What are grid-tied solar systems?

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woman in reflective clothing holding a tablet pc standing by solar grid at solar farm

Exciting advancements in solar energy are encouraging more and more folks to jump on the sustainability bandwagon and look into solar panels. Before you do so, though, you’ll need to consider whether or not you want your system tied to the power grid.

Grid-tied solar energy systems are an eco-friendly way to power your home while remaining connected to the electrical grid, but there are trade-offs involved. We’ll take a look at how grid-tied systems work, how they compare to your other options and whether they’re a financially sound decision.

Key insights

  • Leaving solar panels connected to the grid is the most popular, and typically cheapest option for converting your home to solar power.
  • Grid-tied systems are a better fit for people in areas with stable electric grids.
  • Energy production from your solar panels can be a danger to people working on power lines, so when the electrical grid is out, solar panels without battery backups go offline as a safety measure.
  • Owners of grid-tied systems in places with net metering programs can earn credits from their power companies when they have a surplus of energy.

Grid-tied solar panel systems explained

Solar panels generate power from sunlight — and the panels in grid-tied systems are no different. The benefit of being connected to the electrical grid is that when sunlight is scarce, or you need extra energy, the grid swoops in to save the day by transferring more electricity to your home.

Likewise, if your solar panels produce more electricity than your home needs at the moment, the power grid can accept that energy to keep it from going to waste. (The best hours for energy production are often when you aren’t home using electricity, so this back-and-forth works out well.)

Grid-tied solar system components

Let’s break down the equipment that makes a grid-tied solar panel system work.

Grid-tied installations are regarded as the simplest type of residential solar panel systems, and don’t require a lot of equipment to work successfully.

First, you’ll need solar panels. You actually have a fair amount of freedom when it comes to the type of solar panels you want and how many you want to buy because the grid can supplement your panels with energy as necessary. That means monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film solar panels are all viable options to pair with your grid-tied system.

Grid-tied systems also need inverters to process the electricity they create. A grid-tied inverter (GTI) mediates the conversation between the grid and your solar panels. Without a GTI, power would shoot straight to the grid without serving your home first. You can choose between three types of inverters: string inverters, string inverters with power optimizers and microinverters.

The final cog in the machine is your net meter. These devices monitor the exchange of energy between your house and your utility company. In many places, you can gain credits for the energy you generate and feed to the grid, and you can then spend these credits later to get power back from the grid, such as during a winter slump or late at night. The net meter tracks these transactions.

» LEARN: What is net metering?

How does a grid-tied solar panel system compare?

Grid-tied solar energy systems are the most common type of renewable energy systems in American homes, but how do they hold up against your other options? First, let’s establish the two main benefits of grid-tied systems:

However, grid-tied systems have one significant downside: Without a backup battery, your home may be left powerless during grid outages. (Grid-tied solar panels with no other way to get rid of excess energy have to be shut off during power outages to protect people working on the power lines.)

» MORE: How a solar-powered home works with generator backup

If you don’t love the idea of still relying on the electric grid, consider investing in a hybrid system. These systems offer the best of both worlds: They’re connected to the grid while also having backup batteries that can keep you running on solar power during a blackout. As you can probably guess, though, these high achievers cost more to install and maintain than your other options.

The third alternative is an off-grid solar system. As the name suggests, off-grid systems function independently from the electric grid. So, while they’re not susceptible to the grid’s fluctuations or power outages, they do require meticulous installation, and the upfront price tag can be intimidating.

  1. Buying and installing a grid-tied solar array is easier on your bank account than other types of solar panel systems.
  2. Grid-tied solar panel systems are also considered one of the most dependable options for going solar since there’s less equipment that can fail, like batteries or charge controllers.

Grid-tied solar system price

The average residential solar panel system costs $20,650 after federal tax credits. However, that figure lumps together grid-tied, hybrid and off-grid systems, so where do grid-tied systems stand relative to that average?

Theoretically, grid-tied systems should be on the cheaper end of the spectrum compared to hybrid and off-grid models because they don’t require batteries and their related hardware. However, they’re also so ubiquitous that their prices are generally considered “average” instead of a discount. Here’s an example of what we mean.

According to Hoymiles, a solar technology company, prices for grid-tied systems range from $9,100 to $29,120 based on their size, with the lower end of this price range belonging to smaller 4-kilowatt systems and the higher end belonging to large 16-kilowatt systems. Those figures aren’t far from the industry-average prices we’ve calculated for similarly sized systems after applying the 30% federal solar tax credit, though.

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Is a grid-tied solar energy system right for you?

Grid-tied solar systems can be a great option for your bank account and the planet. When deciding whether a grid-tied solar energy system is right for you, first think about your location and how important it is for you to keep your home powered consistently.

For example, if you’re in an urban area that doesn’t experience frequent outages, a grid-tied system is a safer bet. But if you’re a little deeper in the woods or away from a reliable power grid, it may not be as good of an option. Likewise, if you have electronics that you can’t afford to leave without power for long periods of time, having a battery backup may be worth the larger upfront costs.

If you need help deciding, consider reaching out to a reputable solar company for guidance. They should have the expertise and experience to help you find a solution that fits your needs and budget.

» MORE: Solar energy pros and cons

Article sources
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
  1. Hoymiles, “ What is a grid-tied solar system? ” Accessed June 12, 2023.
  2. GoGreenSolar, “ The 3 Different Types of Solar Power Systems Explained .” Accessed June 12, 2023.
  3. Palmetto, “ How Solar Power And The Grid Work Togther .” Accessed June 12, 2023.
  4. Paradise Energy Solutions, “ Grid-Tied Solar vs. Off-Grid Solar: What are the pros and cons of both? ” Accessed June 12, 2023.
  5. CHINT, “ Grid-Tied VS. Off-Grid Solar: Which is Right for You? ” Accessed June 12, 2023.
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