While I do love my hydrocarbons I have to admit that I also love the idea of going off the grid and being self sufficient. My wife grew up as an urbanite in southern Cali so we do disagree on some ideas; for example she thinks the idea of moving to Alaska and homesteading is not something worth entertaining. Fair enough; we can keep our house for now. She also won’t let me start on any huge projects until the house is paid off; once again fair enough; and a good thing she has a handle on our finances so I don’t do anything stupid. But in researching I have found something that struck me with curiosity. I find it interesting, but solar panels, just like wind turbines, tend to be a little argued over. Like most green technology they continue to improve and become more affordable. I like seeing these springing up on roof tops around the country and as a possible future investment I thought I would do a little research: how efficient are they now-a-days, are they cost effective, are they high maintenance, and how difficult are they to obtain and install. Hopefully I answer these and other questions. The history major in me can’t help but love researching odd topics; and if you like reading then this website is a great compromise for both of us. After the article you can follow some of the links from which I drew the bulk of my information, and I want to thank those people who have left me with such an abundance of information and give them credit.
Before we hit on solar panels let’s talk about what solar energy or power is. Simply put, solar power is the conversion of sunlight into energy either directly through photovoltaics or indirectly via concentrated solar power. Indirect or concentrated solar power systems use mirrors or lenses on tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam; like when your little boys burn ants with a magnifying glass. Photovoltaics convert light into electrical currents using the photoelectric effect. These two categories are often listed as active and passive solar technologies. Common features that use active techniques are solar panels and such. As a simple recap; passive technology might be the orientation of your house or greenhouse to utilize the sun’s rays to warm water, stone, and cement.
The earth is constantly bombarded with more energy rich sunbeams to satisfy global energy needs if we can utilize efficient ways of harvesting it; some sights say one hour of the suns energy hitting the earth could fuel our current needs for over a year, I don’t know if that’s correct but it’s a statement that hints to the effectiveness of our sun as an energy source. Solar energy is the technology we use to harness energy released from the sun and make it usable. With so much available energy it’s interesting to note that only about a tenth of a percent of the global energy needs are met via solar energy.
Most people are familiar with photovoltaic cells, or solar panels; from space ships to roof tops to hand held calculators. The solar panel cells are made of semi conductive materials like those in computer chips. The sunlight hitting the cells knocks electrons loose from their atom and as the electrons flow through the cell then generates energy in the form of electricity.
Many people are familiar with so-called photovoltaic cells, or solar panels, found on things like spacecraft, rooftops, and handheld calculators. The cells are made of semiconductor materials like those found in computer chips. When sunlight hits the cells, it knocks electrons loose from their atoms. As the electrons flow through the cell, they generate electricity. As you probably just realized, the very act of collecting energy will slowly reduce the efficiency of solar panels; but a quality product will still last you about 40 years with good output. Most companies will offer you a 25 year warranty. Many of the solar systems installed in the 1970s are still producing power today; I know this is the case with my wife’s grandparents.
While solar energy is paraded about as an inexhaustible fuel source that is pollution free and useful everywhere we can see the sun, it does have its drawbacks. The first shortcoming is that you probably won’t see a solar powered emergency flashlight; yep, no sun, no power, unless you have storage devices such as batteries to run your gamin consoles at night. Solar technologies can also take up a large amount of area to collect enough to be useful for large amounts of people. And while individual plates can be affordable, a large area and installation can be quite costly. One myth is that you need a bright sun to produce power; the fact is some of the leading countries in the world that produce solar power tend to be cloudy; like Germany, or in the US states like Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are on par with states like California and Arizona for energy production efficiency. Snow has been shown to help solar panels produce more energy as the sunlight reflects back off the snow.
Despite these to predominant drawbacks solar energy use has climbed about 20 percent a year over the last 15 years. As technology becomes more effective and affordable more people become interested. Depending on the state you live in there can be some good tax incentives. Most advocates will tell you that solar electricity will pay for itself in 5 to 10 years; so think of it as a long term investment. A rising electric bill might be a motivator for considering alternate power sources. Many homeowners disregard solar technology because of the installation cost; but it is a little more complex than screwing boards onto your roof. In cases of self-consumption the solar energy payback time is calculated based on how much electricity is not purchased from the grid. In some polls and surveys as many as 97% of Americans overestimated the cost of solar panels. The reality is the cost has dropped roughly 80% over the last decade. Some energy companies even have lease options until you can afford your own for the long haul; but I would advise starting small and adding to your inventory rather than going this route.
Most home owners utilize the abundant space on their roof for locating the panels, but one small caveat to mounting panels on your roof is that it needs to be free of obstructions during most of the day or you really will be wasting money. The angle that you mount them will all depend on where you are situated in regards to the equator. Once you have a solar quote most companies offer free consultation. They’ll tell you how much you can save and answer any questions you have. Solar companies will often take care of permits, inspections, and other paperwork for you prior to installing panels on your roof.
Having solar panels doesn’t mean you can necessarily jump right off the grid. There are two reasons not to have your power company come out and disconnect you from the grid. The first is that there will likely be times when the solar panels do not meet your needs, especially if your preliminary calculations were off or your consumption increases for whatever reason; man y people use the grid as a source to fill in the gaps. The second reason is that if you produce a surplus amount of energy there are ways to go about feeding power back into the system to your financial benefit.
Solar panels are priced by the kilowatt so the more your system can produce the more it is going to cost you. Before you make a purchase look at your household needs and typical energy usage over the last few months to years. If a large system is too expensive you can consider a smaller system to save money. Simple renovations like proper insulation, weather stripping, and energy efficient appliances can decrease your necessary energy consumption; but one of the largest changes that will reduce your energy cost usually starts with an adjustment of personal habits like unplugging unused appliances and turning lights off when you’re not in a room. It’s cost effective to fix as many issues as possible prior to investing in a solar harvesting system.
Well, I hope I gave you some thoughts to consider. If you have personal experience worth sharing I hope you will post and edify us all. Thanks for your time.