Home grown energy

Solar Panel Sunflower


One thing that will distinguish 2015 in the history books is that renewable energy has finally turned the corner to become cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Many rooftops now shimmer with solar panels, and hilltops are alive with spinning wind turbines. Everyone, including homeowners, businesses and public utilities, are waking up to a new reality - renewable energy's time has come.

PART I IN A SERIES

The winter and spring issues of WaveLengths Magazine will explain the enormous implications of renewable energy now that it has reached price parity with fossil fuels. Obvious benefits include lower energy bills, cleaner air and less dependence on foreign oil. The social implications, while not so obvious, are profound and will also be covered in this series.

In this first series installment, we provide you with the most important things you need to know about renewable energy options, particularly if you plan to install solar panels at your home or business.

While both solar and wind systems have become practical for generating electrical power, most of our discussions will focus on solar energy systems. That's because most properties receive abundant sunlight while fewer properties have adequate amounts of wind. Two types of solar panel systems to consider are Grid-Tied and Off- Grid installations. The following are some of the pros and cons associated with each.

GRID-TIED SYSTEMS

PROS:

Potential to Lower Energy Bills
The power company is required by law to credit consumers for excess energy they generate, which goes into the power grid for other consumers to use. The amount by which this can lower your energy bill is influenced by such things as your power company rates and how much sunlight your area of the country receives. Advances in solar panel technology have made solar energy practical even in areas that have frequent cloudy days.

Lower Maintenance Costs
With a grid-tied system, all energy is used immediately by the homeowner, or inserted into the grid for others to use. Unlike an off-grid system, there are no storage batteries to buy and maintain.

CONS:

No Emergency Power
In a grid-tied system, if the grid goes down, the power company will turn off your solar panels as well. This is done to prevent power from your solar panels from entering the grid, which can be hazardous to power company technicians working to restore the system. If having emergency power is important to you, consider an off-grid system as explained later in this article.

High Start-Up Costs
Even after tax credits and other government incentives are applied, a grid-tied system can cost you $10,000 or more. Financing options are available.

Uncertain Payback Period
It can be useful to estimate your break-even date, which is when your total energy savings will have equaled the cost of purchasing and installing your system. Your break-even date might occur in as little as a few years, or it might take a decade or more. Be aware that changes in energy pricing or policy can result in the payback period being longer than projected.

BE CAUTIOUS WITH SPPA'S

The renewed interest in solar energy systems, coupled with government incentives, have resulted in a proliferation of firms called Solar Services Companies (SSCs). These companies offer Solar Power Purchase Agreements (SPPAs), which are contracts that can enable homeowners and businesses to participate in solar energy production without incurring upfront equipment and installation costs.

For example, under the terms of one type of SPPA the customer allows the SSC to install solar generating equipment on his or her property. The ownership of this equipment is retained by the SSC.

The host customer agrees to pay the SSC an agreed upon rate for the electricity they consume from the system. That rate may be slightly below that of the local power company.

With SPPAs there is plenty of room for confusion and misunderstanding. In this particular example, the customer may not realize that if the solar generating equipment doesn't generate enough power to meet the customer's own electrical needs, they will have to buy power from both the SSC and the power company, resulting in two electric bills!

SPPA terms and conditions vary greatly and horror stories are emerging about what happens to homeowners who do not fully understand the contracts they are signing. While SPPAs can be very useful, they are complex contracts that are better suited to businesses that have legal advisors to review them.

OFF-GRID SOLAR SYSTEMS

If emergency preparedness is a top priority for you, consider an off-grid solar system.

PROS:

Emergency Backup Power
An off-grid solar system can provide the peace of mind of knowing that you will have power in the event of blackouts.

Affordable and Expandable
Off-grid systems can be expanded over time to meet your energy needs.

Savings Potential
An off-grid system can help you trim your energy costs, especially if you have high electric rates and/or abundant sunshine.

CONS:

Ongoing Maintenance
An off-grid system uses storage batteries, which store electrical power for use at night and during cloudy periods when solar panels are not providing full output. Although the batteries require some attention, this mostly involves monitoring voltage levels and cleaning battery terminals from time to time. The batteries themselves can last for years.

OTHER HOMEOWNER OPTIONS

Financing a large solar system through an SPPA may not be the best option for the average homeowner. Here's another alternative - start small.

MICRO SYSTEMS FASTER, BETTER, CHEAPER

For under $1,000 small off-grid solar systems can be purchased that enable you to produce enough electricity to power lights, TVs and most household appliances. Essentially, all you need are two 100 Watt solar panels, a couple of deep-cycle storage batteries, a charge controller, power inverter and some cabling.

Even the smallest off-grid system has a crucial advantage of over grid-tied systems costing $10,000 or more. With an off-grid system, the utility company can't shut off your panels when the power grid goes down. As long as there is sunlight and/or charged batteries, you'll have electricity to help you through any emergency.

Off-grid systems are expandable, so you can generate as much or as little energy as you want and your pocketbook can afford. Many homeowners start small and later add more solar panels and batteries to their system. It is possible to expand these systems to the point where they can provide for all of your day-to-day energy needs.


PART II

Read more on affordable solar energy systems, Solar on a Shoestring from Issue 20.

Issue 20 will also provide a comprehensive look at the vulnerabilities inherent in our nation's aging power grid. We'll offer practical solutions that can help families and businesses mitigate problems resulting from electrical outages.