Question: With high costs, long paybacks and mitigating factors such as big trees in our area, how can I make residential solar work for me?

Answer: New Jersey is rated #1 among states for financial incentives available to offset installation costs of solar energy systems and consequently has the fastest payback for residential installations. Consumers are often misinformed on the applications and costs of installing solar in New Jersey. Here are some key concepts to help you as you explore the solar option.

There are basically two types of solar for residential use: Solar Electric and Solar Hot Water.

Solar Electric, which relies on a photovoltaic technology (PV), uses a relatively large array of solar panels on your roof to capture the sun's energy to create electricity. Harnessing this type of power can offset your home's reliance on fossil fuels such as gas, oil and electricity produced by coal-burning or gas-fired power plants. The electricity generated can be used just like your present electricity to light your home and run your appliances.

Solar Hot Water, also known as solar thermal, employs a much smaller array of collectors to use the sun's energy to heat the water in your home. This hot water can be used for bathing and other basic household uses. In a home with radiator heat, baseboard hot water heat or radiant heat, a larger solar thermal system can be used in the winter to heat your home and in the summer to heat a pool or spa.

A disadvantage in our area is the combination of large trees and low angle of the sun in the fall and winter months. With PV technology, even the slightest shadow across the panel will break the circuit causing it to produce no electricity at that moment. This greatly reduces the efficiency of the system and can increase the time until your cost-savings, rebates and market-based incentives pay back your initial investment. Solar thermal technology can still function well with the occasional tree shadow, but does need a roof area with at least 6-8 hours of sun daily. The good news is the panels are relatively small so even a small patch of sunny roof is often sufficient.

In addition to the reduced electrical, gas or oil costs to the homeowner and the increase in property value, there are many state and federal rebates and incentives that can help you offset the cost of "going solar". Below is a list of incentives and rebates available.

• The Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) affords homeowners a rebate equaling 30% of total installation cost.

• Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) sell for $660 each (a 5,000 watt solar electric system can be expected to generate 6 credits annually).

• The Renewable Energy Incentive Program (REIP) sponsored by the state of New Jersey offers a rebate of $1.75 per watt installed up to 10,000 watts.

• The NJ Solar Domestic Hot Water Pilot Program offers $1,200 rebate for residents who convert from electric hot water to a solar thermal system.

• In New Jersey, there is property tax abatement for Solar Electric Systems.

• A PSE&G Solar Loan Program will allow homeowners to obtain financing through PSE&G and to pay down the loan with SRECs over a 15-year period.

The economics of each are very different. PV arrays are quite large and can be expensive; up front out-of-pocket costs after rebates can range from $21,000 (5,000 watts) to more than $42,000 (10,000 watts) for a home in our area. With the combination of market-based incentives available and cost savings, the cost of a PV system can be completely paid back in 3 ½ to 7 years. Solar Thermal systems have a much more modest price tag of between $3,500-$7,500 after rebates. The number of years to payback varies greatly depending on how many people live in the home, what type of hot water system you are replacing and what the hot water is used for, but typically ranges between 3 ½ to 8 years.

More information and a list of qualified solar installation contractors can be found at or by calling 866-NJSMART.

Kristen Rolfes Hall is a member of Millburn's Environmental Commission (MEC), an all volunteer commission appointed by the Township Committee to help the town identify and protect natural resources and promote sustainable practices and land use in the community. She is also a Trustee of the Cora Hartshorn Arboretum ( The MEC meets at 7:30 p.m. at Town hall on the first Monday of the month and welcomes active involvement from the community. To find out more about the MEC, please visit us on the Millburn website, and email us at