Living Off the Grid: Solar Power for Homes, 1994 Guide

Incremental improvements have made solar power for homes a more viable alternative than it was in the 1970s, when cost and performance issues eventually blunted enthusiasm for the technology.

| December/January 1993

solar power for homes

Solar power for homes is looking better these days.


You probably think that solar energy is a resource that makes sense only for an isolated town in Arizona or New Mexico, or is the province of eco-hippies. MOTHER EARTH NEWS is happy to report that neither is true. It's a bona fide, cost-efficient source of energy that not only has the virtue of being a genuine blessing for the environment, but also allows new home builders the option of declaring permanent independence from their local utility.

Recent technological advances and price reductions that have made solar power for homes practical enough that your home could be a good candidate for a solar-generated electricity system. But it does have to be acknowledged solar-generated electrical power for the individual homeowner has been an elusive dream since the first burst of national solar enthusiasm in the 1970s. For a brief period it represented one of our best hopes for avoiding the general, oil-starved panic that began when the OPEC nations announced their embargo in 1973. Fueled by considerable government investment with the passage of President Carter's first budget in 1977, renewable energy technology was propelled into the national consciousness. Several megawatt-size power plants soon sprang up in the sunlight-rich South and South west, where they continue to operate and provide competitively priced power.

Individual homeowners did not fare as well, however. They were frustrated to find that generating electricity from the sun was neither cheap nor easy, especially in the North and Northwest where the average number of sunlight hours per day is 30 - 60% less than that in the South. Stand-alone solar-electricity-generating equipment was still in its technological infancy, not terrifically efficient, and simply not able to compete with the cost of hooking up to the grid of the local utility. Building a remote home meant a very large investment in extending a utility's electrical grid or an equal, if not greater, investment in a self-sufficient, home-generated power system.

The 1980s brought steady progress to the industry, however, and equipment became more efficient and less expensive despite substantially reduced government investment in research and development. Home systems have become so competitively priced, in fact, that it is now less expensive to design an independent generating station than it is to extend the utility service grid one-half mile!

Declaring independence from the utility grid using solar power was once an irresistible, if impractical dream. Now home systems are not only a viable alternative, but in many instances an economic necessity.

How Does the Sun Run My Blender?

Solar power plants use huge mirrors (called focused collectors) to concentrate the sun's heat on a pipe or collector. Water or some other liquid flows through this pipe, heats up, and is used to make steam. The steam then drives a turbine that generates electricity. Those living in areas serviced by collector plants will enjoy a relatively stable and inexpensive source of energy for decades.

For the rest of us, photovoltaic or PV cells are the most practical way of generating power. The PV effect isn't new, however. In 1839, a French scientist named Edmund Becquerel found that light falling on certain materials produced electricity. But it wasn't until 1954 that the first "modern" PV cell was built.

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