Owning Your Own Solar Array

Before considering solar, make your home as efficient as possible. It doesn’t make much sense to install an 8 kW system for $20,000 if you could first reduce your electrical usage and then need to invest significantly less in your array.

The Cost

The cost of solar has decreased dramatically in recent years. In 2014, costs were just over $4/W installed for a 5KW system, or $20,000 installed. We also have a 15% Iowa tax credit now on top of the federal 30%.

With higher electricity costs (which will continue to rise), many if not most of Winneshiek County households, farms, and businesses could see simple payback times under 10 years. Quality panels can easily produce energy for 25 years or more.

For comparison, in 2008 a residential 5 kW (kilowatt) system probably cost $8/W installed or $40,000. A 30% federal tax credit could help bring this down to $32K, and with electricity at about 10 cents/kWh, simple payback was roughly 50 years, give or take.

Solar energy is an investment, but in most cases a good one. And don’t forget: clean energy is also an investment in a better future.

Choosing Your Site

For on-site solar PV, you need a relatively shade-free, south facing location, whether “ground mount” or “roof mount”. A good solar site assessment and consultation by the Energy District will review all this and much more.

The Johnson County assessors site can also provide you with good aerial imagery, as can sites such as Bing and Google Maps. Google’s Project Sunroof was created for this very reason, but it may not yet be available in your area.

A solar PV array on your building or property is somewhat of a fixed asset — it can be moved but is best left in place for quite some time. This means that if you sell, you’ll want that investment reflected in the valuation of your property. This is growing area of interest and learning within the real estate community, and if you plan to sell in the near future you may want to have some discussions with appraisers, realtors, and others.

The Future: Community Owned Solar

Currently the only solar PV option for most of us is to pay for and own our system, but we’re working toward changing that. A community solar field could potentially allow us all to buy shares or actual generating capacity, have the generation credited to our utility bill, but also have benefits such as economy of scale, convenience of a common location, transferability of the investment, and more.

Another model would allow you to contract with a solar business that could build AND OWN a PV system at your location, so instead of you investing in a major system, you just purchase the power generated the same as you purchase power from a utility. Neither of these options are available through Iowa utilities at the moment but we’re hoping that will change.

More Resources

Solar Basics: some references to California but a good primer on residential systems (applicable to commercial/agricultural too)

The Department of Energy has some very good articles. Start with Planning a Home Solar Electric System and follow the links for more

Florida Solar Energy Center

Solar Tax Incentives

Solar PV tax incentives are a powerful financial incentive for homeowners, farmers, and business owners considering going solar. Unfortunately, renewable energy tax credits are not refundable, and so not a fair incentive for those with limited tax liability, or for non-taxable entities. If you DO have tax liability, however, we recommend you act now, because the tax credits begin declining in value in 2020.

First, we’ll outline the basics, then below, we’ll provide links and brief notes for the federal and state solar tax incentives. Please talk to your tax professional for more information.

The Basics

The federal investment tax credit is 30% for residential and commercial systems.

Residential systems must be “placed in service”, and commercial systems must have “commenced construction” (more on what this means below), by December 31st, 2019. The federal credit drops to 26% for 2020 projects, 22% for 2021 projects, and 10% thereafter (for commercial, 0% for residential). Commercial projects (farm, business, and third-party owned “PPA”) are also eligible for 100% “bonus” (first year) depreciation.

The Iowa solar tax credit is defined as 50% of the value of the federal credit.

This includes residential and commercial solar PV systems and offers up to $5,000/project for residential and up to $20,000 for commercial. But … there is an annual cap, and a waiting list – read below for details.

The Upshot

Farms and businesses with tax liability can install solar PV systems in 2019 (or at least “commence construction” – more on this loophole below) and write down 65-75% (30% federal credit + 15% Iowa credit + depreciation) or more of the total costs on their taxes, resulting in simple paybacks of often 4-6 years.

Homeowners with tax liability can install solar PV systems in 2019 and write down 45% (30% federal credit + 15% Iowa credit) of the cost, resulting in simple paybacks of often 7-9 years. The warrantied life of the systems is generally 25 years.

Federal Tax Incentives

A good overview of the solar investment tax credit (ITC) is provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association here. The key point to reiterate is that the full 30% level is available through 2019, and then begins to ratchet down … except for the “safe harbor” loophole, which we discuss below.

The commercial ITC is further explained on the Department of Energy’s website and in this fact sheet from the Solar Outreach (public-private) Partnership. NOTE, however, that fact sheet is not current in its discussion of the bonus depreciation available to businesses, which is currently 100% and well explained by the SEIA here, and on this IRS newsroom update.

The residential ITC is further explained on this Department of Energy website, and in this fact sheet from the Solar Outreach Partnership. Note, there is no depreciation or “safe harbor” benefit for residential projects, as there is with commercial projects, unless the system is owned by a third party under “PPA” arrangement, which is not common for residential systems in Iowa.

What is the “safe harbor” option? Residential and commercial solar ITCs fall under different sections of the federal tax code. A key distinction is that residential systems must be “placed in service” in the year for which the credit is claimed, while the commercial systems must only have “commenced construction”. Because large projects can take a long time to build, and the credit is meant to spur investment, the IRS determined that commercial project developers are eligible for the credit the year they “commence” construction, and have up to four years to complete the project as long as they make “continuous progress” towards completion. Read the details at the SEIA summary, or straight from the IRS guidance.

NOTE, the federal solar ITC also can cover battery storage systems, when installed with the purpose of storing energy produced by the solar energy system. See this fact sheet from the National Renewable Energy Lab, and this discussion from EnergySage.

State Tax Incentives

As of March 2019, the Iowa solar tax incentives for home and business are still in effect, though with a waiting list. They are defined as 50% of the federal credit a project is eligible for, up to $5,000 for residential systems, and $20,000 for commercial systems.

The Iowa Department of Revenue entry page for the credits is here. From that page, you can click through to the page with more information here.

A very important point to note with the Iowa credit is that you must first submit an application for the credit award to IDR by May 1 of the year following installation. Without this award “pre-approval”, you will not be able to claim the credit on your Iowa tax return, and could lose the value. This process is described in the links above.

Another important (and frustrating) point is that the Iowa solar credit is capped at $5 million/year. Installations and applications in recent years have exceeded this amount, which means a waiting list is built up, and you may not be able to utilize the Iowa credit the year following installation.

A final point is that the application for the Iowa credit for both residential and commercial systems cannot be made until the system is “placed in service”. So commercial systems that may apply for the federal credit immediately based on the “commence construction” and “safe harbor” rules (described in the federal section above) cannot apply for the Iowa credit until the project is completed and “placed in service”.