Generating Electricity the Solar Way
What with energy costs going up, up, up and every third magazine and movie warning about fossil fuels causing global warming, we've been seeing more articles in the paper about using solar energy in homes. You know the ones: "His neighbors are annoyed about falling property values because the Old Coot next door has solar collectors in his front yard. But the Old Coot has the last laugh. His meter runs backwards as he feeds energy to the power grid, and the electric company sends him checks." And we think, wouldn't it be nice to be that Old Coot?
The good news is that Old Cootdom is getting more attainable as solar photovoltaic, or PV, systems become more efficient and less costly to install. More good news is that you can find federal--and maybe state--tax incentives to go solar. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, you can get a federal tax credit of up to $2000 for installing a PV system on your house. If you live in the right city or state, you can get even more tax credits and rebates, reduced permit fees, or even cash back for installing a system. This isn't counting the money you can earn if you attach your system to the utility company's power grid. (Of course, you need to get the permission from the local utility company to do that. You also need a utility that buys excess electricity from you or lets your electric meter run in reverse. Some do, some don't.)
The bad news is that it can still cost quite a bit to install and take a long time to pay back your initial investment. Under current electricity prices, that is. If you're betting that your electric bills are just going to keep rising, you might want to look closer at installing a PV system to provide electricity for your home.
So what is this PV kind of solar power, anyway? First, we're not talking about orienting your house towards the sun so that it naturally heats up, or opening the shades on a cold December day for your cat to stretch out in the sunbeam. That's passive solar energy. Nice, but it won't run the toaster. Nor are we talking about the systems that heat up your water. That's solar thermal energy.
No, we're talking about collecting the sun's energy to generate electricity to use in your home. PV systems come in two flavors: battery-based and direct. Battery-based systems are for rural houses or cabins that are not connected to a utility grid. On sunny days, they charge the battery sets to run the house. Standard battery-based systems produce a little less (18 kilowatt hours) than the average U.S. household uses (20 to 30 kilowatt hours). So if you use a battery-based system for all your electricity use instead of just as a supplement, you probably need a lot of solar cells. Good luck with that.
If you live in the city and are connected to the utility grid, you want the direct system. The electricity generated when the sun shines can be used to run your TV right away. Any energy you don't use during the day goes into the grid, turning back your meter if you've arranged for that with the electric company. Then, at night or on cloudy days, you draw power from the grid.
There are a number of other pluses to going solar now. For example, high-performance PV systems aren't your parents' ugly rooftop solar systems from the '70s--they are much more streamlined. Many PV designs are built into roof shingles, which blend into standard shingles nicely and are barely noticeable. So the Old Coot probably isn't ticking off the neighbors very much. I've even read that installing a PV system can increase the appraised value of property, so a big wet raspberry to any neighbors who complain. They're just jealous.
Solar cells have a long life--some systems come with a 20-year warranty. You can start out with a small PV system and add more solar panels as you go along. Both of these factors can help as you decide whether a PV system is cost-effective for you over the long haul.
Clever engineering types have even created thin film solar panels that allow a great deal of flexibility in how and where you use them. Try 'em on the window, the RV, or the boat. But bear in mind that the film panels are more expensive and less efficient than the other two kinds of solar cells (single crystal and polycrystalline, if you care).
Finally, for those of you who have to be on the cutting edge, you can install standard solar panels on racks that use the sun's heat and gravity to rotate and follow the sun throughout the day. This gets the highest electricity output from your PV system, but it probably also annoys the neighbors the most. You decide if that's a plus or not.