Solar Energy Tips 101

Your Ultimate Guide to Clean Energy

By Isaiah Shelton

1. How does solar technology work?

Today’s solar energy systems use three different types of technologies: PV panels, SHC and CSP. PV panels, usually made of semiconductors like silicon use photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Sunlight dislodges electrons in these semiconductors so they can flow freely. The electric field in each PV cell forces these freed electrons to flow, creating the electric current that powers the various devices in your home. The more direct sunlight each PV cell can absorb, the more power you get out of them.

Solar heating & cooling (SHC) systems consist of three main elements: a solar collector, insulated piping, and a hot water storage tank. These systems absorb the sun’s thermal energy to provide hot water, space heating, cooling and pool heating.

Finally, there’s Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) technology, which uses a parabolic mirror to focus the sun’s energy to provide a more space efficient solar energy system. CSPs use dual-axis motors to accurately track the sun for maximum radiation collection.

2. Do my solar panels still work at night or when it’s cloudy/rainy?

Photovoltaic panels will work in indirect sunlight, even when the light is reflected or partially blocked by clouds. Depending on cloud density, most solar panels will produce 10-25% of their rated capacity on overcast days. The same holds true for foggy days. There’s also the “edge of cloud” effect, which occurs when sunlight passes over the outer edges of scattered clouds, magnifying the sunlight to create a power boost that can offset a mostly cloudy day. The point to keep in mind when considering solar power is how much sunshine your home gets over an entire year, not just in the summer or sunny days. Incidentally, rain can keep your panels operating efficiently by washing off any dust, dirt and bird droppings.

3. How much will it cost to install solar?

Like homes, no two solar companies are alike. The good news is that the cost of rooftop solar has seen a sharp drop in recent years. A recent Solar Power on the Rise report revealed that prices for household solar photovoltaic (PV) systems fell by nearly 30 percent from 2010 to 2013. Federal tax credits and state and local incentives could drop the overall installed system price to less than $10,000. Some local governments offer property tax exemptions, several states offer rebates. To see how rebates and incentives can reduce the cost of your solar system, say the total installed cost came to $15,000 and you got a utility or state rebate of $3,000. Your total upfront expense is now $12,000, which is indirectly offset by your Federal 30% tax credit of $3600.

Some states provide solar carve-outs in their broader renewable electricity standards that offer solar system owners the opportunity to earn additional revenue. It’s not unlikely to see payback periods of just 4 to 6 years. Also, many solar system providers offer free installation and generous financing options with little or no upfront costs.

4. What is a solar lease/financing agreement?

There are a number of ways to pay for solar power. One is to finance the system and own it outright. Financing options for direct ownership often include a low or zero down payment. Another option is to enter into a Solar Power Purchase Agreement (SPPA) with a third party, which provides electrical power without system ownership. The provider owns, operates, and maintains the system, and you agree to simply purchase the system's electric output for a predetermined period. The upside of this arrangement is no high upfront capital costs, and no system performance risk or complex design and permitting processes. You enjoy positive cash flow from the day the system is turned on! The downside is you don’t get any tax credits or incentives. When your solar lease is over (usually 10 to 20 years), you can renew the lease, buy the system at fair market value, or ask the leasing company to remove the system.

5.How much of my home can I power through solar energy?

Today’s solar systems are extremely efficient, so much so that they can easily supply the power needs of most homes. In fact, once it’s installed and working, you’ll find there are times when your solar system produces more power than your household’s electrical needs. This typically occurs during the day when everyone’s at work or school and you’re not using your air conditioning or electric heating system. The excess power is pumped back to your electric company, and you’ll get credit for the overage.

So instead of cutting back on your electricity use, you may find yourself wondering how to use the extra power. Some people add more electric room heaters, others add food freezers in the garage, and still others find they no longer have to turn off lights in rooms they leave temporarily. So rather than interrupting your daily routine, the right solar system can enhance your choices of when and how you use electricity. If you have an electric vehicle or are considering leasing or buying one, adding a few extra panels to your solar system could allow you to recharge it, as well.

6. How easy is it to install solar panels?

Having your solar panels installed by professionals is a fairly seamless process that gets panels up and running in no time. It starts with an engineer’s site survey, which includes climbing on your roof, taking measurements, and determining the ideal location for the solar panels using a solar pathfinder device. The solar panels will most likely be installed on your roof, since it has the structural specifications today’s solar panels require. Each panel will be securely mounted using appropriate hardware and flashings. If you choose not to install solar panels on your roof or your roof simply lacks the unshaded sun exposure for proper operation, various other mounting options are available, including shade awnings or ground-mount options.

7. How much maintenance will solar panels require?

Solar panels have no moving parts, so they don’t need a lot of maintenance. Depending on where you live, solar panels should be cleaned and inspected two or three times a year. Dirt, grime and bird droppings can reduce their efficiency. Today’s solar panels are built to take heavy rain and wind; what’s more, most solar panels sold in the U.S. are UL listed, which means they`ve gone through extensive testing to withstand hail. Many of today’s top solar providers offer regular maintenance in their contract agreements so you won’t have to worry about climbing up on your roof for inspections or cleaning.

8. What are some of the environmental benefits of solar energy?

Traditional electricity is generated from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. When these fuels are burned to create energy, they produce toxic gases that lead to pollution and global warming. Solar power systems draw clean, pure energy from sunlight - an inexhaustible nature resource. As a result, installing solar panels helps to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. It also reduces our collective dependence on fossil fuel.

The average solar panel system can offset 30 tons of carbon dioxide over three decades, saving the equivalent of driving a car over 60,000 miles; eliminating 80,000 gallons of water used to produce electricity; and preventing 16 tons of coal being burned to produce the same amount of electricity. This is based on data collected from the Environmental Protection Agency.

9. What happens to my panels if I decide to move or renovate my home?

You can take your solar panels with you when you move, but their removal and re-installation must be performed by a qualified solar installer who is certified to perform the removal. You should not allow a roofer to remove and reinstall your solar panels. Solar panels must be properly removed and reinstalled to prevent pipe and panel damage. Your solar company may have specific requirements regarding how to disconnect and re-connect to your electric grid. Panels and their fittings will be susceptible to damage or breakage and will need to be replaced when being fitted or removed. That being said, it might be better to sell the benefits of solar panels to the person who bought your current house. You may just recoup a sizeable part of your solar system investment—money you can use to offset the cost of installing a new solar system on your new property. If your original installation is even a few years old, you’ll discover that today’s new systems cost considerably less.

10. Can I have solar installed while living in an apartment?

In most cases, solar panel systems are only available to homeowners. That said, there are instances where you can place solar panels on your building and wire them directly to your apartment. In general, the apartment building should have four stories or less, and each apartment should have its own electric meter with individual billing. Since an apartment building’s roof is often collectively owned by a corporation, you’ll need to work closely with the owners to secure their approval, which may entail contractual agreements, property liens and other legal matters. There are also plug-in, grid-tied solar power systems you can get for your apartment. These modular, plug-and-play solar packages use a simple 110-volt outlet and can be mounted to a regular deck rail.

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