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Image by Woody Welch, courtesy SunPower
By Jesse Bratter, Content Director, Elemental Green
WHY SHOULD I GO SOLAR?
The future of solar energy is looking bright. In 2007, there wasn’t a single utility-scale solar plant in the United States. Today, there are more than 2,500, and over a million solar installations across the country. The rapid growth of solar energy—energy powered by the sun—has allowed systems costs to decrease and the number of rooftop photovoltaic (PV) panel installations to rise in the residential arena. Going solar means monetary advantages like tax credits, increased home values and savings on utility bills. But making the switch has significant environmental benefits as well, including a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and other dangerous pollutants.
While solar energy still only makes up 2.3% of the country’s renewable energy source, there are brands like SunPower and Tesla who are leading the charge toward bringing this type of renewable energy to the masses. From solar panels to entire solar roofs and storage components that harness energy, their options are plenty. We’ve done the research for you and are bringing you the variables you’ll want to know about when deciding what’s right for you.
AN OVERVIEW OF SUNPOWER AND TESLA
SunPower is a pioneer in solar energy. It was co-founded in 1985 by Dr. Richard Swanson, whose research and curiosity would lead to grants from the Electric Power Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy in the eighties. A few decades and over a billion solar cells later, the brand has become known for its high-efficiency PV technology and promises more solar power from fewer panels, counting among its clients Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, among others. Their solar technology has powered Solar Impulse 2 (the first airplane to fly around the world without fuel) and Grover (a NASA-generated robotic rover that explored Greenland).
Whereas solar energy systems by many other brands might combine parts made by separate manufacturers, the SunPower Equinox system comprised of components all designed to work together seamlessly by SunPower, including the panels, inverters, racking and monitoring. Under SunPower’s umbrella of offerings—the SunPower Equinox system for residential use, Helix system for commercial use, and the SunVault storage system—SunPower employs Maxeon solar panels, which contain solar cells that are built with a solid copper foundation, pure silicon and an unobstructed surface to capture light and produce up to 55% more energy in the same space over 25 years than conventional panels.¹ Each cell has a sleek black surface with zero grid lines and an anti-reflective coating. Because of how they’re constructed, the cells are prone to less corrosion and breakage than their counterparts, enabling them to last longer and stay stronger. Also of note, the microinverters that are integrated into each panel (as opposed to one inverter for the entire system) allow the power output to be maximized even in less desirable conditions like low light or partial shade.
SunPower offers the option to purchase, finance or lease your system, essentially paying a “utility bill” that gets you green energy. And, in an effort to approach sustainability from a 360-degree angle, they’re bringing solar energy education to students through the SunPower Horizons Program, among other initiatives.
After establishing themselves in the electric car market, Tesla acquired SolarCity in 2016, expanding its technology into the residential solar power arena. Today, it offers solar panels with proprietary hardware, custom-designed solar roofs with solar roof tiles, a Tesla Solar Inverter that converts sunlight-powered electricity into clean energy, and the Powerwall—a solar storage solution that expands the capacity of their solar systems. In line with Tesla’s fleet of electric vehicles, the design of Tesla’s solar panels and storage is sleek: The Powerwall is a white, minimalist rectangular case with the Tesla logo, and the panels—sealed to protect against leaks caused by rain, snow or ice—are all-black and have a low profile and fewer anchor points than other brands, keeping them un-cumbersome and close to the roof.
Tesla works with the city to obtain the proper permitting and handles the installation and powering-on process through your utility. They also offer the option to purchase, finance or enroll in a subscription. Tesla has deployed hundreds of Powerwalls and solar panels to aid in a number of clean energy initiatives, including former SolarCity nonprofit GivePower, which opened a water desalination plant in Africa in 2019. Tesla hopes that by driving one of its electric cars and using its solar power and storage solutions, that the brand is creating a holistic approach to energy independence.
HOW MUCH DO SOLAR PANELS COST?
The cost of a home solar system can vary, even in the same city, due to a range of factors. These include the quality of the solar system, a household’s size and energy needs, local weather, and available roof space.
SunPower has made a name for itself by selling the highest-efficiency solar panels available²—so well made that their performance outlasts many of their competitors. To help you understand the price of going solar in your area, we’ve analyzed SunPower price quotes, as well as gathered quotes by third-party sources for thousands of homeowners across the country³. In the United States, the cost of owning a 6kW solar system ranges from $12,025 to $54,720, or in other words, from $2.00 to $9.21 per watt, before considering the benefits of available tax credits and incentives. Whereas many other brands lose 19% of their original DC power output in 25 years, SunPower’s guarantee says their loss is only at 8% after that long. That’s why they offer a 25-year Complete Confidence Warranty for everything on the roof that covers repairs or replacement, with a 10-year warranty for monitoring hardware and SunVault Storage. SunPower offers a savings calculator where you can estimate how much their solar system can save you in electricity bills.
Tesla touts itself as offering the lowest-costing solar panels in America. And to stand by that claim, they have a price-matching program where they review quotes from other providers and reevaluate your Tesla quote if your order meets a list of certain criteria. Their average costs for a 6kW solar panel system range from $14,940-$17,940 (before tax credits) according to Energy Sage and includes a 25-year Panel Performance Warranty and 10-year Comprehensive Warranty that covers your entire solar system including Powerwall, solar converter, and roof mounting and leaks. The solar roof tiles come with a 25-year warranty for the tiles, power, and weatherization.
Though seemingly a substantial investment up front, solar panels quickly pay for themselves after a few years, and you can then reap the benefits of significantly reduced electricity costs moving forward. And both SunPower and Tesla offer a virtual design studio so you can see what solar panels will look like on your home.
WHAT IS SOLAR STORAGE?
Imagine you just got back from an expensive trip to the grocery store and stocked your refrigerator with produce and meals to feed your family for the next week or two. Or maybe you’re streaming the latest series that everyone’s talking about and it’s just about to get to the most important plot twist. And all of a sudden, there’s a lightning storm and the power goes out. (Or there’s a grid failure like there was in New York City in 2019. Or rolling blackouts like there are in California when there’s risk of wildfire danger.) With a solar storage system, your solar panels can send the excess electricity they generate during the day to a solar battery, and that battery can then keep you running in the event of a power outage. It can also power your home once the sun goes down, or simply lessen the amount of electricity you pull from the grid during peak hours when electricity is most expensive.
SunPower’s SunVault storage does just that. It comprises two parts—SunVault Battery and Hub+—designed with a contemporary aesthetic to be mounted on a wall inside or outside your home. When paired with the brand’s Equinox solar system, it offers a complete home solar and storage solution that is designed and warranted by a single company, mitigating parts comparability or repair confusion down the road. Their technology promises more charge cycles than conventional systems, allowing you to power more of your home during a power outage. Plus, SunVault lets you monitor your energy production and control how you’d like your stored energy to be used, right from your phone through the mySunPower app. Want to keep your appliances on? Done. The lights? Done. Maybe you have an electric vehicle you’ll need charged. You can change settings through your mobile app and consider it taken care of. The result is cleaner energy that can save you money and stress. In other words: no more navigating in the dark with a flashlight.
- Rated Energy Capacity: 13 kWh (up to two SunVault batteries can be connected together, for a total of 26 kWh of storage)
- Continuous Power: 6.8 kW
- Energy Storage System Dimensions: 26” W x 63” H x 15” D
- Hub+ Dimensions: 17” W x 46” H x 6” D (surface mount)
- Seamless transition to backup and back to the grid
- Connectivity: Ethernet, WiFi and cellular
- Warranty: 10 years
- Rated for indoor and outdoor use
Tesla has also released its battery storage solution: the Powerwall. It too stores energy and can be used any time to reduce your reliance on the grid, in the evening, or during a power outage, offering a quieter, gasoline-free solution to a conventional generator. The clean energy you’ll produce with Tesla’s solar system minimizes your carbon footprint and allows you to monitor and manage your energy production and consumption through its mobile app. There are no exposed hot vents or wires (good news for children and pets), and the all-in-one water and weather-resistant product can be mounted indoors or out.
- Energy Capacity: 13.5 kWh, up to 10 powerwalls
- Power: 7kW peak / 5kW continuous; seamless backup transition; pure sine wave output
- Size: 45.3” L x 29.6” W x 5.75” D
- Weight: 251.3 lbs
- Installation: Floor or wall mounted, indoors or outdoors
- Warranty: 10 years
ARE SUNPOWER AND TESLA SOLAR BOTH OFFERED IN MY STATE?
SunPower and Tesla retailers and installers are located across the United States. They have made it easy to check the availability of retailers in your area using handy search tools developed by both companies. Each enables you to type in your zip code on their websites (us.sunpower.com, and tesla.com) to locate a service near you.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THOSE TAX CREDITS!
In 2005, the government passed the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) through the Energy Policy Act, offering homeowners a federal tax credit that could be applied, dollar for dollar, to their income tax (which, as opposed to a rebate that offers cash back, instead offsets what you might owe) for the purchase of a solar energy system for their residence in that same year. The percentage was set to decrease in increments and has been extended several times over the years. It was most recently set to expire in 2022. But in 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which extended the credit of 26% in 2021 and 2022, which means you can still take advantage of it by beginning construction before January 1, 2023. (It will decrease through 2026 thereafter.) Find out which tax credits (and additional incentives) you qualify for through the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
WHICH SOLAR POWER SYSTEM IS BEST?
It’s difficult to say which provider is best, as there are so many variables that might make one a better option for each homeowner over another. Cost, technology, durability, longevity, social impact and more might affect your choices, not to mention your location, house needs and climate conditions. But we know one thing for sure: if you’re thinking about investing in solar energy for your home, there’s no better time than now.
¹SunPower 400 W, 22.6% efficient, compared to a Conventional Panel on same-sized arrays (280 W multi, 17% efficient, approx. 1.64 m²), 8% more energy per watt (based on PVSim runs for avg US climate), 0.5%/yr slower degradation rate (Jordan, et. al. Robust PV Degradation Methodology and Application. PVSC 2018).
²Maxeon 370 W panel is 22.7% efficient. Based on a data sheet review of websites of top 20 manufacturers per IHS, as of June 2020.
³EnergySage: $16,860 average; Solar Reviews: $12,025 average; and SunPower and Dealers: $55,260-$14,940 full range.