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What Is the Average Solar Panel Payback Period? (2024 Guide)

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Author Image Written by Tamara Jude + 1 other Reviewer Icon Reviewed by Roger Horowitz Updated 04/24/2024

Converting to solar power is a major investment, and most homeowners want to know how long it will take to recoup their money. This time frame, known as the solar panel payback period, averages between six and 10 years for most residential solar installations.

Payback periods vary based on several factors, such as your selected financing option and available solar incentives. Here, our team details these factors and offers guidance on how top solar companies calculate their panels’ break-even point—the moment at which the panels have saved you as much as you spent.

What Is a Good Payback Period for Solar Panels?

The average solar panel payback period is between six and 10 years. High-quality residential solar panels last 25 years or longer, and the Department of Energy (DOE) says some solar panels can last 35 years or longer. This means homeowners can enjoy 15–29 years of energy savings after recovering their initial solar investment.

Calculating your solar payback period can be complicated, but this simple formula is a good start: 

System costs (minus financial incentives) divided by annual electricity savings = solar panel payback period

For example, if you spend $18,000 on a solar panel system and save $2,100 on electricity bills annually, your estimated solar payback period is 8.5 years ($18,000 / $2,100 = 8.57 rounded up). After recouping your up-front costs, you’ll have 16.4 years of “free” clean energy through the length of your panels’ warranty. 

Although the average payback period is up to 10 years, several factors can extend this time frame. For example, investing in a larger solar system or choosing a long-term loan with interest will raise your overall costs, lowering your return on investment (ROI). On the other hand, opting for high-efficiency solar panels will increase your energy savings, decreasing your payback time and raising your ROI.

Most professional solar companies include your estimated payback period when you receive a quote. Along with the cost of your system, you’ll see the impact that your system size, local rebates and incentives, and financing options have on your ROI. Request quotes from at least three solar installers and compare their estimates to get the best payback period.

What Factors Impact Your Payback Period?

Several factors can increase or decrease your solar panel payback period, including your total system costs, solar incentives, and average electricity costs and usage. We’ll examine each factor and its impact on solar payback periods. 

Total System Cost

Your total solar system cost depends on the following factors:

  • Equipment costs: Your total system cost includes the panels, additional equipment, racking system for rooftop mounting, wiring, and any add-on accessories, such as electric vehicle (EV) chargers and solar batteries. Choosing one of the top performance solar batteries can cost more up front, but will secure your home better against outages. 
  • Financing options: Cash payments require the most up-front investment but yield the best ROI. Solar loans allow less of an initial investment, but will increase your total cost due to interest rates over time. Both of these ways of funding your solar panels qualify you for solar incentives, credits, and rebates, which help lower installation costs. Selecting a solar lease or power purchase agreement (PPA) means you won’t own your system and thus won’t have a payback period.
  • Solar installation company: Pricing between solar installers varies based on the equipment and services offered, as well as local market pricing. 
  • System size: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average household consumed 10,500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually in 2023. This equates to about a 9-kilowatt solar system. A larger system increases installation costs and vice versa. You’ll need to ensure you buy a system large enough to adequately power your home, so choosing a smaller system to try to cut costs isn’t an option.

In an August 2022 survey, we found that 57.1% of homeowners pursuing solar were quoted a total cost of under $20,000. Over half of respondents—33.7%—were quoted a price between $20,000 and $30,000.

Solar Incentives and Tax Credits

Homeowners may benefit from solar discounts and ongoing financial benefits, depending on the availability of these incentives in their area. There are many solar incentives, rebates, and credits offered by your state or the federal government.

In our 2022 survey, 78.4% of respondents said they took advantage of the solar incentives available to them.

Up-Front Credits and Debits

Annual Financial Incentives

One of the most common up-front credits that homeowners take advantage of is the federal solar tax credit, which provides a tax credit equal to 30% of your installation costs on your owed federal taxes. Reducing your initial investment costs will improve your solar payback period and ROI. 

Some states offer tax credits to reduce your state tax liability. They may also offer sales and property tax exemptions. Property tax exemptions allow you to benefit from solar panels’ added home value without added taxation. Check your utility company for additional solar rebates or credits.

Depending on your area, you could benefit from solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs). You earn one SREC for every megawatt-hour (Mwh) or 1,000 kWh of solar electricity your solar system generates. You can sell these tradable certificates on local markets for cash back. However, pricing fluctuates based on supply and demand and varies by state. Prices will drop significantly if your local SREC market has a higher supply than demand. 

Net-metering programs allow homeowners to sell extra energy to the grid system. These credits can be applied to future electric bills and may result in an end-of-year payout for unused credits. Net-metering payouts differ between programs and states but offer ongoing energy bill savings for homeowners. 

Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) for all available financial incentives in your area. 

Average Monthly Electricity Costs and Use

Your average electricity costs determine your long-term energy savings, which impacts your payback period. The higher the electricity rate, the better the solar savings and ROI. According to the EIA, the average cost of electricity was 16.19 cents per kWh in November 2023. Homeowners with electricity rates above this average will see better savings when they convert to solar energy. Homeowners in areas with lower electricity prices will see less savings and a longer payback period.

Estimating Electricity Generation

Your solar system’s energy production impacts your solar payback period as well as your long-term savings. While most homeowners believe solar systems will cover 100% of their energy needs, this is often untrue. Some systems are designed to offset your energy costs, reducing your dependence on utility companies but not eliminating it. You can invest in a larger system to go off-grid, but you’ll need a sizable system and multiple solar batteries, which will significantly increase your total cost.

Estimating your solar panels’ electricity generation is complicated because it depends on several factors, including:

  • Energy storage: Top-performing solar systems often produce more energy than needed. If you don’t have a net metering program in your area, consider investing in solar battery storage instead. Batteries store extra energy for later use rather than sending it back to the grid if you don’t have a one-to-one net metering program. Batteries are great for resiliency but usually won’t save you money long-term unless you have a virtual power plant, utility rebate, or government rebate program. If your utility company uses time-of-use (TOU) rates, you can also tap into stored energy to offset periods of higher electricity rates.
  • Degradation: Solar panels degrade over time. According to a 2018 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the average solar panel degradation rate is 0.5% per year. For example, 20-year-old panels will drop to 90% of their original output over time. This affects both power output and efficiency. Although your panels will continue to perform, their peak performance level eventually diminishes.
  • Solar panel quality: Depending on the type of solar panels you choose, you could have 25-year-old panels with an efficiency rate of 80% but still generate enough energy to meet and exceed your solar payback period. Higher-quality solar panels have better power production and efficiency, so their gradual decline will be less impactful. Choosing cheap solar panels will lower production rates over time, reducing energy savings.
  • Local climate: An area with abundant sunlight year-round is ideal for solar panels, maximizing energy production. Areas prone to inclement weather or cloudy days will still benefit from solar energy, but total energy savings will be lower. 

Steps to follow

How Do I Calculate Solar Panel Payback Period?

Your solar provider will offer a more accurate solar payback period with your quote. Here’s a breakdown of the steps used to estimate your payback period so you have an idea of what to expect.

This estimate will include the up-front costs for your system and any accessories and add-ons, such as solar batteries.

Consider the federal solar tax credit, local tax credits, and rebates that reduce your up-front cost. Ongoing benefits such as net-metering and SRECS vary based on program length and market pricing, so it’s best to stick to up-front discounts for this calculation.

Up-front cash payments don’t include any additional expenses. With a solar loan, you should consider the loan length and associated interest rates to determine the total system cost.

Homeowners in areas with higher electricity rates will get better savings from converting to solar energy. Most systems offset but don’t totally eliminate utility costs, helping to reduce your grid dependency. You may still need to make payments for grid-tied electricity, but your bill will be much lower. Additionally, utility rates often increase each year. Consider these increases in your calculations based on past statements or check with your utility company for estimated price hikes.

Divide your system cost (with financial incentives subtracted) by your annual electricity savings. The result is your solar investment’s estimated payback period or break-even point.

Our Conclusion

Determining your solar payback period provides a clear picture of the amount of time it will take to recoup your investment costs. Several factors contribute to this calculation, such as system costs, current electricity rates, and financial incentives. Additional considerations such as local climate, panel degradation, and ongoing financial incentives may also affect the time frame. 

Solar installers will provide detailed quotes that include your estimated payback period. We recommend requesting quotes from at least three companies to compare system costs, financial terms, and payback periods to find the best option. Use our tool below to get started.

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FAQ About Solar Panel Payback Period

How long is the payback on solar panels?

A solar panel payback period is between six and 10 years on average. This time frame could be longer or shorter depending on your system costs, estimated energy savings, and available solar incentives.

What happens to solar panels after 20 years?

After 20 years, solar panels will continue to produce energy but at a lower rate. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), solar panels degrade by 0.5% every year, resulting in a 10% energy production drop for 20-year-old panels. However, they’ll still save you money on energy for 25 years or longer. 

How long do solar panels last?

Solar panels are warranted to last 25 years on average. According to the Department of Energy, they could last up to 35 years or longer. 

How many solar panels does it take to power a house?

It takes 25–27 solar panels to power a house on average. The required number of solar panels depends on several factors, such as your annual energy needs, system performance, and local climate. 

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