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Solar panels can cost about $20,000, but some homeowners say they're worth the investment as energy prices go up

Erin McCarthy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Home and Consumer News

This fall, as John Y.K. Lee realized his electric bill had doubled, he finally decided to invest in solar panels.

For years, the neurosurgeon had thought about installing them on his family’s Havertown, Pennsylvania, home. But he sped up his timeline in the past year.

“All of a sudden there is all this perturbance in the energy market,” said Lee, 50. “I really started getting interested in our energy situation and future. I started investigating what I could do.”

He decided to take matters into his own hands — literally.

Having received the required permits, he plans to install the panels mostly on his own. An inspector will come out afterward to ensure everything is up to par.

In all, Lee, a self-described “do-it-yourself kind of guy,” expects to spend about $7,000, a third of what he was quoted by a professional installation company.

“I can afford to pay somebody to put the solar in,” said Lee, but his investment will pay off more quickly this way. “Trying to install solar myself is the biggest DIY project I’ve ever taken on.”

While natural gas recently dropped to its lowest price point in nearly three years, many households have seen their energy bills skyrocket in recent months. Several homeowners in the Philadelphia suburbs saw bills of nearly $500 for December, a month that included a stretch of frigid days around Christmas.

For some, the continued price increases have made them more cognizant about ways that they can reduce their bills — from lowering their thermostats to converting their chimneys into gas-burning stoves to cutting back on how often they use their washers and dryers.

Others may be ready to take bigger steps, such as installing solar, a financial investment that not only brings down monthly bills but also benefits the environment.

“It generates electricity gradually,” said Dunbar Birnie, a professor in Rutgers University’s materials science and engineering department and a solar expert. “It is a slow repayment, but to the extent it might be increasing your home value, then it benefits you after five years. After you sell, then it benefits the next owner.”

After paying to install a residential solar system, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware homeowners are likely to break even in between seven and 10 years, according to Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook.

In the meantime, however, people are still helping reduce carbon emissions.

“Every little bit counts. If we put in 5,000 watts (into the grid from solar panels), that means somewhere else they’re not burning natural gas or coal or whatever to generate those kilowatt-hours,” Birnie said.

“A lot of houses need to put them on the roof,” he added, in order to reach goals like those set out in New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s accelerated plan to have the state using 100% clean energy by 2035.

Costs of solar panel installation and tax credits


Homeowners who are considering going solar should assess their options.

A typical solar project in the Philadelphia area cost about $16,500 in 2022, Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook found. For larger households, a 5-kilowatt system could cost about $20,000, Birnie said, though prices can fluctuate depending on location and the company used.

If a homeowner can afford to pay for their system out of pocket, then the 30% federal tax credit, local incentives, and cheaper bills can serve as income or savings over time.

Depending on where you live, you may be eligible for other incentives through state tax credits or utility company rebate programs.

Those who plan to stay in their homes longer will get the most out of their investment, Birnie said, but those who plan to sell their homes will likely benefit, too. An increasing number of home buyers say energy efficiency is very important to them, according to a Zillow analysis of more than three million home sales in 2020 and 2021. The real estate company also found that homes with environmental features, such as solar panels, generally sell for more money or at a faster rate than homes without them.

“Solar that you own certainly does provide that value,” Birnie said. “It is not a sunken cost. It is an investment.”

People who can’t afford to pay for solar panels upfront can lease panels through private companies, but there are fewer personal financial benefits to doing so. Checkbook, a nonprofit consumer publication, advises that these contracts usually aren’t good deals.

Philadelphia offers a program that allows city residents to buy solar panels at a reduced cost and another that allows people to lease them in exchange for lower electric bills.

‘Best money I’ve spent’

Margee Forgosh said she wanted to go solar ever since she first read an article about how it can work as an energy source in the 1990s.

About 30 years later, after paying off student and business loans, she finally did it.

In October 2021, the freelance graphic designer and her husband, Ari, a dentist, tapped into their savings and paid about $20,000 to get solar panels installed on their home in rural Lehigh County, outside Allentown, Pennsylvania.

She hasn’t regretted the decision, she said, especially having heard about utility bills continuing to jump.

Her family tries to cut back on energy usage in other ways, too and has seen their monthly electric bill reduced to a $15 maintenance fee.

Getting solar panels “was a huge bucket list item for me,” said Forgosh, 57, who also has a Tesla electric car. “The reward of seeing that every day that sun shines, I’m making energy to drive on, to cook on. It has given me such a peace of mind. … That is probably the best money I’ve spent in my life.”

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