Solar 101: Guide to Solar

Solar 101: Guide to Solar2018-11-05T13:44:07+00:00

Going Solar 101Are you considering going solar?

Since the year 2008, thousands of solar panels have popped up across the United States as Americans are choosing to harness the power of the sun in order to run their households.With a special thanks to the Solar Energy Technologies Office’s investments, the cost of going solar has declined significantly, and continues to do so.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solar solution, here are some resources to help you decide if going solar is right for you.

Let’s get started!

What is Solar Energy?

According to the Online Dictionary, Solar Energy (noun) is radiant energy emitted by the sun.

In other words, solar power is the energy produced from the sun, then converted into electrical energy or thermal energy.

Solar energy is the cleanest, most abundant renewable energy source available. And, in the U.S., solar resources are among some of the richest available in the world. This energy can be harnessed by solar technologies, and be used for a variety of things, including providing light, generating electricity, heating water and more. Solar energy can be used to power domestic, commercial or industrial buildings.

How does Solar work?

Going solar panels

The sun is a natural nuclear reactor that releases small packets of energy, known as photons. Photons travel from the sun to earth (93 million miles) in under nine minutes. Each hour, these photons generate enough solar energy to, theoretically, satisfy all global energy needs for an entire year.

This is when solar panels come into play.

When the photons hit a solar cell, they knock electrons loose from their atoms. If conductors are attached to both the positive and negative sides of a cell, it will form an electrical circuit. When electrons flow through such a circuit, they naturally generate electricity.

Multiple cells make up a solar panel, and multiple solar panels (or modules) can be wired together to form a solar array. The more panels you can deploy, the more energy you can expect to generate.

What are Solar Panels Made Of?

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are made up of tons of solar cells. These solar cells are made up of silicon, like semiconductors. Due to the fact that solar panels are constructed with a positive layer and a negative layer, together they create an electric field, just like a battery does.

How do Solar Panels Generate Electricity?

PV solar panels work by generating direct current (DC) electricity. DC electricity works by the flow of electrons in the same direction around a circuit. These electrons move from negative to positive, generating a current of electricity.

AC (altering current) electricity works by pushing and pulling electrons, periodically reversing their direction. Similar to the cylinder in a car’s engine.

The U.S. electrical power grid chose to use AC electricity, primarily due to the fact that it is less costly to transmit over long distances. That said, solar panels generate DC electricity. So, how exactly do we get DC electricity into an AC based grid? By using a specialized inverter.

A solar inverter has the ability to take DC electricity from a solar array and convert it into AC electricity. Think of the inverter as the “brains of the operation”. Without this technology, we would not be able to take advantage of the power of the sun for electricity.

Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels: Why Switch to Solar?

More than 80 percent of America relies on natural gas, petroleum and coal together as a main source of energy. So, why is everyone switching to solar power?

Solar vs fossil fuels

Although fossil fuels provide powerful and reliable energy, they are a limited resource and will eventually run out. For example, the gasoline you burned driving in to work today took millions of years to harvest, but you used it up in just a few minutes. Once you’ve burned a gallon of gas, there’s one less gallon to go around. In addition, all three forms of fossil fuel must be mined or extracted from under the ground – proving to be a dangerous task, an expensive, too.

On the other hand, solar energy is a renewable resource (for the next four to five billion years, at least). For example, if you collect 1,500 watt-hours on a Monday, you would not be reducing the amount of solar energy you can collect on Tuesday.

Regardless of how much coal, natural gas and petroleum you believe remains buried in the earth, those fossil fuels will run out far earlier (and faster) than the life of the sun.

Environmental Impacts of Solar Energy

Environmental impacts

When it comes to environmental impact, solar power is a much more optimal resource than fossil fuels. Although coal and natural gas have a leg above when it comes to consistent reliability.

It is important to understand that some energy is expended in the manufacture of solar energy. There are a few toxic compounds used in their fabrication, and large solar farms may disrupt the habitat of their locales. However, the net environmental impact of solar energy generation is quite small.

Fossil fuels cause significant damage to the environment during their collection and transport. But even more concerning, fossil fuel combustion generates a large amount of environmental toxins. As if that weren’t enough, these fuels also produce massive volumes of carbon dioxide, a gas which plays a big influence in global climate change.

Solar Energy Equipment Required to Go Solar

If you’re considering going solar, you’ve probably looked into what equipment is necessary to get started.

Here is a list of equipment you’ll need to have a solar powered home:

Solar Panels

Solar panels are (obviously) necessary in order to produce solar power. Some things to consider when you’re shopping for solar panels include efficiency, warranty and cost. In addition, you’ll want to look into the technology type of your solar panels. In general, these panels are categorized as one of two technology types: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Although both types have the same function and are made from silicon cells, the outward appearance and cost differ significantly.

Monocrystalline panels are more energy efficient, but also more expensive. These types of panels come in a dark blue or black tint.

Polycrystalline panels are cheaper, but considered to be the less effective option. The polycrystalline panels come in a lighter blue hue.

Inverter

As previously mentioned, an inverter is the piece of equipment which converts DC electricity (produced from the sun) into AC electricity (the type of electricity the U.S. electrical power grid uses). There are several different kinds of inverter options to choose from, they are as follows:

String inverters: Often referred to as a centralized inverter, a string inverter is a single string technology which connects your solar array to the electrical panel of your home. This is the least expensive option.

Micro-inverters: Micro-inverters are attached individually to each and every solar panel, resulting in a maximized production for your array. This option is great for people who rely heavily on electricity in their day to day lives. For example, if one of your solar panels is covered by shade from a tree, the other panels can still generate power for your home, since every panel is attached individually.

Power optimizers: Now that you have an explanation of both string inverters and micro-inverters, you can think of a power optimizer as a hybrid of the two.

Solar Panel Racking

You may be surprised to hear that solar panels are not nailed directly onto your roof. Rather, they are mounted onto “racking” equipment. Racking allows your solar installer to angle the panels for maximum performance without creating any extra damage.

Performance Monitoring & Tracking Systems

Anyone who’s gone solar, will say that one of the best feelings is being able to watch your electric bills diminish over time. A high performance monitoring system is key if you want to be able to track the hourly electricity production of your solar system.

Storage Option (battery or grid connection)

A major disadvantage to having a solar powered home, is that, as the sun goes down each day, your electricity will go down with it. Having a solar battery allows for energy to be saved throughout the day, to be used at night when the sun is no longer shining.

Solar Energy Systems: Which is Right for Me?

Solar equipment

There are several different ways you can harness solar energy, including: solar heating and cooling, photovoltaics, concentrating solar power and passive solar.

The first three of those listed are considered to be active solar systems.

Active Solar System

Active solar systems use mechanical or electrical devices to convert the sun’s heat or light, into another form of usable energy.

Passive Solar Buildings

Passive solar buildings were created and designed to collect, store and distribute the heat energy from sunlight, in order to maintain the comfort of the occupants inside, without the use of moving electronics or parts.

Cost of Solar Power: Savings, Costs & Incentives

The ROI

When calculating the ROI of going solar, there are several factors that play a part in your return on investment. These factors include which plot is available for infrastructure, the location you live in, and the amount of solar radiation per year you’ll be using. For example, if you live in a location that is large enough to accommodate polycrystalline panels, that type of infrastructure would produce the same output as monocrystalline panels would, at a savings of 10 to 25%.

As far as long term investments are concerned, the value of a solar installation will largely depend on how it is financed. When you buy the system upfront, you’ll yield the best ROI. However, even a $0-down payment solar loan would provide a savings of around $10,000 or more. Power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar leases offer significantly lower savings – somewhere between 10 and 30% of the average home’s electric bill.

All that said, a solar panel system pays for itself within 8 years (on average). So, if you purchased mono or poly solar panels with a 25-year life span, you could easily yield 17 years of cost savings on electric expenses.

Cost of Solar Panels

The cost of solar panels is generally calculated using dollars per watt.

In 2018, the average installation cost for homeowners was between $2.87 and $3.85 per watt. The gross cost of solar panels averages to around $16,000, before tax credits are applied. So, if you assume your household would need 5 kilowatts (kW) of power, your solar panels would cost you anywhere from $10,045 to $13,475 after tax credits have been applied.

Solar Incentives & Rebates

Since solar incentives and rebates have been introduced, many households have had the opportunity to take advantage of solar energy. For example, the ITC (Solar Investment Tax Credit) allows homeowners to receive a 30% tax credit for the purchase and installation of solar panels through the year 2019.

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Solar incentives, rebates and tax breaks vary from state to state, so it is important to see what incentives you’re eligible for – based on what state you live in.