These days, we all want to be more energy-efficient, to save money and the environment at the same time. But if you've never used solar power before, it can be scary to switch over to something new.
When you start looking into going solar, the first thing that hits you is all this crazy jargon: photovoltaics (PV), concentrating solar power (CSP), passive solar home design, active solar heating, inverters, transformers, DC power, AC electricity. Not to mention that you've got people telling you that it must cost a fortune to buy those shmancy solar panels for your roof.
Well here's the deal. All those new technologies are actually a good thing for homeowners, even those among us who, ahem, are not so scientifically-minded. It's easier and more affordable than ever to go solar. And while it's still an investment (one that'll pay for itself in reduced electric bills and increase the value of your home), governments and utility companies are starting to catch on, and they're giving out even more financial incentives to make the switch.
1. The Basics
Image via Allterra Solar
I know it seems complicated, but this is what it comes down to: the most important thing to know about the science&tech behind solar power is the photovoltaic (PV) cell, or solar cell. These make up the panels that you attach the the roof of your house to transform sunlight into electricity.
There are a couple of different types of PV solar panels, each with pros and cons. Home Depot put out a guide on the basics of solar power that really breaks it down.
When you're thinking of buying solar panels for your house, there are a few other things to consider as well besides the panels themselves. Do you want to go off-grid or grid-tied? How many solar panels do you need to generate the amount of electricity you want? For all of these questions, the Home Depot guide is a really great starting point.
It's also probably a good idea to get the pros involved- before you start, you should get your house assessed. The Huffington Post reported recently:
The first thing is to get your roof assessed to see whether it's viable for solar. The roof's condition, material and angle are among the considerations.
One misconception is that you need a south-facing roof. While south is optimal, solar can be installed on roofs facing east and west, too.
"Walk outside on a sunny day and look at the roof," advises Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Is the roof covered with shade? If not, your house may be a good candidate for solar. Some solar companies use Google maps for a first look before sending out staff for a fuller assessment.
And when it comes down to installing everything, you're gonna be dealing with some high-voltage electricity, so you might want to consider calling up a professional solar installer. You can find one in your area by checking out your state's chapter of the American Solar Energy Society or the Solar Energy Industries Association, or by using Findsolar.com.
But for the experienced DIY-ers among you, here's another step-by-step guide from Home Depot: How To Install a 60 Watt Solar Power Backup Kit (attempt this at your own risk!)
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to what you really came here for: the PERKS..
2. Solar Power = More CASH in your wallet
Newsflash: the sun is FREE.
The sun's still going to shine whether or not we put up solar panels to take advantage of solar energy, and all that energy is going to waste while we keep burning up the Earth's limited supply of fossil fuels.
The U.S. solar resource is enormous. In fact, the amount of solar energy falling on the United States in 1 hour of noontime summer sun is about equal to the annual U.S. electricity demand.
Image via National Renewable Energy Laboratory
It's true that installing a solar power system in your home is gonna cost you upfront. But considering solar panels can last 25+ years with very little maintenance, while the cost of fossil fuels and electricity are going to keep rising, they're one of the best investments you can make on your home.
Solar panels don’t come cheap: with installation, they can cost around $5 per watt, or $15,000 for an average residential 3kW system. While the system itself is a significant initial investment, it has immediate monetary and environmental benefits.
The average U.S. household consumes about 1 kW per hour of electricity, or 900 kWh per month. For example, an energy efficient fridge will use about 350 kWh per year (at an average utility cost of $0.12/watt, that’s less than $50 a year), while a large plasma screen TV can use as much as 700 kWh per year (about $100/yr).
But those costs aren’t expected to stay steady—remember that electricity costs are on the rise, and your use of electricity probably is, too.
If you installed a 3kW system, you can approximate that, based on an average amount of sunlight, the system would create 450 kWh per month—about half of your monthly electric bill.
Estimating that bill at $100, your initial investment will save you approximately $50 a month for the life of your solar panel system.
But that's not the end of the story. In addition to those immediate benefits of savings on your monthly utility bill, many states have committed to helping residents go solar by offering additional financial incentives, like tax rebates and subsidies for solar installation.
NerdWallet published an awesome study of "The Best States for Residential Solar Energy" that takes into account all these different financial incentives, as well as the amount of sun each state gets, their existing capacity for solar power, and the cost of electricity:
And that brings us to...
3. Don't wanna pay a lot of cash upfront? You can now rent your solar panels, or split the bill with some friends!
According to the Wall Street Journal:
The use of residential solar panels is heating up because of leasing programs that let homeowners install the equipment without putting down a lot of cash upfront.
A sharp drop in solar-panel prices has helped spur interest, experts say, but most residential solar-power generators now being installed are leased systems in which a developer installs the system with little or no money down.
Instead, the homeowner agrees to pay for the electricity the panels generate in monthly payments under a long-term lease...
Rooftop solar developers including Sunrun Inc., SolarCity and SunPower Corp.—which also makes solar panels—generally offer customers monthly electricity rates that are roughly 10% less than what they would pay a utility, on average.
Keep in mind that a typical home solar system, if bought outright, could pay for itself in savings in around 8-12 years, after which you wouldn't pay anything for the energy the system generates. Leasing saves you almost all the initial cost of the panels and installation, but down the road you'd still be paying for your energy and you wouldn't own the system. Both options can be great depending on your needs.
Community Solar "Gardens"
Even with the different options for leasing or buying a solar power system, it's still understandably a little daunting when it comes down to installing it on your own rooftop. That's where "community solar gardens" come in.
National Geographic's energy blog provides a few examples of these communities:
In northern New Mexico, [where] the sun shines nearly every day of the year... Kit Carson Electric Cooperative is offering its customers the opportunity to buy solar energy from “plots” in a “garden” of solar power generation. ... Consumers can buy panels outright or subscribe to their output, and the “fruits” of their part of the garden are delivered to them over the cooperative’s distribution lines.
...[The solar garden concept alleviates many of the barriers to deploying solar PV at home, including] the up-front installation expense, difficulty determining the return on investment, inconsistent credibility and quality of sellers and installers, limited rooftop or land area, no place to deploy in multi-occupant dwellings, challenges of maintenance, aesthetics, and more.
4. What about when the sun don't shine? New technologies mean "intermittency" is dead
I'm not necessarily implying this'll save your ass in a zombie apocalypse or, ya know, when a certain vampire-with-a-soul accidentally calls forth a rain of fire and blocks out the sun over Los Angeles... but can't hurt to be prepared, right? (I won't always be there to Salvage the day & bring back the sun, yo.)
In all seriousness, though, that's one of the main (only) rallying cries of anti-renewables advocates: why bother if it's occasionally gonna be cloudy/rainy/nighttime/apocalyptic?
Don't worry, because technology has got you covered. Treehugger published two articles last week (here & here) listing just a few of the ways that "renewables can keep the lights on when the sun doesn't shine." These include:
Innovative new solar panels - Thin-film solar panels have long been touted as an answer to producing solar in more shady environments. From new panels based on the design of moth's eyes to dye-sensitized self healing solar cells, there's plenty of ideas out there for generating more from less. Industry insiders tell me it's all a long way off from commercial reality but still, it's nice to hear that folks are working on it.
Grid-scale energy storage - There are several projects around the world looking at large-scale storage of power. Even when they have relatively small capacity, such systems can play an important role in making the economics of renewables viable—allowing power generators to maximize their profits by storing energy and selling it to the grid when it is most needed, and when it fetches the highest price.
Distributed energy storage - From Tesla's partnership with SolarCity to electric cars that can talk to the grid, distributed energy storage will also play a role in the energy system of the future. Why worry about a blackout when you've got power saved up at home?
5. Solar & wind power are actually cheaper than coal in the US
Big power companies and governments might balk at the idea of challenging the status quo and completely changing our energy infrastructure. But transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables isn't just cost-effective for homeowners- it saves everyone, and more than just money. We're talking saving the planet.
The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC)
The Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences published a new study last month called "The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for Modernizing our Electricity System."
According to the study, when you take into account the environmental cost of climate change and health impacts (what they call the "social cost of carbon") along with the cost of energy generation, renewable energy like wind and solar are cheaper than traditional coal-fired power plants. In fact, it's more cost-effective to build an entirely new wind turbine or solar power system to replace an existing coal-fired power plant than it is to just keep that old plant running! (Read more from the Natural Resources Defense Council about the study)
Now that eleven federal agencies (including the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Energy) have worked together to put an official dollar amount on the SCC, we can no longer ignore the costs of climate damage, and the benefits of reducing carbon pollution. The administration estimated $33 per ton of carbon pollution emitted- with 5.3 billion tons of energy-related CO2 emissions in the US last year, that's over $170 billion!
Bottom Line: If the apocalypse comes... well, don't wait till then to beep me, cuz we can help stop it NOW!
Okay, here's the bottom line. I know you guys have probably heard this a million times before, so I'll try to keep the eco-preachiness to a minimum. But this is important, so listen up.
This is the only planet we've got, and we're doing a pretty great job of screwing it up- burning through the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (as we burn holes in our wallets, and our country's budget).
But traditional energy sources aren't the only option anymore! For a long time, we didn't know any better, but now the world's smartest scientists are working on improving these renewable energy technologies to make them even more efficient.
For now, ordinary (non-scientific-genius types) like you and me can do OUR part by taking advantages of the many new energy innovations that are already available. Everyone's coming around to this idea- even President Obama's hacking his house (yeah, that one) with solar panels! There has never been a better time to start.
We need to do our part to save the world.. and not just in some distant future, either. A study published last month in Nature Climate Change says that fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions could save lives NOW. A lot of them. National Geographic reports:
More than 500,000 lives could be saved globally each year by 2030 if the world took action to curb climate change, adding up to massive health benefits that far exceed the costs of forcing a reduction in fossil fuel emissions. ...
If the world continued on this carbon reduction pathway, the number of lives saved by 2050 would increase to 1.3 million per year, and by 2100, to 2.2 million per year.
If we want to each do our own small part to make sure Earth doesn't become Earth-That-Was, then investing in renewable energy for your home is the best way to do it. (Because, let's be real, that future does not seem so appealing without the ruggedly handsome space cowboys, and I just don't think those are in the cards..)
So if you've got a little free time next SUNday, head over to your local Home Depot, and ask one of their awesome orange-aproned dudes to give you some pointers on solar power for your home and help you get started!