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


What's New in Residential Solar Energy?

residential solar installer 

Solar energy is a vast energy resource that can be used for a variety of purposes, including electrical power, heating and cooling, fuel production, water heating, industrial process heat, transportation, and cooking. The cost of having a solar power system installed on your home has dropped dramatically over the last several years. As a result, more than 1 million homes are currently being powered energy from the sun.

In today’s rapidly growing solar industry, there are thousands of residential solar energy companies (some of the largest and most well-known being Sungevity, Sunrun, SolarCity, and Vivint Solar) that provide hundreds of different panel models and designs to homeowners. An increasing number of premium technology brands, such as LG and Panasonic, have entered the residential solar market, resulting in the development of a variety of new and improved solar technologies.

solar energy system on roof

Here's what you can expect to see in the near future:

Double-Sided Solar Panels

Formally known as bi-facial solar panels, double-sided solar panels will become an attractive product option in residential solar. Double-sided panels are impressive because they can harness sunlight through both surfaces of the panel. Essentially, these panels can capture light as it reflects off of the roof or ground surface below the panel.

Because the majority of roofs in the residential market are black, solar installers will typically paint a white border around the solar panel system before installation to maximize light reflection. In the case of a ground mount solar system, the light will naturally reflect off the ground, especially in snowy areas during the winter.

Frameless Solar Panels

A major factor in the critique of the look of a solar energy system on a home is the solar panel frame, which many homeowners find to be the least attractive part of a PV panel. To solve that problem, major panel manufacturers such as SolarWorld, Canadian Solar, and Trina are beginning to produce more aesthetically-pleasing frameless solar modules.

The main roadblock for frameless solar panels is the lack of suitable mounting equipment that can work without a frame. As a result, solar manufacturers are producing specialized mountings to work with the frameless panels.

blue solar panels

Clear Solar Panels

Many frameless solar panel designs are entirely enclosed in one material, typically glass. Glass solar panels use the same silicon cell technology and materials of a standard panel, but rather than being mounted on an opaque backing material, the cells are sandwiched between two glass casings.

Glass solar panels are an innovation in multiple ways because, in addition to being more visually attractive, glass panels are more durable than typical silicon cell panels, and are known to be significantly more resistant to fire hazard and less prone to erosion.

Solar Panels with Inverters

One of the biggest new innovations in the solar industry is the concept of solar panels with small inverters already in place on the back of the panels.

For solar installers, inverter installation and connection can add significant time to a typical rooftop installation. To address this issue and increase installation efficiency, inverter manufacturers are making inverters easily attachable to the back of the panels. This innovation will also reduce installation costs.

A proponent of renewable energy and green living, Sarah Hancock enjoys writing about sustainability and manages the solar blog on BestCompany.comYou can also find her work on Twitter.


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.

7 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Solar Energy System

blue solar panels 

Having a solar energy system can help you to reduce your carbon footprint and cut down your electricity bill. However, you may not be getting the most optimal results by having a solar system on its own.

Whether you’ve installed solar panels for financial or environmental reasons, the following recommendations can help you use your solar energy system more effectively and get the most out of the power it produces, which will allow you to pay off your system faster, pull less power from the grid, and potentially even create a surplus of energy to sell back to your utility.

1. Install LED lights

Older light bulbs use only a small percentage of the electricity they take in to make light while the rest of the energy is lost as heat. Modern LED bulbs, on the other hand, use almost all of the electricity they take in to make light. In fact, a good LED light bulb only needs about a tenth of the electricity as a traditional light bulb to produce the same amount of light, so they aren’t pulling as much energy from your solar system to light your home.

Additionally, because LEDs are so much more efficient, they last much longer than incandescent bulbs. This means that replacing the lights in your home with LEDs will pay off quickly.

smart thermostat

2. Purchase smart thermostats

Smart thermostats, like other smart devices, allow you to remotely control your home’s temperature via mobile or internet-connected devices. Many smart thermostats allow you to program the temperature to change based on the time of day, and some can even learn your habits and automatically create energy-efficient heating and cooling schedules based on how you typically adjust your thermostat.

Installing smart thermostats in your home will allow you to keep a close eye on how much energy from your solar power system you’re using to heat and cool your house, as well as when you’re using it, so that you can easily make adjustments to conserve energy.

3. Check windows and doors

In many homes, a significant amount of heat and air conditioning is lost through windows, doors, and roofs because these are the areas that typically have small gaps where air can escape, as well as enter from the outside. You can combat this and reduce the strain on your solar energy system by installing double- or triple-paned windows, replacing old weather stripping, and/or applying caulk. You can also insulate and save energy by adding thick drapery to windows.

4. Invest in smart plugs

Even when appliances and electronics are turned off, they can still suck quite a bit energy from your solar power system if they are plugged in. According to The New York Times, a washing machine can use 4 watts per hour when plugged in and turned off, a cable box can use 26 watts per hour when turned off and not recording, and a laptop can use 48 watts per hour when closed and charging. If you do the math, those three devices alone can drain 1,848 watts per day, more than 55,000 watts per month, and over 674,000 watts per year just by being plugged in.

If you don’t want to worry about constantly plugging and unplugging electronics and appliances, you can purchase smart power strips or smart plugs, which allow you to control and cut power to devices remotely through a mobile app.

ceiling fan

5. Use ceiling fans

According to the Department of Energy, heating and air conditioning takes up about 48 percent of a home’s energy budget on average. This means that your HVAC system can easily use up most, if not all, of the energy produced by your solar panels. While ceiling fans won’t heat or cool the air in your home, they can circulate the air and make rooms more comfortable while using significantly less solar energy.

For the most noticeable results, set your ceiling fans to rotate counterclockwise in summer, which will distribute cool air around the room, and switch the fans to rotate clockwise in winter, which will help push warm air down from the ceiling into the room.

6. Consider battery storage

The price of solar batteries has dropped significantly in recent years and is expected to continue to fall, making them increasingly attractive to homeowners. While solar battery storage is still a developing technology and may not be the best option for every solar system owner at this point in time, it can be a very beneficial option for those who frequently experience grid blackouts or are subject to time-of-use electricity rates from their utility company.

With a solar battery, your home will be able to run off of the clean solar energy stored up in the battery at night or during power outages.

7. Be conscious of energy use

When you leave a room, take care to turn out the lights. When you’re finished using an appliance or electronic, turn it off and unplug it. Simply being aware of the ways you consume electricity and making minor adjustments when you notice you’re using more than you need to is one of the best ways to make sure that the energy produced by your solar power system is being used as effectively as possible.

A proponent of renewable energy and green living, Sarah Hancock enjoys writing about sustainability and manages the solar blog on BestCompany.com. You can also find her work on Twitter.


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.

Benefits of Personal Energy Independence

ground array 

The concept of energy independence first entered the national consciousness in the early 1970’s, when the unstable nature of reliance on foreign oil was made all too obvious by a series of embargoes and price hikes at the hands of politically opposed Arab nations. President Nixon promised that the United States would be independent of foreign energy sources within 10 years, and while that benchmark came and went, the idea has remained a political talking point ever since. It has been used as justification for environmentally disastrous practices like fracking and offshore drilling, and as a scare tactic to promote hawkish foreign policy agendas.

But it hasn’t been all bad! Just as the goal of self-reliance in our energy sector has been used to give grounds for destructive solutions, it has also been used to justify investments in more renewable, homegrown energy sources that not only wean us off of foreign power, but do so in an environmentally sustainable way. And unlike oil and natural gas, which are only feasible on a large scale, solar power can bring energy independence directly to the consumer in a more practical and immediate way. This “personal energy independence” addresses the same concerns about relying on foreign nations for our power, but on a personal scale.

The most obvious concern when relying on an outside source for power is security, and the extreme weather that much of the US faces keeps this concern front-of-mind. We are made aware of the fragility of our energy every time a strong storm knocks the power out, which can be quite often depending on your location and the age of your power grid. Power outages can quickly go from irritating to lethal, with sub-zero winters, and summers where the heat index regularly tops 100 degrees. Whether your system is tied in to the grid, or completely off-grid, your power can stay on no matter how many power lines are downed.

Energy independence also brings some stability to your budget. With regular variations in energy prices and usage, it can be difficult to predict your energy costs year-to-year, or even month-to-month. If you are running a completely off-grid system, it becomes incredibly easy to predict your power bill: It’s nothing! Aside from any outstanding costs from the purchase or installation of your system, which is just a regular monthly bill, there is no need to worry about fluctuating energy costs because you have none. Even with a grid tie-in system, you can rest assured that by producing most of your own energy, your power bill will stay below a predictable level that makes any fluctuations negligible. These fluctuations will typically be in your favor anyway. Depending on size and sunlight, grid tie-in systems often wind up producing more energy than they can use or store, meaning the power winds up getting sold to the power company.

One benefit of energy independence that can’t be so easily measured is the peace of mind it brings. Energy security and stability are not only beneficial for their own sake. Having fewer things to worry about, and thus less stress, improves mental and physical health in a myriad of ways. Not to mention the joy that comes from knowing that you are doing something every day to lessen your carbon footprint and make the world a better place!

Like any bold step towards more personal freedom, taking the plunge into energy independence can seem intimidating. You probably have a lot of questions, and may not even know where to start.

I look forward everyday to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there.

Stay energized,

aur

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur'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.

10 Off-Grid Myths

rehouse 

I’ve been living without any connection to grid power since 1991. The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook can teach you the basics. In all these years I can say that there have only been a few power failures at my home that weren’t my fault. Well, not directly anyway.

After living with a trusty Trace inverter since day one, I decided to upgrade shortly after the turn of the century (I like saying that, it makes me feel “experienced”) from 24 to 48 volts and to a pure sine wave inverter. Three new inverters failed within a year and tech support was as helpful as they could be, but there were no answers. Ultimately, it became clear that modern inverters are far more sensitive than those robust tanks of yesteryear. Nothing like lots of old-school copper and iron to buffer you from distant lightning strikes. I now have no less than 6 ground rods (all tied together), and three surge protectors defending two PV arrays, a wind tower, and a diesel generator against errant electric fields.

When a customer tells me they want to go off-grid, the first thing I try to do is talk them out of it. You can enjoy the benefits of renewable energy with the convenience of grid power. There are many stories about people either wanting to go off-grid, or actually doing it and feeling pretty good about it. Everyone has their reasons and motivations, and there are many rewards, but if you’re looking for a realistic (though perhaps slightly curmudgeonly) perspective from a long time off-gridder, read on. I’ve attempted to support or debunk some of the mythology I’ve heard over the years. Despite advice to the contrary, I know there are some of you who can’t be stopped (insert applause here). Plan well!

Myth #1: No more electric bills! Wrong! You may not pay the local utility, but you will pay. You’ll pay for the cost of the system (PVs, mounting, grounding, metering, site resource assessment, backup generator, etc). Then you’ll pay for batteries, and then you’ll pay for them again, and again.

battbank

Myth #2: Solar costs less than grid power. See Myth #1. Add up those costs and add more to it. PV panels have indeed come way down in cost over time, but other system components have not. I bought my first PV panel in 1988 for $8/watt, and used it to charge a motorcycle battery that powered my off-grid room in an on-grid home. Last I looked, PVs were selling for around $.75/watt. Should I have waited? Absolutely not! The bane of an off-grid system is batteries. Despite the antiquated nature of lead acid batteries, they are still the go-to technology for large quantities of energy storage due to their low up-front cost. In my experience, lead acid batteries used in off-grid service will last seven years regardless of brand, type, or capacity. Treat them well and plan on replacement every seven years more or less. Purchase price of a battery bank depends on how much storage you need, and is currently around $125/kilowatt-hour for lead-acid. Utility power is actually pretty cheap for the amount of work it can do for you. You might also face costs related to permitting, insurance, and property tax. What PVs can buy you, on or off the grid, is a bit of buffer from volatile energy prices.

Myth #3: Off-grid means a simple life. Not so fast. Granted, off-grid living ties you more closely to reality in many ways, but managing a small electric utility requires time, skill, and savvy. All those systems will need maintenance. Failing to check for loose or corroded electrical connections can lead to minor bugs or catastrophic failure. The generator will need oil and fuel. If you have a wind tower, best to hire a pro for potentially dangerous maintenance duty! Batteries require periodic attention. You’ll need to check connections and water them every two months or so (assuming you choose lead-acid batteries). Battery maintenance also requires a bit of an intrepid spirit. You definitely don’t want to see sparks fly around loose battery connections! I’ve seen batteries explode and it is one of those experiences that keeps me careful in this work. Overall, off grid living will increase your workload.

Myth #4: Snow slides off the panels. Ummm – no, it doesn’t. I tilt my panels steeply to capture low-angle New England winter sunlight when I desperately need it to charge both my internal battery and the power storage batteries. Snow is sticky, heavy, sometimes icy, and it doesn’t slide off until I either sweep it off or the sun comes out and offers some warming.

pvsnow

Myth #5: Going off-grid will reduce carbon footprint. It very well might, but first look at your regional utility grid power mix. Many utilities have renewable energy portfolio standards that make them greener, and efficiency programs that make them cleaner. If you’re on-grid, get as efficient as you can to lower your carbon footprint and reduce energy costs. If you’re off-grid, you can’t take advantage of those programs (because you don’t pay into the system as ratepayers do). In addition, when your renewable resource is scarce, you’ll need to run your fossil fuel generator to keep the batteries charged.

Myth #6: Renewable energy is more efficient than grid power. Not so much. Efficiency is not really the point with renewables though; it’s about effectively capturing and utilizing an appropriate, local resource. Production grade PV panels are in the range of 15 to 20 percent efficient at converting photons into electrons. After sending those electrons through additional power components like controllers, inverters, and batteries, overall system efficiency drops to around ten percent. About 25 percent of the energy content of the resource being fed to the utility power plant lands at your meter. Best efficiency and cost-effectiveness scenario is to stay on grid and offset your use with renewables.

windtower

Myth #7: I can continue to do things the way I always have. Sorry. No electric heaters or other gluttonous habits that squander electrons allowed. You’ll start looking differently at the ways in which nature bestows its enormity upon you. It will become a challenge to see much can you capture and use with minimal effort and cost. When nature gives, you’ll want to be ready to take full advantage of the bounty. You won’t be able to help yourself! But when the resource is not available, you need to rely on energy storage or other generation systems. You won’t be able to do things the way you did before but more importantly, you won’t want to. Autonomy comes with both costs and benefits.

Myth #8: I can drive my EV on renewable energy. Trouble is that an EV battery holds as much (and probably much more) energy as your home’s battery bank. That means spreading your renewable resource pretty thin. Unless you have a very large PV array and live in a very sunny climate, off-grid PV charging will be inconsistent and sporadic at best. I’ve been thinking about how to modify an EV so that I can charge the batteries downtown, then drive home and plug it in to provide house power. This technology exists for some on-grid locations where the electric company supports it, but to my knowledge this is not an option for off-grid systems.

Myth #9: You don't need to go off the grid to get off the consumer treadmill. TRUE! Take off-grid as far as you can, any way you can. Grow your own food, pump your own water, build your own shelter, make your own renewable natural gas, manage your own woodlot, buy less stuff, manage your own health. Low-profile is a hugely beneficial lifestyle in so many ways, but you must enter into it with eyes wide open and plan well to clarify your goals, manage expectations, and control the outcomes.

Myth #10: Nikola Tesla knew something. True again! He was a genius. But anyone claiming to have figured it out and now wants to sell you a kit to make free energy at home is only trying to scam you! Don’t fall for it.

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency and renewable energy consultant, author, and hands-on/off-grid homesteader.


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.

Canary Islands Move Towards Wave Power

wave powerIslands are one of the most expensive places in the world to produce electricity, due to their remoteness from mainland power sources. Many island nations rely on diesel fuels to power the islands, which is not only incredibly expensive, but also equally terrible for the environment. The Canary Islands off the coast of Northern Africa are no exception, but they have been looking for alternative ways to produce electricity.

Unlike other islands, the Canary Islands have not been looking towards typical renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar power, to build their electricity production. The Canary Islands have instead been looking at harnessing the energy from ocean waves to power newly built wave facilities and harness electricity for the island.

On the Canary Islands, most of the diesel fuel is used to run desalination plants for fresh drinking, cooking, and bathing water. Having fresh water is also vital to support the 15 million annual tourists that visit the Canary Islands. Without fresh water, tourism – one of the main sources of income on the islands – would drop off drastically and hurt the economy.

Seabased, a Swedish wave energy company, is working in the Canary Islands to produce their first wave-powered plant. This wave energy installation will be able to produce 5 megawatts of electricity, which would be enough to power all of the desalination plants on the islands. This would result in clean water at a much lower cost to the islands, and would also have enormous environmentally benefits, such as a huge cut back on the usage of diesel fuels.

Oscar Sanchez, one of the owners of the largest private companies on the island, trusts that this move toward wave-powered electricity will be good for his business and for the economy of the Canary Islands.

“We have slightly less than 3,000 square miles of land mass and it makes perfect sense to get our power from the waves. I see enormous potential of using wave energy not just for specific projects, like desalination, but ultimately to provide power for hotels and the grid itself, which should be less expensive than fossil fuels," says Sanchez.

The CEO of Seabased, Øivind Magnussen, believes that the success of this wave energy installation could be replicated and expanded for other islands and countries around the world.

Infocom Connect from the United Arab Emirates has already begun working with other island nations to discuss reproducing similar installations and make renewable energy sources widespread in the Caribbean. With more renewable energy projects spreading around the globe, there is hope that civilization can begin to depend on renewable energies more than fossil fuels for the first time in history.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

U.S. Falls Behind in Solar Power Market

solar powerThe United States has never been the leading nation when it comes to solar power, but in 2017, it slipped even further behind in the competition. Now, India has surpassed the US with their efforts to move towards a more sustainable and renewable energy source.

In 2017, the United States added 8,173 megawatts of solar power capacity, down from the 11,274 megawatts added in 2016. During 2017, India added 9,628 megawatts of solar power capacity, which is more than the 4,251 megawatts added in 2016. Where the United State seems to have decreased their efforts to add solar power capacity, India has taken the initiative and more than doubled their solar power capacity from 2016 to 2017.

China and India were the two leading nations in 2017 in the solar power market, putting the spotlight on Asia to continue paving the way for solar energy. Globally, a total of 93,752 megawatts of solar power capacity was added in 2017, most of which came from Asian countries. China alone added just over 53 gigawatts (53,000 megawatts) of solar power in 2017, securing its spot as the leader in solar power installments globally.

In Asia, India is third in operational solar power capacity, with Japan in second. However, in 2017, India’s additions of solar power capacity passed Japan’s for the first time in history.

India has also put itself in the position to continue passing some of the most developed solar power markets globally. The country has been working hard to become a country whose main energy source is solar power. Their target is to reach a 100-gigawatt operational solar power capacity by 2022, and these recent pushes are keeping them on track.

India will continue on its mission to become one of the largest solar-run countries in the world, and hopefully their drive will inspire others to follow their lead. Solar energy is a cheap and renewable energy source that could help eliminate the need for fossil fuels and other environmentally damaging fuel resources.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

5 Questions for Living Off Grid

off grid

What exactly does living off grid mean? What do you need to live off grid?

Historically living off grid meant being your own utility company for electric, water, heat, and/or cooling. Historically it meant you were too far from utilities so you had to provide your own. Living Off Grid, Really!? can be as simple or similar as going camping or having a power failure. We kick into survival mode and figure out how to live with less. Typically off grid homes used 40% of the energy of an on grid home but that is changing due to the lower cost of solar.

However there is a new breed of people “living off grid” within the city.  I am broadening the definition to mean taking control of all aspects of your life from food to transportation.

How do solar panels work and are they as efficient as people say?

Albert Einstein won the Nobel prize in 1922 from explaining the photovoltaic effect in 1905 and I doubt I can do as good of a job. Basically they convert light (photons from the Sun) to electricity (electrons which is electrical current). In other words high tech space age magic. When the solar module (panel) makes the electricity (which is DC) it is stored in batteries (on off the grid systems), and converted to AC (regular house current) to be able to run regular AC appliances.

The efficiency of a photovoltaic system is the measurement of how much of the available solar energy a solar cell converts into electrical energy. Most typical silicon solar cells have a maximum efficiency of around 15 percent. Even a solar system with only 15 percent efficiency can power the average home in a cost-effective way. Do you drive a car? Cars convert thermal energy from burning gasoline into forward motion at an efficiency around 15–25% (and this on a finite resource). Should we wait for better?

How much does it cost?

What do you want to run? I need to know your daily energy usage to design a system to provide your power. A web enabled tablet, an LED light and a cell phone can be powered off of a portable power system for as little as $150. I have wired a small cabin in Garden of the Gods for under $3000, a small house near Benton for around $20,000 or a larger business in Alto Pass for over $50,000.

Will I be able to cool my home in the summer and heat in the winter?

Cool yes as there is plenty of sun in the summer. Heat with electric, no as there isn’t much sun in the winter. However even a gas furnace or wood furnace could need air circulation and controls and those we can power with solar. My recommendation is a multi-fuel (gas, solar thermal, wood) fired outdoor furnace.

off grid 1

How much room will the solar panels take?

Each typical solar module is 39 inches wide and 66 inches tall. How many you need is determined by your lifestyle’s energy needs. It is important to have a sunny location to put the solar modules facing south that is unshaded ideally from 9 to 3 which is during peak sun hours. A roof mounted system is the cheapest (don’t have to build a structure) but not always the best. A ground mounted system will always produce more as it can be mounted exactly in the right direct and at the right angle. The solar modules will also operate more efficiently the cooler they are and a ground mount has natural cooling with air flow around it.

Aur 'DaEnergyMon', is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ with AES Solar in Carterville and started educating himself about renewable energy as a teenager even before (at age 15) he moved into a camper in his parents driveway to live off grid solar and ended up living off grid for 18 years. Aur understands that living how he does makes it very easy to advocate for a life of simpler living, energy efficiency and renewable energy. His name Aur (pronounced "or") means light or to enlighten in Hebrew. Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at tech@AESsolar.com . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!?Facebook page, and read all of Aur'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.







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