would pay them 18 cents per
kilowatthour when you took energy off of the grid and they would pay
you 18 cents per kilowatthour when you generated excess energy back
to the grid. Other states use a payback scheme called a
timeofuse approach that is based on the time of day when the
energy is generated. Under a timeofuse approach rates are higher for
electricity during the day when demand is greatest and lowest in the
evening when demand is the lowest. The timeofuse approach to
compensation is particularly advantageous to the PV owner and can
significantly shorten the payback period. This is because the
utility company pays you for the excess energy you generate during the
day at a high rate (and solar systems only generate energy during the
day), and then you pay them for the energy you use from them in the
evening at a lower rate.
A final consideration in any longterm payback analysis is an
assumption (or more likely a guess) as to what energy costs will be in
the future since PV systems will continue to provide power for 25 to
30 years at minimum once they are installed. As many of us have
found out in recent years, predicting future prices for gas and
electricity is not a simple matter. Everyone knows prices will
continue to go up as we enter the era of postpeak oil, but how much
they will go up is a hard call.
Calculating the Potential Monthly Savings from a PV System
Before we start figuring out the payback period over the life of
the system, lets start with something simple like figuring out what
the immediate impact will be on our electric bill once the solar
system is installed. The calculations are contained in the
attached spreadsheet. Here is the process that was used:
 Step 1: Find out your average monthly electric bill. 
For most of us this is a fairly easy process. Look at your
electric bill and find out what your average monthly electric bill
is and your total annual bill. If your statement doesn't show
you the annual average monthly electric bill then call the electric
company and have them provide you that information. They are
required to give it to you.
 Step 2: Determine how many kilowatt hours you use per month.
 Electric usage is measured in kilowatt hours. Most monthly
electric bills will show you both the number of kilowatthours you
used that month plus your average monthly usage for the year.
If you keep copies of your bills you can add them up for the last
year and take the average. If you don't have them and its not on your bill call the utility company and have
them give this to you. Most homeowners use somewhere between 600 and
1200 kilowatthours per month.
 Step3: Find out the monthly output of the proposed system. 
This number should be provided to you by the contractor who gave you
the bid. If you have not yet received a bid it is still pretty
easy to estimate. For the purpose of this analysis we will
assume that you are
planning on putting in a 4 kilowatt (4000 watts) PV system into a
home near Albany, New York. By the way, this example, is covered in
detail in our section called Typical PV
System Costs. To determine the monthly output of the
proposed system in kilowatt hours you must first
multiply the 4 kilowatts times the numbers of hours of sun per day
you receive in your location. If you don't know what that is
for your area you can look it up in the solar maps section of our
Website. According to the U.S. solar map Albany, New York
receives on average 4.3 hours of sun per day if we assume that the
panels are mounted at latitude on a fixed mount on a roof. If
you multiply the 4 kilowatts per hour output from the panels times
the 4.3hours of sunlight per day you get a daily output of 17.2
kilowatt hours per day. Now multiply this by 30 days per month on
average and you get 516 kilowatt hours per month. (4kw x 4.3
sun hours x 30days = 516 kw hours per month)
 Step 4: Adjust estimate for real solar conditions  Solar
panels are rated under ideal conditions in a laboratory setting.
However, those conditions do not accurately reflect real world
conditions. In reality there will be occasional cloudy days,
rain, and other conditions that keep performance from being optimal.
Therefore we should adjust the earlier estimate of kilowatt hours to
account for this. For most locations in the U.S. and
adjustment down of 20% should be sufficient. So multiply the
515 kw hours per month times .8 and we get 412 kilowatt hours per
month.
 Step 5: Divide adjusted output hours by the actual average
monthly use  To determine what percentage of your electric bill
the PV system will cover just divide the adjusted output hours
(412 kw hours) by your average monthly kilowatt hours of use which
you got from you electric bill. So for example, if the average
monthly use was 600 kilowatt hours per month the calculation is 412/600 which
equals .69. This means that the proposed 4 kilowatt system
would cover 69% of the electric needs of the household.
 Step 6: Multiply your average electric bill by the percentage
 Since we now know that the proposed system will address 69% of
our electric needs we can multiply that times our monthly bill to
find out the savings. If we were paying $.22 per kilowatt hour
our monthly bill would be about $132 per month excluding any special
charges. If we multiply this by 69% we can see that the system
will save us about $91 per month ($132 x 69% = $91 or $1092 per year.
Calculating the Lifetime Payback for Your PV
System
Now that we have calculated the monthly and annual savings we can take a look at the savings over the lifetime of the system. One of the great things about PV systems is that they last a very long time. Most solar panels are
warranted for 25 years and will probably perform even longer if properly cared for.
Therefore, a payback calculation needs to look at the savings from the
solar system across a 25 year period. This can be calculated by
hand but is a whole lot easier with a spreadsheet. Click on the
icon to see the analysis we have done and then see the explanation
below as to how we calculated the values:
 Step 1: Determine initial annual savings from PV system 
We have just done an example of this in the section above so let's
use that example. By calculating the output of the proposed
system in kilowatt hours we determined that the PV system will pay
for 69% of our electric needs and therefore save us $1092 per year.
 Step 2: Set assumptions regarding future increase in electric
costs  It seems highly likely that electricity rates will
continue to increase given that fuels which are most often used to
create electricity such as natural gas and coal are nonrenewable.
The question is by what amount do we presume they will increase.
In this example we have used a fairly conservative estimate of a 4%
increase per year for the next 25 years.
 Step 3: Multiply the annual savings by energy inflation rate
 This step is a lot easier to do if you use the attached
spreadsheet. Create a row of columns for years 125. Take the
amount you will save after year 1 and then multiply that savings by
1.04 for each year for the next 25 years (keeping in mind that the
solar panels are warranted for 25 years)
 Step 4: Accumulate the savings by year  Use a
spreadsheet to calculate the accumulated savings by year. This
is done by adding the prior year's savings (adjusted for inflation)
to the current year savings for each year.
 Step 5: Subtract the initial cost from the accumulated
savings  To see how you are paying off your initial investment
you then create a row which subtracts the accumulated savings from
the initial cost. Initially this will be positive because the
initial system cost is more than the savings. However, after a
certain number of years the accumulated savings will exceed the
initial costs. The point at which this occurs is known as the
payback period. Using the data from the prior example all
initial costs are paid back by year 14. The next 16 through 25
years are all positive until by the end of 25 years the system has
earned us $17,782.
This example is a fairly simple one. For example, if you had
to take out a homeowners loan of some type to pay for the system, the
cost of the interest on that loan would have to be accounted for in
the payback scheme. We have also not done a comparative analysis on
the comparative cost of this investment to other investments you might
have made over the same time period. This type of comparative
Return on Investment (ROI) analysis will be covered in more detail in
an upcoming article.
The Effect of a PV Investment on Your Home's Resale Value Finally, the biggest factor we have not yet discussed is the impact
of this investment on the value of your home. Unfortunately
there is very little good scientific data on the impact of PV systems
on home values. While the general consensus is that an
investment in a PV system, like most home upgrades, increases its
value, there doesn't seem to be a lot of good current data out there
as to how much. Most recent studies we have seen were made several
years ago when the housing market was booming. It would probably
be unwise to presume those apply to the current slumping housing
market.
Nonetheless, there is some data that suggests that even in the
current market PV can be a very good payback. At a recent
Solar Conference in San Diego a group of new home builders reported
that their new housing units with PV systems far outsold the units
without PV even though they were more expensive. Also, the
addition of PV systems seems to have a good fit with the growing
movement around green remodeling. The McGrawHill Construction SmartMarket Report on Attitudes and Preferences for Remodeling and Buying Green Homes found that 73 percent of people surveyed listed potential higher resale value as one of the top four reasons to buy a green home.
When all is said and done home values are very often a local
phenomenon, particularly in a down housing market as we have now.
If resale value is a major consideration for you we suggest that you
talk to some local real estate agents and get their opinions as to the
impact a PV system will have in your local housing market.
