Solar Energy Efficiency Offers Better Power
10 Common Questions About Solar Energy Facts
In America, the ever fragile electrical grid has caused more people to consider alternative power sources. Solar energy efficiency has made powerful strides in the effectiveness of solar panels, initial cost and options. Today’s systems require fewer solar collectors, fit into any architectural design, and are considered extremely reliable.
The installation of a solar power system is said to be one of the most cost-effective ways to increase the value of your home, save you money and contribute to a healthier environment. Like most technology, solar energy efficiency improvements are always happening. The good thing is, unlike other technology, an older solar system doesn’t stop working just because a newer version is out.
The solar energy efficiency of any system is determined by the transfer rate of the sun’s energy into electricity. Did you know the price of solar panels has decreased over 100 times since 1977?
When researching to write this article, I stumbled upon something I thought interesting. The amount of sun hitting the state of Texas in one month can provide more power than the combined amount of oil and gas which has ever been harvested from Texas. Now that’s some power!
A Little History of Solar Cells
The first idea of solar cells was way back in 1876 when William G. Adams and one of his students, Richard Day, noticed selenium exposed to light produced electricity. There was some experimentation, but it wasn’t until 1956 when the solar cell became commercially available. That’s 80 years in development!
As with any new technology, the price was too high for the average consumer. They were used in a few toys and novelty items, but the technology was used mainly by the space programs of the United States and Russia. They used solar panels to power satellites and space stations.
Oddly enough, it was research done by an oil and gas company, Exxon, which lowered the cost of solar cells in the 1970s. They used solar panels to power warning lights on their oil and gas rigs. Am I the only person who finds this ironically amusing?
From the 1970s through the 1990s, solar energy efficiency began rapidly rising. Solar panels began showing up in all kinds of places. School crossing signs, railroad crossing signs and even to power homes. Remote areas began using them to power water pumps which made water easily accessible where no power lines could reach.
Today, cars run from roof-mounted solar systems. Aircraft are flown with solar as their power source. We can hold solar panels in the palm of our hand, as thin as a sheet of paper to power our electronic devices. There’s a solar fabric which can be used to power our homes. Solar shingles are installed on roofs making solar power available everywhere. Now that’s some solar energy efficiency!
The Necessary Component — The Battery
While solar energy efficiency depends on the panel, every solar system depends on off-grid battery banks. The battery stores the energy the panel converts from the sun. The power stored in the battery is ready for use when the sun isn’t shining.
Over the last several years, there have been rapid improvements in batteries used for solar power systems. They have evolved from high maintenance to little or no maintenance. Their life expectancy has improved from one year to up to 20 years.
In the early days of solar energy for homes, homesteaders used car batteries. They obviously weren’t designed for solar energy efficiency. They had short life spans, lasting only about a year because of the high demands placed on them.
The development of deep cycle, lead, acid batteries means longer battery life. They are also able to provide a steadier current over longer time periods. Although they do require water levels be checked every month and added to as needed, they are a great help to those living off the grid.
Compared to other battery types, they aren’t expensive. By arranging multiple batteries in sets, more energy can be stored to meet the power needs. With proper maintenance, these batteries can last up to five years. This makes them an affordable, dependable option for solar power systems.
If you can afford them, the L16 battery has an eight year lifespan. They also have roughly twice the price tag of the deep cycle batteries and weigh around 120 pounds. For many people, the price tag and weight make this battery a nonviable option.
Although industrial batteries are an option, unless you’re running a business with solar power, these would be overkill for the average homesteader. Their prices range from $2000 up to $10,000! They do pack a lot of power, 2500 amps per cell and have a 20 year lifespan when maintained well.
When we take our homestead completely off grid, our battery of choice will be the Tesla Powerwall. This is a lithium ion battery that’s automated, takes up hardly any space and requires no maintenance. That’s a great deal of bang for the buck.
Frequently Asked Questions
1) How does solar power work?
I offer you my simplified answer. The sun’s rays are captured in photovoltaic cells. The cells convert the captured energy into DC power. This power passes through an inverter which turns DC power into AC power which can be used to power your home, shop or whatever you need to power.
If you want DC power, you won’t need an inverter. The power is fed directly to the battery and you use it from there.
2) Does the sun have to be shining for me to have power? What about cloudy days or winter?
Well, yes and no. Yes, the sun obviously has to shine at some point to charge the batteries for you to use at night or on, what we call here in Idaho, gray days.
No, if your batteries are charged, you have power. Even on cloudy days, your solar system will create some power. If your battery system is well designed, maintained, and working correctly, you can get three to five days of power.
This doesn’t mean leaving the lights on or watching TV several hours a day. This is with conservation, which most people who use solar power are used to monitoring any way.
3) What’s the difference in off grid and on grid living?
When you tell someone you live off grid, it seems they immediately think you live primitively with no power at all. The term off grid simply means you are disconnected from any public utilities. That’s all it means. The term on grid is of course just the opposite. It means you live connected to public utilities.
There are varying degrees of living off grid. I know some people who live totally off grid. They have no power, running water, or plumbing in their home at all.
Then there are those who live with solar power systems, wind power systems, hydro power systems, or any combination of these. They are off grid, but their homes are powered. They have many, if not most of the conveniences an on grid home has.
Within this group of alternative energy off griders, there is a wide range. Some use the alternative energy to power only what they consider the bare necessities. Others power elaborate homes and all manner of devices. The choice is up to the homesteader.
4) What are the basic components of a solar system?
The solar panels equipped with PV cells are the energy center. A charge controller will route the electricity to the batteries. If you are using the power as DC or direct current, this is all you’ll need since the battery cells will provide the power. Most of us are set up to use AC or alternating current. This means we’ll need an inverter to change the current and send it to the batteries for storage and use.
5) Can I sell my extra power for money?
Well, the answer depends on your location and your setup. If you’re still tied to the grid and the power company in your area accepts feedback power, then yes, you can. The extra electricity produced by your system is fed back into the grid. This process is called net metering. The short version is your electric meter will run backwards.
The way I understand it, your local power company supplies your energy needs not met by your batteries at night and on cloudy days. When your batteries are fully charged, the energy your system produces is extra. This is what can be sold to the power company. Thanks to the solar energy efficiency of today’s systems, this is a probability.
Depending on the power company’s policies, you will be given credit on your bill or you will receive a check from them. This can be a complicated system and you may still end up receiving an electric bill. Personally, I don’t know anyone who uses alternative power sources who is still tied to the grid.
6) How long will my solar system last?
Today’s solar power systems are far more durable than the more fragile systems of the past. The lifespan is indefinite for the solar system itself. The battery life is the thing to be considered. Depending on the battery you choose, the life expectancy can be from five to 20 years. Like most everything else, the initial cost is a factor in which battery setup most people choose.
7) How do I know what size solar system I need?
The decision on which type and size of system is overwhelming to most of us. There are so many companies and options available now. Finding a solar company you can identify with and trust is crucial. If you’re a DIY kind of person, there are companies designed to help with that too.
The deciding factor is how much electrical power you will be needing. This alone determines the size of the system you’ll need. This is different for every family so there is no way to generalize the answer. This makes an energy-efficient home valuable in many ways.
The area you live in is another deciding factor. There is a great variance in the amount of sunlight someone in New Mexico receives from that of a person living in Alaska. Most solar companies have tools on their website to help you decide how much power you’ll need. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is a non-commercial site which has a PV Watts Calculator to help you.
8) How much does the average system cost and is it worth it?
There is no real answer to the question of how much the system costs because they are so customizable. Also, the DIY approach can change the cost greatly.
The average residential system is between three to eight kW/hrs. The average cost for a system this size ranges from $10,000 to upwards of $40,000. Again it all depends on what you need the system to do and if you can do some or all of the work yourself.
Is it worth it? This depends on your point of view. Is it worth the cost to not be dependent on the failing electrical grid here in the United States? Is it worth the freedom you’ll have? Is it worth decreasing the impact you have on the environment around you?
The other side of this is more practical to some. Can I afford the initial investment? It takes about three to five years for the average system to pay for itself and you begin to operate in the black. This is according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
9) How does having solar power affect my home’s value?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, having a solar power system in place increases the value of the home and land based on the amount of electricity saved over the course of one year. The ratio is, at the current moment, $20 in increased value for every $1 saved in electric power over an entire year. This could add up to a substantial increase in value.
10) Is there a lot of maintenance involved?
Most systems go without problems. The batteries are the only part that needs maintenance. Water levels should be monitored in the batteries which require it. If you’re like us and want to go with the Tesla Powerwall, there will be no maintenance at all.
Regularly checking your panels for damage will ensure you catch any problem quickly. Once a month, give them a good look over. Depending on your setup, check for loose attachments. After a storm, check for any damage and make any necessary repairs. Damage is rare, especially in today’s improved solar panels. During the winter, you’ll want to keep the snow swept off the panels.
Do you use solar power as your energy source? What tips and tricks for solar energy efficiency can you share with us?
Please share photos of your setup to inspire and educate us?
Safe and Happy Journey,