Relatively few San Diegans have solar panels on their roofs but plenty of people say they’re thinking about them.

San Diego Gas & Electric says almost 4 percent of its 1.4 million customers have gone solar.

We polled our readers last week as we kicked off our quest on whether solar will pay off for our region.

That means a greater share of our readers have solar panels than the rest of the population.

But their responses to other questions were far more revealing: About 88 percent of the 534 VOSD readers who took the survey have at least considered getting solar panels, and the same percentage believes solar will pay off for both themselves and the region.

Many people said they have already faced roadblocks as they look into the technology.

Unsurprisingly, there was one big one:

Then there were the questions. I’m going to answer some of the most common ones in coming weeks and have included a few answers I’ve already been able to track down.

What it would cost to install/maintain and how long until I break even?

This is one of the most common questions folks have – and it’s also one of the hardest to answer.

The answer depends on your specific situation. (And we’ll be exploring that more in coming weeks.)

But Daily Finance reported last month that installation can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000 depending on the number of panels, your specific system and more.

And how quickly you make up the costs with lower energy bills depends too – on how much electricity you use, and more.

Are solar leases a good option?

Whether for solar panels or cars, leases allow many who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a shiny new thing to use that shiny new thing. The drawback is that you’re paying for something you may never own – and that you may spend more and save less than if you made the purchase outright.

My initial research shows most experts recommend buying solar panels if you can. MarketWatch and NPR put together some good guides on this topic here and here.

How long will my panels last?

The Center for Sustainable Energy, which has handled state solar incentives in SDG&E’s territory, says the panels often come with a 25-year warranty but many solar experts say they can actually last more than 30 years.

What’s the environmental impact of solar panel production?

It varies by manufacturer. Some use more environmentally friendly components and processes than others.

We put together a nice explainer on this topic several years ago.

Here’s how National Geographic summed up the situation late last year:

Fabricating the panels requires caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and the process uses water as well as electricity, the production of which emits greenhouse gases. It also creates waste. These problems could undercut solar’s ability to fight climate change and reduce environmental toxics.

Still, many experts point out that the panels are still among the cleanest energy sources.

How is SDG&E positioned for solar? Should I be worried?

I plan to spend lots of time looking into how increased solar penetration is affecting (and could affect) the grid and how SDG&E’s policies (and yes, future policies) could help or hinder growth of rooftop solar in San Diego. So stay tuned for that.

Here’s what I know for now:

SDG&E executives have said increased rooftop solar is already putting some strains on the system, especially because the energy source spikes midday when the sun’s out and powers down just as the grid hits its peak usage times.

It says it’s prepping for more rooftop solar penetration. Jim Avery, SDG&E’s vice president of power supply, said the real test is when peak demand penetration hits 15 percent on a circuit grid. That’s already happening in some places.

“When it gets to that stage, the intermittent issues associated with solar can create havoc on our system,” Avery told Greentech Media earlier this year. “Now, keep in mind, a lot of our system is antiquated analog equipment.”

Some energy experts have said situation may not be so dire.

SDG&E says rooftop solar now supplies 3 to 4 percent of energy during peak periods.

What does the Elon Musk/Tesla Powerwall Battery add to the equation?

It could be a game-changer.

A major roadblock to a mostly solar-powered existence has been the lack of reliable (and cost-effective) ways to store excess solar power produced during the day so it can be used at night, when you come home and turn on the lights.

Tesla’s announcement that it plans to produce batteries starting at $3,000 could help solve that problem and potentially allow more solar customers to go off the grid.

It’s not a sure thing for everyday consumers, though. Bloomberg News reported Tesla’s batteries aren’t working so well for rooftop solar just yet.

Clarification: We’ve updated the description of how the energy grid is affected by solar to clarify that solar has reached 15 percent penetration on multiple circuit grids in the region during peak periods.

This is part of our quest on whether solar will pay off for San Diego. Check out our previous post, California Has Aggressive Solar Goals, here.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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