Well, we put down a deposit for a solar panel system for our house! We probably won't have it installed until later this year, but we wanted to lock in on the current California rebate amount. Solar is not particularly cheap, but it is working its way to cost effectiveness. Here is a view of our house from above:
The panels will be installed on the upper flat roof (the one above the 4 little windows). For aesthetic reasons, I told him I won't put up with more than a 10 degree tilt of the panels, which will lose a little efficiency, but so be it. We also have a Homeowner's Association in the neighborhood and I don't want to piss them off. However, the rep informs me that there is nothing they can do about it if someone puts up solar panels and they would actually be fined if they tried to stop us (that kind of appeals to me, ha ha). The panels would only cover about half the top roof, so there is room for more if we decide to add on later(*Update: They will actually cover most of the top roof, although I can still add more on the other roofs in the future). I should note that the system works with the regular power grid, feeding any extra power generated back to the grid, but your power bill only reflects the amount you use over the total amount you generate. They give you a wireless monitor that tells you how much electricity you are using at a particular time and how much the system is generating. If a cloud passes over head, you will even see a drop in the amount generated.
If you live out in the sticks and want to do a solar system off the grid, you would use battery generators rather than hooking up to the grid and the power created during the day and put into the batteries would be drawn out at night. That is a less efficient way to do it, so most people opt to tie in with the grid if they can.
There are still a lot of decisions to be made as to the size of the system. My wife and I aren't really big electricity users - there is just the two of us, we don't watch television except for the occasional DVD rental and we also have gas for heat and cooking top. Also, we live near the California Coast and we don't really need air conditioning. However, fingers crossed, we will soon have an electric car, which will probably double our electricity usage.
The company we used is called Rec Solar. They put together two separate options based on our estimated energy use. One would cover about two thirds of our electrical use and the other would probably cover all of it (it's difficult to say for sure, since I don't know how much electricity the car will use, but this is a reasonable approximation). Rec Solar, I think, likes to push for the two thirds option. The reason for this has to do with the way the electric company bills you for electricity (at least in California). The unit price for the electricity you use goes up in gradations. The first $40 or so you get a lot of electricity for your money, but then the unit price continues to go up as you use more. So their strategy is to provide enough panels to cover all but the low cost electricity. This would be the most cost effective way to do it. In their lower cost proposal (using the term "lower cost" in relative terms), we would have 16 solar panels, creating 3,000 Watts of DC power, which will be converted to 2,500 AC watts for household use. We would get a rebate from California of about $6,000, giving us an upfront cost of $17,000 dollars. Then we would get another $2,000 tax credit from the feds, making the actual cost of the system around $15,000. That's certainly not cheap, but would probably pay for itself in 10 years or so. If such systems were built into mortgages, people might even save money while using only as much electricity as they generate, but that is an issue for another day...
As I mentioned, the second more expensive proposal would likely cover all of our electricity use, but would not be as cost effective. I have to admit, though, that the idea of generating as much electricity as I use appeals to me. That would involve 22 solar panels with 4,200 DC Watts or 3,500 AC watts and would provide an $8,500 rebate from California with the same $2,000 tax credit from the feds, making it a $20,500 total. I am leaning towards this option if I can make it work. I would very much like to say that my house and car electricity use is entirely met by our solar panel output. Anyway, I don't have to decide for a few months, so I'll keep you posted.
By the way, if you end up making more electricity than you use, the power company does not send you a check at the end of the year (they used to). I have heard some people say that they have a "Power Party" at the end of the year and try to use up the difference. If I generate enough to run my car and house and still have some left over, I would probably get a little hot tub.