The Instigator
Pro (for)
9 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
12 Points

Solar Electic Power

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Post Voting Period
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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 8/15/2011 Category: Science
Updated: 6 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 5,135 times Debate No: 17925
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (26)
Votes (6)




This is a challenge based off of discussion between Roy and myself.

The complete resolution: Solar electric power can currently provide energy to the average American home owner at equal or lower cost than the current US grid rate.

Solar electric power - Any power source derived directly from solar radiation (as opposed to coal, oil, wood, etc which come from organic material that got energy from solar).

Since both Roy and I understand that the effectiveness of solar greatly depends upon the amount of light a house gets over the year, and this light can vary from an average of 8+ hours a day to as low as 2 hours a day pending location in the US, we've both agreed to use Lexington KY to do our solar power calculations on.

Standard rules apply, no new arguments final rounds, no insults, and all that jazz, voters can use their reasoning to determine if something steps too far.

The first round is for acceptance, however, if my opponent wishes, he may start his arguments in the first round, or pass and I will begin R2. Regardless of what he decides, this should not affect voters regarding conduct or anything.

The heart of this debate is to focus on the costs of using solar energy as a power source for your home (we will be looking at individual home scales, not massive city scale projects). We are also DISMISSING governmental subsidies on all fronts (be they state, local, or federal), this is to be based upon the actual cost.

I'm not uber good at crafting perfect resolutions, so I hope that by expressing what the heart of the debate is, we can avoid any semantics, though with this particular opponent, I don't see that becoming an issue anyway.

Thank you,


Thanks to Ore_Ele (I believe he is from Krypton) for a superb topic. The reason it is such a good topic is that it is as close to an engineering topic as we are likely to ever see here on DDO, and engineering is more fun than anything else. Well, almost anything else. An engineering topic also means that most readers will be snoring way by the end of R2, but that cannot be helped.

For this round, I want to try to establish requirements and categories of costs. I think these will be common to our designs.

Grid power cost

We need to know how much electricity the average homeowner uses in a year. Homeowners include condo owners in multi-unit buildings. It's doubtful that condo owners will be able to put solar panels on their roof, but the numbers don't seem to change to much by excluding them. The U.S. Energy Information Agency provides a Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) [1. ].The relevant spreadsheet [2. says the average home uses 12,656 kWh of electricity. The data appears to have been updated to 2009, the most recent yea available. I'm currently under the impression that electric power consumption is about steady year-to-year.

The average residential rate for grid power is 11.09 cents per kWh. It's cheaper in Lexington KY, our chosen city, but I'll use the average rate. Our average homeowner uses $1402.55 worth of electricity per year. That's the target for a solar power system to beat. I'm assuming the grid cost includes taxes buried in the total.

Solar costs

We need the add up the costs for installing a solar electric system and convert them to a yearly basic for comparison.

Purchased solar panels. This is the price of the panels divided by the life expectancy. Some panels only last 15 years, but 20 or 25 years is more common. The panels deteriorate by 0.5% to 1% per year so the system must be oversized by 12.5% to 25% to compensate.

On cloudy days, the solar output drops in half. To make up for a long string of half-power days there has to be either battery storage or the system must be doubled in size from the nominal calculation. Doubling covers a period of cloudiness of unlimited length, so that seems better. I assume that doubling the size would also accommodate unusual periods of high heat that produce high air conditioning costs. I know it helps that summer days are longer, otherwise the peak would be more severe. It does not suffice to provide enough total energy over a year. The peak loads must also met. On the power grid, peak load costs are met by keeping spare capacity in the system.

Inverter and batteries.An inverter system must be provided to convert DC from the panels to AC. The inverter system is sometimes included with batteries to provide peak loads and night operation. Inverter systems are advertised to have a life of ten years. Batteries must be kept half-charged to prevent damage, so the size of the battery system must be double the nameplate rated capacity. [3. ]

Other equipment related costs. In addition to the basic equipment, there are costs for shipping, installation, and sales tax.

Maintenance. Solar electric systems require cleaning dirt off the panels twice a year, plus snow removal as often as it snows. Looking at the weather records for Lexington, I'm guess there are about five snow falls per year that require snow removal. There is also some maintenance in inspecting and cleaning battery terminals. [3] The homeowner might do this himself, but we are trying to make an apples-to-apples comparison to the power grid, where maintenance is included in the delivered price. The homeowner also might be unwilling or unable to do roof work.

Cost of Capital. This is cost of having money tied up in the solar electric system. One way to think of it is he cost to borrow the money to build the system, but it could also be thought of as the value that would be received by investing the money. If capital costs are not counted, then you can get free electricity forever by just putting money in the bank and using the interest to pay the electric bill. Capital costs must be counted.

The question is what interest rate to assume. I think the appropriate interest rate to figure is the rate on twenty year utility bonds. We are financing power here, so that is an interest rate for the money used for building power plants. Homeowners are unlikely to get rates as low as public utilities, but homeowners would also have trouble finding a safe investment with a higher yield. The current yield is 4.3%. [4.] For every $10,000 spent on a solar installation, the cost of capital is $430 each year.

My opponent may chose design variations to optimize costs. For example, one might oversize the installed panel capacity by 10% to compensate for deterioration, and then add 10% panel capacity after ten years. Perhaps there are more clever design alternatives. However the system is designed, all the categories of costs must be accounted for.

For the record, I agree that reducing dependence on the power grid is a terrific goal. It would get the government out of the loop, and it saves all the money spent on grid costs. About four of the eleven cents in the cost of grid electricity is spent on the power transmission overhead. But while getting off the grid is a terrific goal, achieving competitive cost is probably twenty years away. We'll see.
Debate Round No. 1


I want to thank my opponent for this wonderful opportunity to discuss and debate the economic potential and shortcomings of solar powered systems for your home.

This is going to be broken into 3 parts.
1) The suggested solar power system and its initial costs
2) What one would have if one decided not to get solar and just invest the money and buy electricity from the grid
3) What one would have if one decided to invest in this solar system (lol)
I will try to be as short as possible because 8,000 is going to be way too little for everything, but, oh well.

1)The Suggested System

I strongly advocate being independent and being able to do things yourself to save money (such as learn to fix your own car, build your own computer, etc), so naturally, I would strongly advocate installing your own panels and such. I would argue that the difficulty is not so great that the average person cannot do it, as they do offer kits that come with step-by-step instructions. However, I also fully understand that many are not comfortable with working on new things, especially on their roofs. So I will present the numbers if you install yourself as well as having contractors do it.

First, cost of material. We have the solar panels, the inverter, and the batteries. You can buy a boat load of accessories that make it look prettier, but that is optional and so not a requirement. First, we need to know how much energy we need. Our location receives an average of 4.5 sun hours a day (this takes clouds and everything into effect), but in winter, we drop to 3.5 (while summer is up to 5.5). Since a cloudy day in winter means we'll be getting only half energy with 3.5 sun hours, we need to make sure that even on those days, we reach 34.65 kWh (average daily use, by Roy's numbers in his R1). This comes to 19.8 kW system, which will cost $29,017.72 in solar panels [1][2]. It should also be noted that these solar panels come with a 25 year power output warranty. This means that they are guaranteed to provide energy for at least 25 years. If they wear down and start providing less, they will be replaced under warranty. While they will likely last more than 25 years, we will use 25 years as our estimated end point (since everything breaks 2 weeks after warranty anyway).

We also see that we will want at least 20 kWh to power the home through the nights, however, I've opted for a slightly larger, 36 kWh battery system so that the solar panels have plenty of time to deal with cleaning every once in a while (that will give a little over 24 hours of energy, while covering for the nights without de-charging too much). These will cost $4,872.00 [3]. These have a 10 year estimated life (7 year warranty), we will assume 2 replacements needed over the course, at 9 years and 18 years. Since I do not know what batteries will cost that far in the future, I will go with today's prices (advanced tech will likely drive prices down, but inflation will drive it back up, so who knows).

Our inverter needs to be able to both charge batteries, as well as feed back into the grid. I have selected this inverter for $1,911.34 [4]. It claims to increase battery life by up to 10 years, but we'll ignore this claim as there is no guarantee for it, so it is merely a sales pitch (in my mind). This provides 3,600 VA, well above the average, though I don't know what the average peak usage is (sources vary too greatly). If my opponent would like, I can select a larger one (it will only add 1% to the cost, so it is really marginal when compared to the panels and labor). This allows us to sell our extra electricity back into the grid, however, it should be noted that you sell electricity at wholesale value (about 40% of market value) [5].

This brings the total of our system (with a 9.68% sales tax, national average) to $39,266.60 for this 19.8 kW system.

We must now look at labor (while I believe that people should be able to do this themselves, we need to understand that not everyone can). Most contractors will quote you for the total job about $7 - $8 per Watt. It is not possible to get an exact number because it varies depending upon your house, angle of your roof and many other factors. We'll just assume the middle of $7.50 per Watt. Kits come complete at about $5.50 per Watt (and most contractors use pre-done kits). This means that the labor comes in at about $2.00 per W, so a 19.8 kW will have about $39,600 in labor costs alone. This will bring our total up to $78,866.60 with labor.

This covers all initial costs, now, we can move to long term costs and benefits.

2)Take the money and run

This section will cover if you take that $78,866.60, put it in a utility bond (as suggested by my opponent) and buy their electricity from the grid. While they have a number of options, we should stipulate that they need to choose a safe investment. First thing to consider is that electricity gets more expensive every year. Over the last 8 years, we've seen an average growth of 4.6% (from 8.00 cents in Jan 2003, to 10.99 cents in Jan 2011 [6], look at the excel sheet for historic prices).

This puts your yearly electric bill from $1,403.54 this year, to $4,130.34 in 25 years. If we take the $78,866.60, and pull from it only to pay for the electricity, we find that after 5 years, the balance is $86,934.44, after 10, $97,304.37, after 20, $117,112.10, and after 25 years, $124,921.20. This is the golden number to beat. Interestingly, the investment will peak at 28 years at $126,998.10 before electricity costs overcome it (and it will be gone by the 43 year). Of course, if we go with you doing the labor yourself, at 25 years this option will be at $16,148.87 and will dry out at 29 years (this makes the life of the solar panels extremely important).

With this, there is no equipment to buy, nor maintain, nor any labor associated that one must take care of. It is all factored into your costs at the meter.

3) Invest in my system

I do not have the space to outline in depth what my system will cost, and so will only make some brief points and go into it further in R3. This will also allow my opponent the opportunity to verify the costs of not investing in solar as well as checking out the initial costs of my plan.
Here are a list of things I will be going into next round.

a) Solar panels increase the value of the home. This will raise both home owner's insurance and property taxes, however, it will also count as a non-liquidable asset.
b) Electricity can be sold back at the wholesale rate, which we will count as 40% of the retail rate (grows at 4.6% a year).
c) Cleaning of the panels to be done 6 times a year (once every 6 months, and wiping off snow, but the winter cleaning can be done during a snow removal)
d) Snow removal and basic cleaning does not need to be professionally done, nor does it take a lot of time. While safety can be a concern, it is no more dangerous than climbing a ladder to clean gutters, which a large number of high school kids looking for beer money will do (besides, kids are durable).
e) Batteries are maintenance free for their warranty and without maintenance are still expected to live 10 years (I'm still going with 9 for my calculations). While doing maintenance will extend their life, we've already accepted the 10 year life (though they claim 12 and above).

I will have to pass this to my opponent now.



Solar Costs

We are in good agreement on the cost of the installed system. There are pluses and minuses in my calculations. The guarantee on solar panels is that they will produce 80% of their original output after 25 years, not 100%. I think the battery backup system will need to be larger, mainly to make sure that is never more than half discharged, a requirement to ensure the battery life. On the other hand, I think the professional installation costs are less than Ore_Ele estimated. I'm willing to go with an installed cost of $78,660.60.

I was going to figure the average costs per year, but working with total costs over 25 years is fine. The $78,660 investment is a hedge against inflation, so it's fair to compare it to grid costs that will rise with inflation. However, there are additional costs associated with the solar electric system that will rise with inflation. We must figure the costs of maintenance, insurance, and real estate taxes over the 25 year period.

A low estimate for inflation is 2.5% per year. That's about what we had in the period from 2000 - 2009. That compounds to 28% per decade, or 85% over 25 years. I'll total the yearly costs and then figure inflation on top of that.

I use the estimate of six roof maintenance actions per year. The minimum to get a service person to come to your house for any reason is about $50. That's $300/year. The battery maintenance, twice a year, can be done at the sae time as cleaning, so figure another $50 total, for $350 a year.

Insurance on a a home is about $4.10 for each $1000 of home price. I figure that from the average house value of $173K and the average insurance bill of $725. The solar electric system will start out costing $322 per year to insure.

When you make an improvement to your home, your taxes will go up. Real estate taxes vary considerably, with the most expensive places having the lowest tax rates and the least expensive the highest tax rates. The median rate is about $10 per $1000 of assessed valuation. The solar electric system will cost about $786 per year in increased taxes. Even though the economic value of the solar electric system decreases with, the assessment ignores that.

The yearly cost of having the system starts at $350 + $322 + $786 = $1458 per year. After 25 years, with minimal inflation, it would be $2697. Roughly figuring the average, that would be $51,937. However, the yearly cost could have been invested instead. Con likes to figure that as part of the other side of the calculation as part of the invest-the-money and buy from the grid calculation. I can go wih that.

Without figuring the cost of capital, the solar electric system costs $130,797. for 25 years. The battery backup has some residual value at the end of the period, but the solar panels need to be replaced and a new system installed.

The Grid Alternative

Con notes that electricity costs have risen 4.6% per year since 2003. That's more than the 2.5% average inflation over that period. From 1984 to 1999 the inflation adjusted price of electricity dropped. The price of oil was rising, but electricity is generated from coal and natural gas, which are in abundant supply in the US. The fuel prices should be dropping as mining and drilling technology improves. Nuclear power costs are not much affected by fuel prices, and the technology is improving. The reason grid electricity is increasing in cost is due to unnecessary political costs. Politics are causing valuable plants to be retied early, and building a new plant is more costly than ever. It's extremely difficult to even get a site for a solar facility, let alone a nuclear generating plant. The smart grid is expensive and only required to cope with unreliable energy sources like wind and solar. We should be figuring a decreasing cost of grid electricity.

Never mind, I'll use the 4.6% per year increase.

The cost of the grid alternative starts with putting $78,660 into an account. Each year the grid cost of electricity is deducted from the account, The grid cost increases each year at 4.6. Interest at 4.3% is added to the account balance. We also add to the account the money spent on the maintenance, insurance, and taxes for that solar electric system. With the grid alternative, with a 2.5% increase each year for inflation, those costs would not have been paid out, so they could have been saved instead.

The calculations were put into an exciting spreadsheet. The solar power system cost $130,797. The residual value of the solar power system is less than $10,000. After 25 years, the grid alternative spent $59,278 on grid electricity and there is a residual value of $184,804 in the account.

Including the cost of capital, the solar electric system cost was ($78K + $184K - $10K)/$59K = 4.3 times the grid cost.

Other Considerations

a) For a while the solar panels are an asset, but after 25 years they have to be replaced, so they are not an asset. Some of the battery system life remains. I put the asset value, generously, at $10,000 in may calculations,

b) Selling electricity back to the utility company at the wholesale value is actually a subsidy to the solar electric system on the house. The homeowner is using the grid without paying for the grid capital and maintenance costs, and the grid costs are increased substantially by requiring a grid "smart enough" to absorb the extra power. The system is properly figured as an off-grid enterprise. If the system is consistently generating too much power, then it was over designed. If it only occasionally generating surplus power, then you are asking the power company to buy it when it's not needed.

c) I think the maintenance costs are underestimated. The system is complex enough to have failures in the panels, inverters, wiring, and batteries. The technlogy is in it's infancy. Failures shouldn't be frequent, but when they occur they will require competent attention.

d) It's true it gives the homeowner an opportunity to save money by doing his own installation and maintenance. However, as a do-it-yourself project, it's still going to require $50,000 of ready cash. A person with that much free cash probably has an occupation with a high wage, so the person's time is more valuable spent on the job that playing with solar. If putting is a hobby, no problem. I recommend a solar hot water system if you really enjoy maintenance.

e) Check my reference [3] for a different story on battery maintenance. It's not horrible, but it is something.

f) Insurance cost estimtes are probably low. Wait until insuranc ecompanies learn about solar panels interacting with hail storms and hurricanes.

g) The "average homeowner" is oddly the best case. Go north and the shorter days and frequent snow cover make the economics worse. Go south and the high summer air condiioning loads mean higher summer peak loads and more panels.

Solar is now more than four times the cost of the grid for the average homeowner. It may seem somehow unfair to include all those maintenance, tax, and capital costs. The reason it is fair is that utilities have to include those costs. they are real and inescapable. Everyone should aspire to live in the same school district as a nuclear power plant, because after the real estate taxes are dived up, you are going to be paying about 29 cents for schools. Capital costs dominate the utility industry. The whole trick to making green energy seem reasonable is to ignore real costs in the comparisons.

I believe the situation will change. Give solar another twenty years and it may well be there. I'm all for it. But it's not close now.
Debate Round No. 2


I would like to thank my opponent for his round. Before I dive into the costs of my system, and what you will have after 25 years left in the bank. There are some things to point out first.

1) My opponent and I came up with the exact same number for the benefit of investing, so that number is essentially solid and I image that we won't need to waste any characters on it.

2) Deep cycle batteries are designed to be able to discharge between 50% and 80% without damaging them [1]. While they have the most efficient life spans when only discharged 50%, that more efficient life charge is why the company advertises them with a 12 year life span and the warranty does only 7 years, so long as the battery is used correctly. A discharge of 80% would fall under correct usage. It should also be noted that I picked a battery system that would only be going over 50% a handful of times a year, and not every night, so this effect is going to be minimal regardless.

3) My opponent is correct that the solar panels are warranted to be at 80% in 25 years. Earlier, he stated that they deteriorate at a rate of 0.5% to 1%, with a middle ground of 0.75%. As such, I will be expanding the solar panels from 86 to 100 (this will raise the cost from $78,866.60 to $90,283.12, and the laborless cost up to $44,283.12). This will put the 25 year amount for the alternative option at $156,279.90 (and $29,928.13 if you do the labor yourself).

4) Removal of snow and dust from the solar panels does not require a professional under any stretch of the imagination. I would argue that kids (the same that are willing to mow your lawn, clean your gutters, etc) would be willing to work at lower rates for that. However, I also believe that $30 per visit is a decent middle ground (coming to $240 per year). This would put the cleaning at $434.09 at year 25, with an average of $327.91 per year.

5) Inflation will factor into: Cleaning costs, property taxes, insurance taxes, value difference of property.

6) Inflation will not factor into: Electricity costs and capital gains from investments.

7) Energy should be able to be sold back into the grid at whole sale cost for a variety of reasons. First, the energy companies actually do want it (though they would prefer it be free for them) since they are getting energy at 60% discount and don't have to make the capital investment for it. This energy is turned around and sold to others at retail value for profit. Second, we are working with the current grid system and it is already set up for this, so the cost of the smart grid is already a sunken cost. If needed, we could argue that the home owner could pay for additional inverters to sell power to his neighbors at some rate between wholesale and retail (where they are not obligated to be 100% off grid and can work both), this however, gets a lot into sales and negotiating prices and just gets to be too many variables.

Benefits of my system

I will now go into the costs and benefits of my selected system (still comparing to both). Most of what my opponent shows are true costs and I cannot argue against them. We have insurance and property taxes (I grouped together) at $14.10 per $1,000 of home value. For this we only need to look at how the home value changes because of this system. This is where my opponent makes his biggest miscalculation. The amount of money you put into a home renovation does not equal the amount that it changes the value of your home. Anyone that has decided to renovate a living room or bedroom before moving has learned that just because you put $10,000 into the upgrade, does not mean that you will get that back out (you could get more or less, with living rooms and bedrooms, likely a lot less). Green energy options are very similar in that the dollars you put in are not equal to the dollars you get out.

For this, we need to look at how energy savers and energy producing things affect home value (this will also need to be adjusted for inflation). Energy savers actually change your home value not based on how much energy they save (makes sense). Current studies estimate that for every $1 you save on annual energy, your home will increase $10 to $25 [2], this variance likely effected by how pleasing the energy savers are to the eye and such. The middle point will be $17.50, but I'll go with a low ball side and suggest $15.00 for every $1 in energy savings.

If we look at the initial investment, it saves the total of $1,403.54 in energy, as well as makes another $1,115.54 in energy sold back to the grid (if my opponent rejects the grid, I can come up with a system that sells to neighbors at 20% under market value, since most people wouldn't mind getting some of their electricity from a neighbor at 20% discount, though that will limit our number of rounds of debating). This comes to a total of $2,519.08, which would increase the value of your home by $37,786.23.

This seems like it makes for a very poor investment (only increases the value of the home by 40%), however, we must take into account the fact that energy costs are increasing. And so the value of these savings increases the home's value more and more.

After 5 years, the panels are producing $3,076.71 in energy (this takes into account that their efficiency has dropped about 3.7% over these 5 years). This means the increase home value is going to be $52,215.27 (at this point we've had 13.14% inflation). Since energy costs are increasing faster than the solar panels' efficiency is decreasing, the net result is a constant increase in value. We can even see that after 20 years (when the panels are down 14% efficiency, but electricity is up 145.83% in cost), that the panels are generating $5,616.41 worth of electricity and adding up $138,047.20 of value to your house (thanks to 63.86% inflation in 20 years). At 21 years, your house has increased by $147,306.40.

Over this same 21 years, you'll have put $11,437.26 in the bank from the selling of electricity back to the grid at wholesale. This takes into account the expenses of maintenance, property taxes, insurance, and the revenue of taking the profit and investing it at the rate of 4.3% (why shouldn't it be invested?). So, we find at the 21 year mark, your initial $90,283.12 solar investment (with labor, $44,283.12 without labor) is now worth $158,743.60, while if you just invested in the markets, you'd be at $148,147.40 (or $36,787.68 for the doing labor for yourself). This shows that at 21 years, you've surpassed the alternative investment. Now, if my opponent wishes to argue that we need to go with $50 per maintenance visit, that only pushes back the crossing point by 1 year.

What we find, is that if you pay for the labor, the tipping point occurs at 20 years (if you do the labor yourself, that tipping point is only at 3 years). As you can see the labor costs make a HUGE difference, and my opponent actually suggested that labor would be less, and I'm sure, with enough shopping around, you could find less, and as more people do this, the labor costs will drop, but that only changes where the tipping point is, but in all cases where labor is factored, it will be around the 15 – 22 year mark, and in all cases, where you do it yourself, you'll be at around 2 – 4 years.

Based on this, it should be quite clear that placing panels on your home (be they on your roof, on in your yard, if big enough) can be a worthwhile investment for many homeowners. Especially those that are capable of doing the labor, or part of it themselves. Of course, we'll also find that location plays a major role, as well as climate. Is it possible that the various factors line up so that solar is not right for some people? Of course, but for the average homeowner, these will line up in their favor.



Thanks to my opponent for continuing with this debate. I apologize for calling my opponent "Con" in the last round. He is "Pro" of course. I tend to screw that up.

Our debate has turned from the nice clean topic of how many solar panels are needed to the dirty business of figuring capital costs, maintenance, depreciation, insurance, and taxes. For a coal fired power plant, only about a third of the cost is coal, Two thirds is "other." It is characteristic of discussions of green energy that all those other costs are quietly ignored. They are real and cannot be wished away.

In the last round, Pro increased the equipment cost to $90,283 to correct for panel deterioration. He agreed with the costs of insurance and taxes. I'll use those numbers. We agreed to use an increase of grid power cost at 4.6% per year; that includes an inflation component.

Batteries are a pain

Pro referenced a page that lists deep cycle batteries as one type available. The page points out "In situations where multiple batteries are connected in series, parallel or series/parallel, replacement batteries should be the same size, type and manufacturer (if possible). Age and usage level should be the same as the companion batteries. Do not put a new battery in a pack which is more than 6 months old or has more than 75 cycles. Either replace with all new or use a good used battery." A single bad battery can trigger replacing them all. At minimum an extra cost to keep spare capacity and having a system in which batteries can be removed.

The referenced page says "Lifespan can also be seriously reduced at higher temperatures - most manufacturers state this as a 50% loss in life for every 15 degrees F over a 77 degree cell temperature." Also, "The standard rating for batteries is at room temperature - 25 degrees C (about 77 F). At approximately -22 degrees F (-27 C), battery AH capacity drops to 50%. At freezing, capacity is reduced by 20%." The batteries are supposed to be sealed, but they produce hydrogen if they are overcharged. There is an elaborate safety protocol for battery charging. All this means we have to have a well designed rack structure with ventilation for the batteries, and it should be in a space protected from temperature extremes. Doing that will add to the cost.


Pro argued that maintenance costs should be a little less because a person could hire a neighborhood kid to do the roof work and electrical maintenance. I think that should either be rejected or the insurance premium for liability on an unlicensed kid doing roof and electrical work be added to the maintenance cost. I don't think that insurance for that is available, so I'm sticking with my estimate. Where I live, a visit from a licensed lumber costs $125, even if he does nothing other than arrive. My $50 estimate is conservative.

Selling back electricity

I think the ground rule for this debate was a system not connected to the power grid. That's the only way to make a clean comparison without figuring all the costs of randomly accepting power into the grid system. Pro's claim to sell power into the grid is a violation of the ground rule and should not be considered. However, if that route is taken, a much more elaborate control system is required to interface the solar power to the grid. Also, much of that work cannot be practically accomplished by a homeowner, because the electrical code requirements are so extensive.

There is a substantial cost for building and maintaining the electrical grid system. Pro argues that the grid is already there, so those costs should not count. That's wrong on principle, When you use something you should pay the proportionate costs. A rental car company has all the cars just sitting there, but when you want to use one you must pay the entire burden of capital costs, depreciation, taxes, and maintenance. Pro offered no evidence that power companies want to deal with the fluctuating inputs of excess solar power. They are required by the government to take the power as a subsidy.

It's also not true that a smart grid is already in place. There are so few homeowners feeding power into the grid that they effects are negligible. Having many homeowners doing it would require a massive redesign.

Neighborhood utility

Pro says that he could come up with a system that sells electricity to his neighbors. That is establishing a new electric utility, subject to the state laws that govern electric utilities. The power company can refuse to connect to you and your neighbors, so you will have to provide your own primary generating capacity. If you do that with solar, no one will need the excess power, because you will all have the excess at the same time. You will need to buy a gas turbine that can be decreased in output when excess solar power is available. The costs of siting, capital, taxes and insurance for that must be figured. You must also wire your own local grid.

Home values

Pro claims that home renovations that save energy add value to a home. Renovations that save energy include adding insulation, converting to double paned glass, upgrading to appliances, The reference says the house value increases $10 to $25 for every $1 reduction in annual fuel bills. The solar electric system produces little or no reduction in annual fuel bills because the tax, insurance, and maintenance expenses alone are about equal to what the electric bill would have been. The system itself adds some value to the house, the most at the start and depreciating to zero, but there is no gain from paying the upkeep costs rather to the electric bill. Grid purchase of electric starts at $1404 and solar upkeep at $1458. After some time the power gets to be a little more expensive than the maintenance. What is the value of an asset whose main function is to convert utility bills to upkeep bills? I think it is worth nothing.

What the system is actually worth over time will not affect your real estate tax. The government uses your building permit to evaluate the cost of the improvement and increase your taxes accordingly.


Pro is carrying along a hypothetical do-it-yourself free-labor alternative. Many wonderful savings can be achieved with competent free labor. Auto, plumbing, and appliance repairs all become free, for example. My question is what is our homeowner doing that enabled him to save up a minimum of $44K in free cash for the purchased equipment? If the answer is that he cannot save up the cash, then we should add the interest charges for borrowing the money, at something close to credit card rates. If the answer is that his income is so large as to permit lots of savings, then he is probably better off doing what he does for a living and buying the system. I made this argument in the last round, and Pro did not respond.

The bottom line: Home solar is 5x grid power

Putting the revised initial solar cost into the spread sheet, if the money were invested rather than put into solar, after 25 years there would be $214,000 in the account, and $59,000 worth of electricity would have been purchased from the power company.

Including the cost of capital, the solar electric system cost would ($90K + $214K - $10K)/$59K = 5.0 times the grid cost.

If you buy the idea of free labor for installation and accept Pro's very low battery costs, the account balance for the grid alternative drops to $97,000. Solar is then ($44K + $97K - $10k)/$59K = 2.2 times the grid cost. However, if the "free" labor were hired out and the money invested, the advantage of the grid would be back to 5x.

Now, if can keep Pro and Con straight, the resolution is negated. The grid is much cheaper.

Debate Round No. 3


I've gone ahead and attached a copy of the spread sheet that I've compiled all the data on, and presented it in, what I think, is a pretty easy to follow format, every number referenced is in there [1]. There are several issues which I need to address that my opponent has made. Batteries, Maintenance, Selling back energy, Home value, and DIY. I'll address each of these individually.


My opponent reminded everyone that batteries are not recommended to mix old with new. This is not really a problem since I already calculated in replacing the entire battery system every 9 years (3 years shy of their estimated life span). My opponent also says that the batteries can't be sealed because of the dangers of overcharging them. This is not really an issue because the inverter that I picked in round 2 is specifically designed to go between direct use of energy, to charging batteries, to selling to the grid. This means that when the batteries are full, the system automatically switches for safety.


My opponent says that there would be extra costs for electrical work. That is true, but that is not what we are arguing with this point. To go back to my opponent's first round, he says, "Solar electric systems require cleaning dirt off the panels twice a year, plus snow removal as often as it snows." Removal of snow and cleaning of dirt is not electrical work. It does not take a certified person to do it. While we can argue that electrical maintenance needs to be done every now and again, it does not need to be done every 2 months. How often does the average home owner bring in an electrician to check the wiring throughout their house? Not every other month, not even every year. Many don't do anything until they are actually selling their home, or a problem arises. However, I factored in both my estimates and my opponent's estimates for maintenance (as seen in the spread sheet) and it only alters the tipping point by 1 year, not enough to swing the entire equation. So it doesn't really matter.

Selling back electricity

This is a major part of this debate. Going over the opening rounds, and our PMs back and forth before starting, we never said anything about being completely off-grid. Stating the solar must be 100% off-grid or nothing at all would be presenting a false dichotomy. The panels I selected are designed specifically to grid tie-ins, and the inverter that I selected (all back in R2) is designed to tie back into the grid, these were all accepted. Since these are all products designed for power generation and commercially available, there should be no reason at all why they cannot be utilized to maximize the efficiency of the system. My opponent even said, "My opponent [Ore_Ele] may chose design variations to optimize costs." If we dismiss the real world option of tying back into the grid, all my opponent will do is prove that 100% independent solar is not cost effective, rather than that solar altogether is not cost effective. Ruining the purpose of the debate.

Remember, "The heart of this debate is to focus on the costs of using solar energy as a power source for your home." From R1.

The government only requires companies to offer net metering. This means that if you produce your own energy, they can't double charge you. This also means that if the energy company uses your generated electricity, they have to pay you for it, i.e. buy it from you. Why should they use it and not pay for it?

Home value

The value of the electricity that you don't have to buy is $1,403.54 (increases 4.6% every year). And the money you make by selling electricity back to the grid is $1,115.54 (increases 4.6% every year). So the total energy difference is $2,519.08 for the first year (reminding again, this increases 4.6% every year). The costs for the maintenance, taxes, insurance, etc ranges from $742.79 to $882.79 that first year, pending if you accept Roy's maintenance costs or mine. This means that it is still highly in your favor.

My opponent says, "The government uses your building permit to evaluate the cost of the improvement and increase your taxes accordingly." This is not true. Property taxes are based on your assessed value, which is based on estimated market value [2]. It does not matter how much you put into the upgrade. If we stop and look at two examples, we can see how this is logically true.

If you spend $20,000 replacing all the tiles in your bathrooms and kitchen with glow in the dark tiles, that is not going to raise your property value by $20,000, it would probably even lower it. Likewise, with this case, one might think that the very existence of the solar panels would increase value because they are an asset that can be sold for money. This isn't accurate, when considering that they are only worth $44,000 and it would take another $46,000 of labor to remove them (meaning they cannot be pulled off and sold very well), so their value would not affect home value at all. The only thing from them that would affect home value is the work that they do (energy generation).

Now, we should explain why home value must be counted as an asset on our balance sheet. I could simply say that property values need to be counted under GAAP, however home owners are not obligated to follow GAAP and can do whatever they want (and probably end up going bankrupt if they can't balance a budget). But, like it or not, homes are an asset and are worth money. Surely my opponent would agree that spending $10,000 to increase the value of your home by $50,000 would be considered a smart investment (it allows for more profit at time of sale and builds equity should you need it later). This increase in assets is not something that can be ignored, no more than I can ignore the interest being built up by the alternative method.


This was missed last round because of character limits. This is merely to show that they do have DIY kits, and that solar installation is not like rebuilding a semi truck tranny. It doesn't require any complicated tools more than a power drill, a ladder, and (highly recommended) a safety harness. The example of a person that makes so much money is actually a very poor excuse. Your average person is going to be an employee, and set to work a set schedule. As an employee, you are likely paid either hourly or salary (if you make enough to be able to afford this system, you're probably salary). At hourly, you can't just work as many hours as you want, your employer has to approve it. Try going into work two hours early, and stay two hours late and see how long it takes before your boss says you need to only come in for your schedule. With salary, it is different. You can work as many hours as you want (or need to get your job done), and you are paid the same. The only pay rate that would be applicable is commission based, and not many people work that way.

The bottom line

If you invest the money rather than buy solar, you will get $156,279.87 (a 73.10% profit). If you invest in the solar, you'll get $185,105.50 (a 105.03% profit). We see the solar becomes a better investment on year 22 (when it hits 67.06% to the investment's 64.09%). We can also see that it isn't until year 15 that the solar finally hits a positive percentage. There is a logical reason for this. Solar is not cost effective at 11.09 cents per kWh, however, we know that the cost of energy is only going to up, and as it goes up, solar gets better and better, so while the solar isn't helping too much to start, by the time when years 15 – 20 start to come around (and electricity is going at 20 to 30 cents per kWh, the panels installed are able to make up the lost ground.

Thank you



The Deal

Suppose you are an American homeowner living in a house worth $153,000. You now spend $1403 a year on electricity. Pro has a deal for you. Consider it carefully. First save up $90,283, then buy and install a rooftop solar electric power system for your home. The system will require $410 a year for extra insurance, you'll have to clean off the snow whenever it snows and take care of the batteries needed to run at night, and your real real estate taxes will go up. Your solar electric system will last 25 years, providing all the electricity you need for those 25 years. Then you'll need to replace it using new saved cash.

Are you ready to sign up for that deal? I think it's not plausible, but if you're not sure, then the controversy over the exact costs and risks follow. I think the average homeowner would be ready for the exit right after the "save up $90,283" part. People aspire to pay off their mortgage, buy a better house, and put their kids through college, not become their own a mini electric utility. But that's just my opinion.

Areas of Agreement

We have agreed to important facts relevant to the debate, including the numbers cited above. We agreed to how much power is consumed by the average homeowner and what it now costs. I don't think there's anything controversial there.

To carefully evaluate the investment, we agreed that money not spent on solar, the $90,283, could be put into a long term investment earning 4.3% interest. To limit the scope of the debate, I agreed to electric utility costs rising at 4.6% per year including, although logically rates ought to drop due to advancing technology. (Oil isn't used significantly for power generation.) More doubtful, we agreed to use an inflation rate of 2.5% for the 25 year period. The real estate tax rate is agreed to start at $10 per $1000 of assessed value. Maintenance, taxes, and insurance all increase at the inflation rate.

We agreed not to count government subsidies for solar electric. The obvious subsidies are government tax rebates. The debate is about the real economics.

We needed numbers to evaluate the solar electric investment, but their is risk in all the numbers. No one really knows what will happen to electric rates, taxes, or inflation. That's inherent in investment decisions. There are many risks to consider as part of this debate, and they count in assessing the viability of the solar alternative.

The do-it-yourself option

Installation and maintenance costs are significant. Pro offers the option of the homeowner doing his own installation and counting the homeowners labor as having no cost. It's like saying that you could either pay to take a ferry across the river to work, or you could build your own boat and use that. In the latter case only the cost of the wood for the boat should count. Pro says the minimum solar equipment cost is $44,283. I say it is more because he has underestimated the battery storage and that the part to tying into the house electrical system requires a professional electrician to meet code requirements.

The do-it-yourself requirement is not an apples-and-apples comparison, so it shouldn't be part of the debate at all. If we were going to compare the cost of washing clothes at the laundromat versus using a washing machine at home, w wouldn't consider the option of building your own washing machine. For solar, or whatever else, we are comparing one ready solution to another ready solution. I pointed out that assuming free infinite labor makes many uneconomic projects appear economic even though they are not.

There are many reason why a homeowner could not use the do-it-yourself alternative. Physical limitations may prevent roof work or limited skills might risk successful completion. The homeowner might not have the free time. The debate is about whether solar is a practical alternative, and the do-it-yourself option is not practical for many homeowners.

I also also questioned if homeowner labor couldn't be better spent on more valuable work. The premise of the debate is that homeowner is able to save a lot of free cash, Pro says at least $44,000 for the equipment. That implies a very good job, not a typical household income of $50,000. I argue that our lawyer-living-in-a-$153K-home will be better of doing the work he qualified to do rather than playing solar pioneer. Pro rebuts that, no, it's just a salaried guy who has the time and no other work option. The problem is the unrealistic root assumption of having a large bundle of ready cash. The most realistic way to resolve that is to suppose the money is borrowed, but that blows up the cost of the solar electric system with high interest expenses. Borrowing $44K would have over $4K in yearly interest compared to the $1403 electric bill. That's out, and we are left assuming a very well paid homeowner.

Maintenance costs

Pro's plan is to use neighborhood kids to clean snow off the roof and other maintenance. I said you need some sort of a business to do that. Pro rebutted that the skills are minimal. Pro missed my point, which as not at all about skills, it was about liability insurance. I challenged Pro to include the cost of insuring an unlicensed neighborhood kid to work on a roof. I said I don't think it's possible to get such insurance. Pro didn't respond. There's a big downside risk to the kid falling off the roof. Aside from cost, you could end up in jail for child endangerment.

I cited reference [3] on the required battery maintenance that includes inspection and cleaning off corrosion on the terminals and inspecting for bad batteries. The system is running at household voltage, 120 or 240 volts. That's anther another liability problem with kids working with high voltages.

If one battery failed the whole set would ordinarily have to be replaced. Pro said he planned on replacing them all at end-of-life. That's not the problem. It poses a cost risk if one fails prematurely. You will get a new battery on warranty, but probably not a whole set.


Pro argues adding the $90,000 system to the home will only increase the assessment by $30,000 or so. that would be logical, but localities are interested in collecting as much tax as possible so "... a cost based approach may be used." They use what it costs rather than what it's worth to a new owner.

Being our own electric utility

Pro counts on selling electricity into the power grid whenever surplus power is produced by the systems. Now, laws require that the utilities accept the power and pay for it. The requirement is a subsidy to home solar. The cost to the utility of providing electricity is mainly in the fuel for generators; Pro didn't contest that's only about a third. Two-thirds is in the capital costs including maintaining the grid. Utilities do buy power from outside their grid system, but they get to choose when to buy it and how much to buy. Meeting peak demands is the major need, as late on hot summer days when the air conditioning loads peak. That's precisely when home solar power does not have any spare to sell.

Pro's notion of selling power into the grid evades all the costs of setting up and running the grid. For the power company, they save a little fuel cost if they can throttle back some generators, but the capital and maintenance costs are not paid by a system that only sells into the system when he wants to.

Pro suggested that if the power company didn't want the power, it could be sold to neighbors. I pointed out that requires permission to set up a competing utility, and he dropped that idea.

The bottom line

My numbers in R3 withstand scrutiny. If the money put into solar were invested instead, after 25 years there would be $214,000 in the account, and $59,000 worth of electricity would have been purchased from the power company. Including the cost of capital, the solar electric system cost would 5.0 times the grid cost.

The resolution is negated. Vote Con.

Thanks for a good debate.

Debate Round No. 4
26 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by BackBlast 6 years ago
That's a good point about the rules governing utilities. Though it's a little nebulous what exactly ends up being a subsidy when it's not some kind of direct kickback ala tax credits and the like. Trying to untangle that mess seems impossible.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
The utility has no control over the pricing of their system. It is determined by the government. The is no way that a utility would allow the grid to be used as backup for wind or solar except that they are required to do so, and at low rates. If the free market were allowed to operate, large user of electricity would get a discount, for the same reason that large consumers of any product get a discount. The government forces large users to be penalized with higher rates. In California, there ae more than two dozen special rates, so electricity used to charge an electric car is at 7 cents, whereas for other purposes it quickly rises to 42 cents. All of this is to enforce sacrifice to what is effectively a green religion.

A ground rule of the debate was that we would use free market pricing, not government mandates and subsidies. However, if the government is giving out free stuff, or heavily subsidized stuff, then consumers ought to take advantage of it. It's fair to play the cards you are dealt.

I am much in favor of grid independence. It provides freedom from government decisions as to who to punish and who to reward, in accordance with government's bizarre beliefs. At one point in California, the cheapest way to heat a large swimming pool was to run a diesel generator and sell the power to the utility company. The waste heat from the diesel then heated the pool at almost no cost.
Posted by BackBlast 6 years ago
Just a quick comment on my point of view... I'm not particular to how "green" energy is, at least from a carbon perspective. I like economics, and grid independence is also good. I've seen low RPM diesel generator systems that were competative with grid retail costs at .10-.15 $/kwh, but that did ignore the capital costs and only represented the running cost of the system. Fun stuff to look at..

Anyway, nice to have a chat :-)
Posted by BackBlast 6 years ago
"Maintaining the utility power grid is expensive, and attaching to the grid for occasional use "when needed" does not shoulder a fair share of the costs."

If the utility is mis-pricing their services that's their own fault. I hardly find calculating the economics of the system on what they will offer as dishonest. I think you're digging a little too deep here.

Power grid maintenance comes from the profit from the wholesale power cost and the retail power cost difference and is strictly an internal power company problem. If the power company is buying your power at retail, then there is obviously a built in subsidy occuring, though since solar power is generated at peak times, and is not bursty and will first offset local consumption, it probably doesn't need to travel far at all. I suspect the power company doesn't mind so much. I've never heard of a power company building out bigger residential load capacity to support solar systems with grid ties. If *every* house had it in a local area and load levels approached the point they had to build out extra load capacity to support the daily export, you may have a point.

Attaching to the grid costs occur when the builder puts in the utilities and is included in the final sale price of the house. Saying it is an *additional* cost is dishonest unless you also go back and discount that cost on the solar side. Since this is a configuration I've never even *seen* from any builder within any city limits I don't think this approach is very sound. And I would still argue that building out that infrustructure is cheaper than maintaining a battery bank... At least when you're located anywhere remotely near the grid.

Please note I'm not saying the solar is economical. If it was, I'd probably have done it already.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
I wrote a short tutorial on computing capital costs as a forum post:
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
Maintaining the utility power grid is expensive, and attaching to the grid for occasional use "when needed" does not shoulder a fair share of the costs. Ordinary rate payers end up paying for spare generating capacity, extra transmission lines, and a complex load management system for the benefit of the occasional users. Solar users should maintain their own gas-powered generators for the times they need it, then they would be bearing the capital cost burden of the backup.

Electric utilities buy electricity on the spot market to supplement their generating capacity. Electricity supplied to meet peak loads is a lot more expensive than electricity purchased at times when few people want it. Those economics need to be applied to solar electric power surpluses as well.

It's true that a 25 year old solar electric system has some value, just as old cars have some value to log as they can move. However, the system is heavily depreciated and not worth much.

Putting $90K into a system, plus a yearly $1K for taxes and maintenance, to produce $1400 worth of electricity yearly is nuts any way you slice it.

Not all green energy has the reliability problem. Hydroelectric power is reliable, low cost, and the power produced is easily adjusted to meet demand. There is nothing inherently wrong with green energy. The economics of solar electric ar just not now favorable.
Posted by BackBlast 6 years ago
I've done a bit of studying on solar myself...

A few points.

The system is not worthless after 25 years. 20-30 years is the typical warranty period for solar panels. However, like a car, it does not cease functioning after the warranty expires. It will continue to have value and produce electricity, though at decreased rates.

Batteries are a no-go for a cost effective system. They are simply too expensive, especially if you do *nothing* to decrease your power useage. [tangent] If you build a completely grid free system it is very worth while to invest money into efficient appliances and totally ditch appliances like clothes dryers. However this muddies the argument some because reduced electricity consumption helps the home owner in both instances. [/tangent] If you omit the battery system completely and retain grid dependence you are much more likely to come in close to grid costs. IMHO this is the biggest problem with the Pro argument.

Now the drawbacks to a battery free system. DIY systems cannot be grid tied unless you are a certified electrician. Most power companies will NOT allow you to hook up to the grid unless the installation is professionally done. You *may* be able to get away with simply retaining a certified electrician to certify your DIY installation.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
In the debate I addressed why the housing value doesn't do up. The day the system is installed, the housing value increases by about the value of the system. Con argued the assessment would be less, because the improvement is worth less than what the homeowner paid to install. If that's true it concedes the debate, because there is no aesthetic value added -- it's entirely about the economic value.

What the reference says is that if there are comparable sales in the neighborhood, then the value will be measured that way. I assume no one else is going to have put a $90K solar installation on a $153K house, so that won't happen. Without that, the assessment is made on cost. In real life, towns are eager to tax you, so they tend to use the cost basis as much as they can get away with.

However, at the end of the 25 years, we both agree that the system has no value because it has reached the end of its life. When the home is sold it will not add value. It's like an old appliance.

The assumption on taxes is not critical. There is no way to come close to recovering a $90K investment without a huge government subsidy. After reading the deabte, is anyone ready to actually invest in $90K worth of solar? I hope not.
Posted by Kinesis 6 years ago
I intended to vote on this debate, but I just can't. After reading it through I have a vague intuition that Roy came out ahead but that's far from an informed decision. I'll read it again tomorrow and see if I can understand more of where the debate went.
Posted by F-16_Fighting_Falcon 6 years ago
As an engineering major, I didn't fall asleep but was rather very interested in the debate by round 2. Awesome debate. Also, the first debate in which I actually saw some problem solving. This could be given as an engineering project for a class lol.

(cont from RFD)
Maintenance is not just removal of snow and dust. The internal components could also require maintenance. Pro did however make good points that batteries can be switched to safety with an inverter, and that it could be sold back into the grid, but the fact remained that selling it to the grid is not feasible both because the solar power would be drained during peak times as well as the regulations the grid imposes on selling to your neighbors.
6 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 6 records.
Vote Placed by innomen 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Sorry, the numbers just don't justify the conversion, and the whole do it yourself thing wouldn't fly where I live. Building inspectors would be all over you for not having licensed workers/ electricians. They aint cheap either.
Vote Placed by curious18 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Con totally dropped the housing value argument. How can you think that insurance and tax will go up without recognizing that the home value goes up. His last source, from wiki, actually agreed with Pro, not Con, so he loses sources too. Rest was good.
Vote Placed by Lionheart 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Great debate. I agree with Ore_Ele for the most part, but both arguments were solid. Good job.
Vote Placed by freedomsquared 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: A fantastic debate. I feel like CON mostly won out on the DIY arguments (those about labor). The other arguments (as both sides agreed on most of the costs) were pretty even. Conduct was excellent and sources seemed fine to me (although I was impressed by the amount of work PRO put into his spreadsheet.) S
Vote Placed by Puppet911 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Superb debate. GJ to both PRO and CON. I was intrigued the whole time by costs, complexity, maintenance, and the other aspects involved with *solar* electric power. It was hard, but when analyzing the full extent of the arguments put forth (in correlation to the voting criteria) I had to give it to Con. I agree with F16 Fighting Falcon that Con showed the capital costs of installing solar panels outweigh the savings, and how long the things actually cost to replace. Good job nonetheless to both.
Vote Placed by F-16_Fighting_Falcon 6 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Con showed quite clearly that the capital costs of installing solar panels outweigh the savings. Also, that solar panels would not last forever therefore necessitating a re-investment after 25 years for new solar panels. Another point well argued was that the complexity of solar panels would require professional maintenance. Together these points showed that the costs of solar power were too high to make it realistically possible in the near future. (cont in comments)