Hearing mixed messages about solar electric power? We dig into some energy facts to help refute six common renewable energy myths and reveal the many advantages of home solar technology.
Solar panels prove an aesthetically pleasing addition to any home.
Photo by Shawn Lessord
Despite the many advantages of solar electricity, including its recent cost effectiveness, some remain skeptical about photoelectric technology. A number of common misconceptions fuel this skepticism. In this piece, I’ll debunk six of these, most importantly those regarding the cost and reliability of home solar electricity. Let’s get started.
America is bathed in sunlight. Solar works, even in the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast where cloudy days are more frequent — you’ll just need a bigger system. Photoelectric systems produce optimally in spring, summer and early fall. Bear in mind, you don’t need a crystal-clear, blue sky to generate electricity. Even on cloudy days, solar electric systems easily generate 10 to 20 percent of their full capacity.
The costs associated with home solar electric systems have plummeted in recent years, mostly because of industry streamlining. In fact, solar has never been cheaper.
Moreover, solar electricity’s lifetime cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) is significantly cheaper than other North American utility options, in part because of the federal Investment Tax Credit extension, which is now good until 2022. (See http://goo.gl/F3iPHt for more on tax credit extensions.)
In the Midwest, electricity from a solar electric system currently costs around 6 to 7 cents per kWh with the 30 percent credit, based on installation costs. In sunnier regions, such as the West and Southwest, the cost of electricity from a solar electric system is even lower. For comparison, large, investor-owned utilities typically charge 10 to 17 cents per kWh, sometimes more.
Even without the federal tax credits, solar electricity is still less expensive or on par with energy costs from
major utilities. And, unlike conventional power, the cost of electricity from a solar system won’t steadily increase. Consequently, solar electric systems hedge against inflation and spikes in energy prices, frequently providing a return on investment in the range of 3 to 5 percent.
The challenge with solar is that prepaying your electric bill requires a huge chunk of change. Because you have to pay for 30 to 50 years of electricity upfront, solar often appears outrageously expensive, at first glance.
Fortunately, in many areas, installers will lease you a system. And they’ll install a system on your home free of charge. You’ll simply pay them for the electricity the system generates for a set period, usually about 15 to 18 years. In this case, customers’ electricity bills are often cheaper than what they would have paid to utility providers throughout the life of the lease.
When the lease is up, the solar system will be yours, and all of your electricity will be free from that point on. You could easily benefit from another 15 to 20 years of free electricity, although you might need to install a new inverter.
The energy payback for a solar electric system, including modules, inverters and associated equipment, typically ranges from one to two years.
In eastern Missouri, where I work, the energy payback for systems incorporating polycrystalline technology takes about a year and a half. For monocrystalline modules, payback takes about two years, and thin-film modules take around a year. That energy payback period will shorten in lucky areas with more sun and will lengthen in locations with less sunlight.
No matter where you are, you’ll never see net-positive energy from electricity produced by coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear power plants.
Although demand will, at times, exceed the output of your solar electric system, if your system is tied to the grid (as are the vast majority of solar electric systems), your local utility will meet excess demand.
Even better: When a system produces a surplus in many states, that electricity will feed back onto the grid. If you need that electricity to meet your demands, it will be yours, free, within your billing period. If you need even more, you can purchase it from the utility.
Remember: You can power whatever you want, whenever you want if you install a grid-tied system.
Battery storage limits off-grid systems, which run on batteries. Therefore, these systems usually require a lifestyle that relies on about one-tenth to one-twelfth of the electricity of a standard grid-tied home.
Off-grid homeowners can enjoy the amenities of a modern home but must dry clothes on “solar clothes dryers,” also known as clotheslines, or gas- or propane-powered dryers. These folks must cook their food and heat their homes with gas or wood.
Solar module efficiency is improving, and some exciting new technologies are in development. However, there have only been slight improvements in the efficiency of commercially available modules over the past 25 to 30 years.
Many of the more efficient solar cells you hear about on the news occur in the laboratory, as experimental prototypes. Because they are, for the most part, extremely expensive, the market has been slow to adopt higher-efficiency solar cells.
The vast majority of solar homeowners choose grid-tied systems, which require no batteries. The grid serves as a “battery bank,” as explained earlier. I’ve found these battery-free systems easier to install, cheaper, more efficient, and virtually maintenance-free.
As far as battery technology goes, better, lower-cost storage batteries have resolved many challenges associated with off-grid living, and Tesla’s new “Powerpack” option will be another exciting leap forward. (Read more about the Tesla Powerwall and Powerpack.)
Bottom line: solar technology harnesses a clean, reliable resource, and offers many benefits to customers and all of humankind.So, let the sun shine!