Mother Earth News Blogs >

Renewable Energy
All things energy, from solar and wind power to efficiency and off-grid living.

Hybrid Home Energy Systems Offer Both Off-Grid and Grid-Tied Benefits

Who hasn’t been attracted to the idea of living off the grid? Between the monetary freedom and the savings — especially when you consider peak pricing and other utility charges — grid independence is enticing. It’s also practical during a power outage or emergency. Grid independence can be a formula to help any home withstand the elements. The situation is never beyond your control when you can generate and use your own electricity.

However, as some homeowners realize late in the process, not utilizing the potential of energy storage is easier said than done. Following Hurricane Sandy, many solar owners in the affected area (New York and New Jersey) learned the hard way that because they lacked hybrid operation and energy storage capabilities — their grid-tied solar electric systems were incapable of keeping the lights on and refrigerators running, because they were required to disconnect during a power outage. All those thousands of kilowatts of solar electricity being generated stayed up on the rooftops, unable to help the homeowners below.

What is a Hybrid Energy System?

What they needed was a hybrid approach, a way to harvest and store solar-generated electricity to use it with or without the grid present, at night as well as during the day. That’s what hybrid systems deliver: the ability to operate in multiple modes and store electricity for later use.

Such a system can “zero out” the grid if enough solar is present for self-consumption, which occurs when your solar electricity use powers the loads in your home, effectively providing off-grid independence. If there’s a surplus of solar-generated electricity available, these systems can export it back to the grid for net-metering incentives if they are allowed by the utility and locale.

Most important, they can store surplus solar electricity in a battery bank, enabling you to use your own stored electricity during peak demand times when rates are higher, giving you time-of-use control and flexibility.

And finally, such a system can keep critical loads up and running during an outage, providing greater security.

For residential users that want to control and master their electrical consumption, as well as business owners and agricultural users, a hybrid approach offers the best of both worlds: reduced or even eliminated utility charges and backup during critical times, without the need to stay totally off the grid with a system that can draw from the grid when necessary to make up the difference.

If your home or business falls into this category, below are three ways to successfully go hybrid.

Choose the Right Battery Size

Battery sizing is critical for any solar-plus-storage project. Lay out your specific intent for the batteries before making a purchase — often, users purchase inexpensive batteries to save money at the beginning of a solar installation, but they need to be replaced quickly when they can’t handle the demands of a solar installation. It’s a lost investment, a frustrating process and entirely avoidable.

Consider whether you plan to use a battery for occasional outages or if you’ll be offsetting electricity costs during peak hours. The two scenarios demand different capabilities from the batteries. Backup batteries, for example, are designed to discharge less frequently and at a greater “depth.” But use them daily and their service life is shortened considerably.

SystemEdge by OutBack Power

Aim to Prove ROI ASAP

An off-grid system is a major investment. Depending on its size, power usage, the owner’s location and goals for the project, the retail price could be $10,000 to $30,000, and that price comes before installation fees.

Of course, solar power helps users reclaim the setup process’ costs. Solar technology increases the value of a home, and you can sell surplus energy back to make a profit. By investing in hybrid capabilities at the start, the payback period can come more quickly, through increased utility savings and the ability to use solar electricity 24/7 and offset peak demand pricing.

Follow a Path That’s Proven to Work

As you talk to your energy providers — electric and solar alike — about your new installation, ask about their customers’ experiences who might have properties, energy consumption habits, and long-term goals similar to yours.

For example, one Silicon Valley home wanted to reduce the electric bills common in its high-cost area, while minimizing its peak load to the grid. The homeowner also wanted to invest heavily in smart-home technology, including the latest solutions in control, lighting, HVAC, networking and entertainment. A hybrid approach gave the homeowner an insurance policy that would keep his smart home running during storms, third-party disruptions and any other issues, while empowering his family to produce energy on site, gain independence from the utility and cut electricity costs.

Going off-grid is perfect for some, but it’s not for everyone. With a hybrid system, users can store electricity for their own use and achieve the full benefits of a solar approach, while maintaining the ability to access the grid if the situation demands. By outlining goals at the start of a project and following a successful path forged by other hybrid users, your home or business can achieve its energy goals with flying colors.

Eric Hill is senior strategic platforms manager at Alpha Technologies, parent company of OutBack Power. He has 8 years’ experience in energy storage focusing on renewable energy, telecom, wireless, industrial utilities, and broadband cable TV. Connect him on LinkedIn, and find OutBack Power on Twitter and Facebook.

Mark Cerasuolo is the marketing director and head of the training program for OutBack Power, a designer and a manufacturer of balance-of-system components for renewable and other energy applications. Prior to his work with OutBack Power Technologies, he held senior marketing roles at Leviton Manufacturing as well as with prominent consumer electronics companies such as Harman International and Bose Corporation, and was active in the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). More recently he was the marketing lead for the Washington State Department of Commerce. Mark also serves as a business & marketing advisor for the educational non-profit organization Healing the Culture in Kenmore, Washington, and was a volunteer field literacy tutor for the Ventura County Adult Literacy program in California.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Are Solar Panels a Sustainable Product?

solar panel lifespan and recycling

Installing a solar energy system on your home is a choice that can simultaneously reduce your carbon footprint and cut your electricity bill – the ultimate win-win in home energy. Your solar panels’ lifespan is long enough to produce decades of renewable energy for your home. Additionally, solar panel recycling options mean that once your system does finally reach the end of its life, you can be confident that your panels won’t end up in a landfill.

What is the Lifespan of Solar Panels?

The industry rule of thumb, based on advanced testing conducted by panel manufacturers, is that your solar panels have a useful lifespan of 25 to 30 years. However, “useful lifespan” doesn’t mean that they stop producing electricity after 25 years – it just means that their electricity production has declined by what manufacturers consider a significant amount.

A 2012 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that, on average, solar panel output falls by 0.8 percent each year. This means that in year two, your panels will operate at 99.2 percent of their original output; by the end of their 25-year “useful lifespan,” they will still be operating at 82.5 percent. In the years since this 2012 study has been conducted, more efficient technologies have been developed and many newer panels have just a 0.5 percent yearly decline in output.

In general, solar panels are extremely durable. Most manufacturers test their panels to confirm that they can withstand high winds and heavy snow loads, and many solar panels are specifically tested to ensure that they can withstand falling hail. Additionally, solar energy systems don’t usually have moving parts, and they require little to no maintenance

Solar panels also come with a few different warranties that can give you a sense of just how long you can expect your solar panel’s lifespan to be. Manufacturers will offer both an equipment warranty, to certify against manufacturing defects, and a performance warranty, to guarantee that your panels will produce a certain amount of electricity. Your solar panel’s performance warranty, which typically lasts 25 years, can give you a better sense of how much electricity to expect from your solar panel system over time.

You don’t need to worry about the carbon footprint of your solar panels, either. The 25 to 30 year lifespan of a solar panel is significantly longer than its “energy payback time,” or EPBT. EPBT is the amount of time it takes for a solar panel to produce enough clean electricity to “pay back” the energy that was used to manufacture it in the first place. A 2010 analysis from Brookhaven National Laboratory found that the EPBT of a solar panel is just six months – a number that has surely fallen in the past six years as panel manufacturing becomes more efficient.

Solar Panel Recycling Options and Programs

In the past 10 years, solar panels have gone from a fringe technology for the environmentally conscious to a viable home improvement option for nearly every household. While the industry is still relatively new, there are a number of panel manufacturers and other organizations that are already exploring solar panel recycling. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that, by 2050, old solar panels will be worth $15 billion in recyclable material – enough to produce two billion new solar panels. New recycling options are bound to grow as more and more solar panels reach the end of their lifespan.

Some panel manufacturers already offer recycling opportunities. First Solar, one of the largest manufacturers in the U.S., has a module recycling program that can recover 90 percent of panel materials for use in new products. SolarCity, the largest solar leasing company in the country, also recycles panels from its installations at the end of their useful lifespan.

Another organization that has recognized the importance of solar panel recycling is the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a national trade group for solar companies. SEIA is developing a national recycling program for all of its partners through its PV Recycling Working Group

If solar panel sustainability is a top priority for you, there are certain manufacturers that have certifications related to the sustainability of their solar panel life cycle. Most recently, panel manufacturer SunPower announced that they are “Cradle to Cradle” certified. A nonprofit organization known as Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also produces an annual “Solar Scorecard” that grades panel manufacturers on the safety and sustainability of their manufacturing and disposal practices. 

Finding a Sustainable Solar Solution for Your Home is Easy 

Going solar is an investment in the earth’s future that can also reduce your monthly electric bills. By thoroughly researching solar equipment manufacturers and working with a solar installer that offers the products you want, you can ensure that your solar panel system is as sustainable as possible. Compare solar quotes side-by-side the EnergySage Solar Marketplace to find the right combination of sustainable products, easy financing options, and a well-reviewed installer for your home’s renewable energy needs.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How Much Does an Average Solar-Panel System Cost?

5kw solar panel system cost

If you’re shopping for a solar energy system, one of your first questions is probably, “how much will it cost?” Prices depend on the size of your system, the type of equipment you choose, and the state that you live in, but reviewing prices for a 5 kilowatt (kW) system is a great place to start – that’s the average system size in the United States. Learn more about how much a 5kW solar system costs, how much electricity a 5kW system will produce, and the smartest way to shop for solar.

What are solar shoppers paying in your state?

We looked at data from the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, the leading comparison-shopping platform for homeowners who are considering home solar panel systems, to find out just how much solar shoppers are paying for 5kW solar energy systems in different states across the U.S.  

The prices listed below have already had the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar deducted. Depending on where you live, you might have additional state or local solar incentives and rebates that reduce the price even more. You may even be able to earn extra income by selling your system’s solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs)

Even if there are no other incentives where you live, comparing multiple offers from solar companies is important to ensure that you’re finding the best deal. Homeowners who register their property on EnergySage save up to 20 percent just by shopping around for the right option for their home. 

5 kW solar system price map

How much does a 5kW solar system cost in my state?


5 kW solar system price range (2015)


$10,360 – $14,070


$11,865 – $14,875


$11,025 – $14,245


$11,872 – $15,095

District of Columbia (Washington, DC)

$10,386 – $14,583


$8,505 – $11,305


$11,074 – $14,687


$12,460 – $16,240


$10,150 – $13,230

New Jersey

$10,325 – $14,455

New York

$11,270 – $16,030

North Carolina

$10,531 – $14,801


$9,898 – $13,720


$9,835 – $12,705


$12,880 – 16,310

Remember, the cost of solar depends on a lot of factors, so these numbers are just meant to be a starting point. In most cases, you should be able to find a 5kW solar system in this price range – if you receive offers from solar companies that are much higher or lower, be sure to ask follow up questions. 

How much electricity will a 5kW solar system produce?

The amount of electricity your solar panels produce depends on many factors, including the direction and angle of your roof. The most important one is how sunny it is where you live – for example, a 5kW system in Las Vegas makes about 30 percent more electricity in a year than one in Philadelphia. That being said, you don’t have to live in the Southwest for solar to make sense for you. The cost of electricity where you live is the biggest determinant of your solar savings.

The table below shows average estimated electricity production numbers for 5kW solar energy systems in cities across the U.S. By comparison, the average household in the U.S. uses 911 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a month, which equals 10,932 kWh per year. We estimated these numbers using PV Watts, a tool developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Solar electricity output of a 5kW solar panel system in U.S. cities 


Average daily kWh

Average monthly kWh

Average annual kWh

Austin, TX




Boston, MA




Charlotte, NC




Chicago, IL




Cleveland, OH




Denver, CO




Hartford, CT




Las Vegas, NV




Los Angeles, CA




Miami, FL




New York City




Philadelphia, PA




Phoenix, AZ




Seattle, WA




Washington, DC




Maximize your solar savings by comparing multiple offers

Now that you know what to expect, you can ensure that you get the best deal on a 5kW solar energy system by registering your property on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace. Use the comprehensive, easy-to-understand comparison tables to evaluate all of your equipment options, financing offers, and solar company reviews. When you compare multiple solar quotes, you can feel confident that you’re making a smart investment in your home.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Energy Pros Weigh In on Future of Solar Power

Vietnamese Solar Panels At Sunset

A friend of mine participated in the Second-Annual State of the Electric Utility survey. He also shared with me the results of the 2014 survey, which tabulates the opinions of more than 500 electric-utility professionals on the subjects of demand growth, distributed generation, power supply, regulatory models, and a number of other electricity-generation, transmission, and distribution-related issues.

Distributed Energy Generation

For those of us interested in solar energy, all the issues are important, but none more so than distributed generation. This is where, for example, a community rooftop solar project provides energy close-at-hand for the community’s homes, rather than homeowners buying electricity from an investor-owned utility.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Generating power on-site, instead of buying it from Company A, results in lower costs and fewer inefficiencies, notes one energy firm.

Consumers must agree, because residential or community solar installations in the first three-quarters of 2014 totaled more than 100 megawatts — all without any state incentives!

The loss ratio mentioned above, estimated at up to 6 percent of the total electricity transmitted on average for the entire nation (2012 figures reported in 2014), seems very small, but it depends not only on the age of the lines themselves, but the distance from the generating plants(s) that the electricity has to travel.

In very extensive territories like the Midwest ISO, outliers might experience significant losses in very cold or very hot weather, or when infrastructure is old. In other words, they (and you) pay for electricity that might never reach them.

Fortunately, electricity line losses seem to have dropped across the board since 2012. Of course, so has generation, as commercial and residential energy efficiency measures lighten the electricity load for generators, and more and more homeowners install solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar thermal (hot water) to offset the cringe-making cost of electricity.

Many industry experts feel this is the perfect time to introduce distributed generation in the form of solar energy.

Not only have the cost of solar panels, and installation plummeted, but further reductions are seen for 2016 and beyond, once the numbers are in. In fact, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL – one of 12 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) labs working on energy, renewable energy, energy storage and the like — solar PV system prices fell below $0.65 per watt in 2016, compared with $0.74 per watt a year ago and $4 per watt in 2008.

Grid Parity

Bottom line? That Holy Grail of solar energy – grid parity with fossil fuels — is achieved in several of those states providing solar incentives.

Add net metering and creative financing, and solar now looks like a sure shot to reduce America’s dependency on fossil fuels, both foreign and domestic, along with all the pollution (like fracking and shale oil extraction) generated by those fuels.

Most utility executives view solar grid parity and consequent distributed generation as a mixed blessing. In public, they tout it as an opportunity. In private, they discuss the threat to the traditional utility model that it represents, and in boardrooms, that threat — among coal, oil, or even nuclear-centric utilities — becomes the 2,000-pound gorilla of energy generation.

Most agree, however, that utilities should jump on that distributed-energy bandwagon and take a direct role in supplying their ratepayers with same, either via ownership of the panels (and leaseback to customers) or by partnering with companies vested in distributed generation.

Both of these, properly managed, represent modest revenue sources to an industry that has traditionally been viewed as “slow but steady” in terms of financial gain.

Demand-Side Management

Other technologies that make utility executives nervous are demand-side management, or DSM, and energy storage.

The first, which aims to reduce power requirements through efficiency measures, “smart meters”, and customer-centric cutbacks rather than building more generating plants, has already succeeded in reducing U.S. electricity demand by 0.9 percent (from 1992 to 2006), and by 1.8 percent over all years.

Energy Storage

Energy storage, still in its infancy, has created molten salt (or oil) storage for large solar thermal facilities and lithium batteries for smaller-scale energy storage, but the DOE’s labs are busy investigating a number of options and inventions, and will likely come up with some novel advances before the decade is over.

In essence, solar energy’s future is clear, and the only way to go is up!

Photo by Flickr/Intel Free Press

Jeanne Roberts is a writer at

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Potential Health Impacts from Photovoltaics

Solar Panels On Backyard Shed

Renewable energy is reducing our dependency on fossil fuels but are there negative consequences for our health?


Can photovoltaic installations have negative health impacts? I am often asked this question by people who want to practice sound ecological citizenry and who also care about the health of their family.


Effects from Electrical Frequencies Detected


While the negative impact of some common chemicals is at last widely recognized and popular green certifications now reward or demand reduction of chemicals, there is very little discussion about the harmful effects of man-made electrical frequencies or measures that can be taken to reduce exposure.


The jury is still out in the world of industry-sponsored and independent research, but there is a fast-growing segment of the population who feels ill from our ever-increasing use of electricity and wireless frequencies.


While our government agencies, medical associations, and power companies debate the existence of this health threat, the people who are suffering seek safety and relief. Others who are not affected may be wise to employ a precautionary stance, knowing that what overtly harms some may also have negative impacts for all in the long run.

Michael Schwaebe Solar Inverters

Michael Schwaebe, PE and Building Biologist has installed Dissipative Noise Reduction filter on solar inverters to remediate dirty electricity transmissions caused by the photo voltaic installation.

Electromagnetic Radiation Issues


The Building Biology Institute (IBE) has long paid attention to electromagnetic radiation and has offered comprehensive training on the measurement and remediation of elevated frequencies. IBE has recently published a long-awaited position paper on the electromagnetic radiation issues associated with photovoltaic installations.


The following summary, written by fellow building biologist and co-author of the paper, Sonia Hoglander, outlines areas of concern. Read the full paper: Photovoltaic Electrical Systems: Electromagnetic Exposure Issues & Overview of Configurations.


Areas of Concern


Photovoltaic systems can have detrimental health effects.


• Inverters cause electrical “noise” called “dirty electricity” on house electrical circuits and appliance cords that can be irritating to sensitive people — even people who have not been conscious of sensitivity in the past could experience discomfort. People have reported symptoms of nausea, headaches, and fatigue.


• Ground current can also be introduced or be exacerbated on surrounding earth, causing magnetic fields that interfere with biological rhythms. Some common symptoms associated with manmade magnetic fields are sleep disturbance and depression.

• Wireless communication may be part of a system allowing billing and monitoring functions. Wireless communication is radiation in the microwave range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This part of the spectrum is linked to cancer. Symptoms from exposure cover a broad range including nausea, headaches, fatigue and sleep disturbance from the dirty electricity and magnetic fields, but also irritability, skin problems, dizziness, visual and hearing disruptions.

• These issues of microwave radiation from wireless signals, dirty electricity, and ground currents are complex electromagnetic factors that affect the home environment and are difficult to mitigate. Hardwired Ethernet connections from a non-wireless electric meter to the homeowner's router and filters can be helpful but the renewable energy industry does not currently design systems with biological effects in mind.


William Holland Filter Installation testing

William Holland, post filter installation, testing for SMA inverters, DNA filters above to the left.

The International Institute for Building Biology & Ecology recently published a paper that explains how solar panels affect the electromagnetic environment; causing potentially irritating dirty electricity and ground currents. In summary they state:


“Photovoltaic (PV) power generation systems as well as other alternative energy producing systems (e.g. wind generators and gas power, on-site generators) are not recommended for people who are experiencing electromagnetic sensitivity and especially for people displaying the symptoms of Electromagnetic Hyper-Sensitivity (EHS). Asymptomatic people are cautioned to evaluate all the pros and cons before moving ahead, especially as pertains to the generation of unwanted EMF radiations and effectiveness of filtration options offered by various system purveyors for dealing with these unwanted radiations.”

Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of Prescriptions for a Healthy House and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of The EcoNest Home. Connect with Paula on her website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Solar-Power System

 solar panels on home

According to Green Tech Media (GTM) research, the U.S. is now installing one photovoltaic system every four minutes. Seeing as solar energy is a renewable resource that emits little to no global warming emissions, this is a massive step in the right direction in efforts to protect our planet and reduce greenhouse gases.

If you’ve already enlisted in the solar energy crusade or are thinking about making an investment in the near future, it’s important to do your research and evaluate how to get the most use out of your solar power system. Ensuring that your system is performing at its max is not only important to meet your electricity needs, but also to recover your upfront costs in the shortest amount of time.

Evaluate Your Usage

To optimize usage, you first need to evaluate how you and your family currently use electricity in the home. One way to do this is by having a professional come out and conduct a home energy audit.

During this process, an expert will come to your home and evaluate how efficiently energy is currently being used, as well as suggest methods for improvement. Inspections should be thorough and review the entire structure, from top to basement. The auditor should check things such as your duct blasts, HVAC system, doors, and windows. These tests will reveal problem areas and ways to improve so you don’t end up wasting the valuable solar electricity you’ll be generating.

By figuring out how much energy you currently use, you’ll also be able to better determine the size of solar system you’ll need.

Energy evaluation can help you start thinking differently about certain routines. If you want to get the most of your solar power system and offset your energy costs, start planning ahead by using big appliances during the day when your solar system is operating at its maximum capacity.

Other good practices include setting some appliances to run on timers, replacing old machines with more efficient ones, and staggering usage so you’re not running everything at once. This will take some coordination throughout your household, but giving everyone some ownership toward your energy conservation goals can be a rewarding activity and good practice for working together.

Price Shop

Solar technology has become increasingly price competitive in the past few years, making it much more affordable for homeowners to either buy systems out-right, or acquire loans for the project.

If you’ve just begun the home solar process and are looking to compare prices from local installers in your area, try using a trusted solar power marketplace to receive a number of quotes and find a solution that works best for your solar energy project. It’s the quickest way to be able to compare prices and services from companies that are experienced with your solar local programs.

Don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions of solar installer candidates, including their experience connecting customers to the utility grid, knowledge of state incentives, and maintenance programs offered.

Solar Storage

If you’re connected to the utility grid, you can always draw upon it at night and other times your system isn’t producing the most electricity. But to cut this cost, or if you’re completely off the grid, solar storage is a great way to offset any energy shortages.

The costs of home energy storage components are starting to fall, making it a more viable option for home solar users. Many states also have beneficial net-metering programs that allow solar generators to return energy to the utility grid and get compensated for it. Rates vary by state, but it’s a great way to get the most from the energy produced and start seeing a return on that investment.


Your panels shouldn’t require much maintenance or cleaning, but it’s a good idea to give them a light cleaning every six months or so. This will help make sure that they’re receiving as much light as possible since any collected dust or dirt will just reflect the light and reduce efficiency.

Pay attention to any excessive shading on your panels from nearby greenery, as you may need to alter your landscaping. It’s also important to prevent any branches or an accumulation of leaves falling from on your panels, which can lead to damage.

By getting the best price on your solar system, watching and reducing your energy costs, and selling back your excess power, you can be sure that you’re getting the most out of your home solar system and feel good about generating clean energy.

Sarah Kezer is passionate about helping others take advantage of the power of solar energy. At 123SolarPower, Sarah assists in answering questions and providing expert information for users to explore their options when it comes to going solar. 123SolarPower connects individuals with the largest network of solar power providers in the U.S. Read all of Sarah's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How To Choose The Best Solar-Energy Equipment

grid-connected solar energy system

Installing a home solar energy system is a smart financial investment for many homeowners. As you evaluate offers from solar companies, there are many different factors to consider – the equipment that you choose for your system, your financing options, and the installer that you select all have an impact on your solar savings. This guide will help you evaluate the different solar panels and inverters available so that you can find the best equipment for your home.

There are two main components to a grid-connected solar energy system: the solar panels themselves, which create electricity from sunlight, and the inverter, which converts the electricity into a form you can use in your home. Some also include a monitoring system, which allows you to see how much power you're creating and using. And while solar batteries haven’t yet hit the mainstream, the announcement of Tesla's Powerwall battery and other technologies are making it possible for homeowners to consider incorporating a battery into their system.

What is the Best Solar Panel for You?

You can evaluate solar panels on a few main parameters: production, durability and manufacturer quality

The amount of electricity a given solar panel can produce will produce is dependent on several factors, including the power rating, power tolerance, efficiency and temperature coefficient. Taken together, these factors will tell you how much power your panel will be able to produce.

You'll also want to look at indicators of panel manufacturer quality. Start with the warranties and assurances that the manufacturer offers on their equipment. Like all things, solar panels degrade and become less efficient over time. Many manufacturers will guarantee that the power production of their panels doesn’t fall below a certain threshold over twenty-five years. In addition, many panel manufacturers have a materials warranty in case the panels simply fail.

Most solar panels are very durable, but if you live in an area that has heavy snow or high wind, you should also be sure that the panels you install are designed to withstand the conditions in your area. Look for panels that meet the IEC 61215, a reliability standard established by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). IEC 61215 uses an accelerated outdoor stress test for panels to ensure their durability. 

When you evaluate panels on production, durability and manufacturer quality you'll find they break down into categories. EnergySage’s ranking system, which takes all of these factors into account, sorts panels into three groups: premium, standard, and economy.  

While some homeowners may choose to invest in the highest quality, most efficient “premium” panels, remember that those will come with a higher price tag. Going solar is a lot like buying a car: not everyone needs a Porsche! Conversely, if you want to save by buying cheap solar panels, your system may produce less electricity over its lifetime, reducing your overall savings. Only you know what is best for your home.

What is the Best Inverter for You?

It's the job of the inverter in your solar energy system to convert the solar energy into something you can use. Solar panels take solar energy and make it into direct current (DC) power. The inverter’s job is to convert that DC power into the alternating current (AC) electricity that can be used in your home.

There are two general types of inverters: string inverters and module-level power electronics (MLPEs). Both microinverters and power optimizers are both MLPEs.

String inverters are the lowest-cost option for a solar energy system. If your system has optimal conditions for production, they are usually a good choice for your home. When your solar panel system has a string inverter, all of your panels feed all of the DC power they produce to a single inverter. The inverter then changes the DC energy to AC power, at which point your solar energy is ready to use.

MLPEs are generally more expensive, but they can also be more efficient. MLPEs are a good choice if your solar energy system may be slightly shaded or can’t be installed at the best angle. When you use microinverters, each panel has its own inverter to transform the power it creates and feed it to your house. Power optimizers, like microinverters, are also installed on every panel, but power optimizers are paired with a string inverter. The power optimizer "conditions" the energy, making it easier to convert from DC to AC, at which point it is sent to the main inverter.

How Do I Choose the Right Solar Panel Installers?

Your installer one of the most important parts of your solar energy system! When you choose a solar installer, you should review their certifications, licenses, track record and reputation in the market. A great installer, like those on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, will also use subcontractors sparingly and warranty their workmanship. Most importantly, a good installer will be an effective partner ready to help you go solar. All of the installers you meet on EnergySage have been vetted and meet our standards for all these variables. Whichever installer you use, don’t be afraid to ask questions throughout the installation process.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.