A couple decades ago, home solar panels were very expensive and mostly limited to enthusiasts running low power, off-grid setups for their cabins.
Today, the prices have dropped to the point where an average homeowner can affordably install enough solar panels on their roof to provide 100% of their electricity needs. So what can you expect to actually pay?
The answer is: it depends. It depends on how much electricity you use, which way your roof is pointing (if you’re planning a rooftop installation), how much shade you get, what your local climate is, and more. You can use our calculator to get a quick estimate, or get multiple quotes from solar installers for an exact number.
But if you just want a rough idea, we can give you some ballpark averages. Keep reading to learn more.
Home solar systems are sized in watts. A watt is an electrical unit of power, and you’ll see it mentioned on the label of many electrical products around your home. To get an idea of how much electricity one watt is, here’s a table of the wattage of some common electrical products around your home:
|Full size refrigerator||780|
|Central A/C||3,000 to 6,000|
In comparison, the size of the average home solar system that is installed in the US today is 6,400 watts, or 6.4 kilowatts (because 1,000 watts is equal to 1 kilowatt). This means that if the conditions are perfect, the average home solar array would generate enough power in real time to power a central air conditioner.
(Of course, conditions are rarely perfect, and the nameplate power rating of a solar panel is only reached in perfect laboratory conditions. Read our article on solar panel specifications to learn more about this.)
Every home has different energy needs, so the average 6.4 kilowatt system might be too big or too large for you. Because of this, it makes sense to normalize the price of solar by describing it in terms of price per watt, which is simply the gross price of the system divided by the number of watts. This allows you to fairly compare the price of different systems, regardless of the size.
For example, if a 6.4 kW system costs $20,000, its price-per-watt would be $3.13/W. If the same system instead sold for $15,000, its price-per-watt would be $2.34/W. This allows you to make an apples-to-apples comparison of price of different systems.
Price-per-watt is the fully installed cost of the system including applicable sales taxes, but should exclude any incentives such as the federal tax credit.
The price-per-watt of home solar differs across the United States. Here’s a table of the median price-per-watt of solar for different states in the US, and how much a 6.4 kW system would cost at that price. (If your state isn’t listed, use the US Overall data instead.)
|State||Median $/W||Price of a 6.4 kW system|
As you can see, there’s quite a bit of variability between different states. This can be explained by the size of the solar market in each state, the number of competing installers, differences in state policy such as sales tax exemptions, and different hardware costs.
These numbers are based on research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and is published annually in a report called Tracking the Sun. This pricing data is based on the actual prices paid by solar homeowners. It differs from other sources such as EnergySage, which reports quoted prices but not the actual, final prices paid by solar purchasers.
Because this data is based on real prices paid, the Berkeley Lab numbers should be considered more accurate.
The numbers above are median prices, which means that roughly half of people paid more, and half of people paid less.
For all states, the range of prices in the Berkeley database is quite large. For example, while the US median price-per-watt is $3.72/W, the 20th percentile (meaning that 20% of people paid less) is $3.05/W, and the 80th percentile (meaning 80% of people paid less) is $4.48/W.
That’s a big range, and it reflects the different hardware choices, price competition, and regional price differences across the country. This is why it’s recommended to get multiple quotes for your home installation.
The biggest part of the cost of a home solar system isn’t hardware, but soft costs. These are things with relatively fixed costs for the installer such as permitting, labor, supply chain costs, and overhead.
This is why it’s cheaper on a per-watt basis to buy a larger system, and more expensive to buy a smaller one.
For example, while the median cost of solar in the US is $3.72/W, residential systems that are very large (more than 12 kW) have a price-per-watt of $3.28/W, and very small systems (2 kW) cost $4.22/W.
You can go to a website that sells solar panels for the DIY crowd, such as GoGreenSolar.com.
Right now, they’re selling a 310 watt panel from a budget manufacturer (Phono Solar) for $227, which works out to $0.73/watt.
At the premium end, they’re selling a 335 watt LG NeON 2 panel for $415, or $1.24/watt.
In other words, you can expect one solar panel to cost a few hundred bucks, with a wide range in price between premium and budget manufacturers.
Does it make sense to pay a lot more for a high end panel? Sometimes. While the cost of the panel can be a lot higher, you will usually get a much better warranty that sometimes include the labor cost for replacement. In addition, a premium panel with higher efficiency means that you need fewer supporting components such as racking, wiring, and microinverters.
Central inverters cost less upfront than more sophisticated microinverters or power optimizer-based systems. For example, the popular SMA Sunny Boy 3.0 - a central inverter from a high quality brand - retails for about $1,400.
Meanwhile, a popular microinverter such as the Enphase IQ 7 sells for about $155. That’s a lot cheaper on an individual basis, but remember that you need one microinverter for every panel in your system. So let’s say you go with the 335 watt LG NeON 2 panel mentioned above. If you want to build a 6,400 watt system, you would need 19 panels and 19 Enphase microinverters. The total cost of the microinverters would be $2,945, which is a lot more than the Sunny Boy 3.0.
However, with the microinverters you get a system that performs better and generates more electricity in shady conditions. Enphase microinverters are also warrantied to last 25 years.
The Sunny Boy inverter, on the other hand, comes with only a 10 year warranty. This means that you should budget for a central inverter replacement in the middle of the life of your solar system (which should last 25 years). If you double the cost of the Sunny Boy 3.0, you can see that the lifetime cost of central inverters works out to be about the same as microinverters.
You can read the guide on solar inverters to learn more about this important component in a solar system.
While the median price for an average size home solar system is $23,000, homeowners will pay less because of the federal tax credit, and some will pay much less - as much as one third the gross price.
For example, in 2020 the federal tax credit is worth 26% off the gross price. But if you live in New York state, for example, you also get a state tax credit worth an additional 25% off up to $5,000. Finally, NYSERDA offers another rebate worth up to $0.35 per watt in some cases. This makes New York one of the best states for solar, even though it isn’t the sunniest.
Many other states, municipalities, and utility companies also have significant incentives. You can find out what they are by using The Solar Nerd calculator and entering your zip code.
Back in the late 1970s, the cost of solar panels alone for a 6.4 kW system would cost $64,000, and that doesn’t even include inverters, racking, and installation. Today, that same system, fully installed, is about $23,000 in the US.
Solar continues to get cheaper, but incentives are also being reduced, so it’s probably best to take advantage of the incentives while you can rather than waiting for solar hardware costs to drop further. Don’t forget to get multiple quotes so that you can compare the prices and hardware offerings from different installers.