Here Comes the Sun!
Are Solar Panels in your Future?
Today an average American homeowner pays nearly $2,000 per year to heat, cool, light and otherwise power their home. As utility companies raise their rates, your future bills are certain to rise. Now, whether you're driven by economics or simply the desire to reduce your carbon footprint, a home solar system can make a big difference. For example, in California, homeowners who have installed solar panels are reporting savings as high as 20% on their energy bills.
A solar panel system will increase the value of your property and, when you go to sell your house, may be one of the most valuable features your home has to offer. Even more important, aside from all the financial benefits, there is the personal satisfaction of knowing you are doing something important for the planet. So what do you need to now about solar systems?
How it Works
Think about that solar powered calculator you have been using for years without ever having to insert a new battery. Its photovoltaic (or solar) cells are converting one form of energy (light) into another (electricity) and running a calculator with that energy. Solar panels for your home work like that only on a much bigger scale. A simple home system can be explained like this: when sunshine hits the photovoltaic solar panels, light energy is converted to electricity and is sent via wires to a transformer which converts it and relays it in a useable form of power for your home's electrical appliances.
On or Off the Grid
In terms of residential use, you can choose between two kinds of systems: the grid-tie or the stand-alone.
In the grid-tie system your house is still connected to the local power grid, stand-alone systems are not. If you are still connected, unused electricity is returned to the grid and accumulates credits for the homeowners that can be claimed at a later date. This is called "net-metering." Thus, instead of expensive batteries (and their chemicals), homeowners can use the grid for storage and earn money at the same time.
Stand-alone systems are traditionally used in more remote places where electricity is not readily available. In this system, unused electricity is stored in batteries for future use. If you decide to use batteries, keep in mind that they have to be maintained and then replaced after a certain number of years. Though most solar panels should last 20 years or more, batteries don't have that kind of lifespan. They also require a charge controller to make sure the flow of electricity doesn't overcharge the batteries. Batteries can also be dangerous because of the energy they store and the acidic electrolytes they contain, so you'll need a well-ventilated, non-metallic enclosure for them.
What do you Need to Make it Work for You?
For any solar panel system to work well, you need an unobstructed view of the sun. Once you contact a solar panel company (and there are many listed on the Internet) they can send someone to your house to measure the amount of exposure on your roof, or use a satellite image of your home to calculate whether or not your house is in a good position for panels.
Rainfall, clouds, humidity and other subtle changes in the weather can influence the effectiveness of your solar panels, so systems should be designed for the worst months of the year. Your roof must have the correct angle of inclination to take advantage of the sun's energy. Solar panels can also be bolted onto frames on flat roofs or mounted on the ground on a fixed mount frame or on a "tracking mount" that follows the sun across the sky. If you live in a sunny area (such as the southwest), you'll see more sunlight and more power generated; the reverse is true in northern cities with fewer sunny days.
To learn more about solar panels and other ways of saving money and energy output go to http://www.lowimpactliving.com/ for information and an easy guide to calculating various options to help the environment and your wallet. For an excellent government guide to a solar power, click here.
What Will it Cost?
While it is true that sunlight is free, the cost of harnessing it for use in your home is most definitely not. Quite a bit of hardware is needed to set up a system.
The cost of solar panel systems vary according to the size of your house, the power generation capacity of the system you want, and the configuration of your roof, among other things. The average cost for installing a solar system in a medium sized house will start around $20,000.
Rebates and federal tax credits can significantly lower that amount. Residents of all states are eligible for at least some financial incentives for solar that, depending on where you live, can amount to savings up to 50 percent of their system's total cost.
Some installers offer financing and many people finance the installation with a home equity line of credit or HELOC, a home equity loan.
Most solar power equipment companies will help you with a free solar feasibility study to calculate the cost savings of installing solar power equipment to your home. Be sure to ask about any incentives offered in your state or community.
Will it Pay for Itself?
So how soon will your solar system return enough energy savings to offset the cost of the system you buy? This too will vary, depending on the amount of power generated by your particular system and the costs of energy in your market. At its simplest, the basic calculation involves predicting the amount of energy savings you'll realize in a year compared to your current system. Then add those projected savings up year after year, keeping a running total. Assuming energy costs remain constant, the year in which the cumulative savings surpass the installed cost is the point of payoff. After that, it's all savings (through the useable lifespan of the system). Also keep in mind that energy costs will most likely go up—so your payoff will probably happen even earlier. Your solar system retailer/installer can generally provide fairly accurate savings estimates.
Back to the Future
Though the cost of installing solar power is undeniably high, prices continue to edge downward. Increased demand and competition, coupled with rising energy costs and the green movement overall, should keep prices falling. According the Financial Times, the solar equipment was a $20 billion industry last year and is expected to skyrocket to $90 billion by 2010.
The financial and social benefits of solar power grow stronger every day. You'll not only knock down your monthly energy bill, you'll be setting an example by reducing your fossil-fuel dependence. The solar solution has never looked brighter.