Renewable Energy
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Going Off-Grid with Solar, Part 1: What Does it Mean and How Much Will it Cost?

 

This is Part 1 of a two-part series that explores the economics of going completely off-grid with solar. Part 1 focuses on what it actually means to go “off-grid” and how to start thinking about calculating the costs for cutting the cord with your utility. Part 2 discusses two real-world examples of sizing an off-grid solar energy system, along with the feasibility of going through with an off-grid solution.

The notion of living off-the-grid is becoming increasingly popular. Given the rising cost of electricity throughout the country, it’s hard to not at least consider cutting the cord every time a utility bill comes through the mail. But what does it really mean to go “off-grid”? For such a simple concept, the logistics of going off-grid are in fact rather complicated and very costly.

What Does It Mean To Go “Off-grid”?

Taking your home off-grid from an electricity perspective means completely removing any connection to the larger electric grid, which powers the large majority of homes, buildings and businesses throughout the country. This means that to go off-grid, you’ll need to meet all of your household needs with electricity produced on-site.

Importantly, installing solar panels on your roof does not mean that you’ve gone off the grid. Most solar energy systems are not designed to consistently generate enough electricity to be a home’s only power source, which is why the vast majority of solar homeowners maintain a connection with their utility company.

In these cases, a policy called net metering allows you to put the electricity produced by your solar panels back onto the electric grid when you aren’t using it, and to then pull from the grid when your solar panels aren’t producing, at night or when the weather is less than ideal. At the end of the month or year, you’re billed by your electric utility on the net of production from your solar panels and the electricity you used from the grid, hence the term net-metering.

In an off-grid solar energy system, you don’t have access to the larger electric grid when you need it, either at night when your solar panels aren’t producing, or in the event of a prolonged period of cloudy weather. Instead, you need to create your own personal “grid”, installing on-site battery storage to store the output from your solar panels for use at a later point in time.

Calculate the Cost of an Off-grid System in 4 Steps

Going off-grid with solar requires more than just installing solar panels and disconnecting from your electric utility. There are four key steps to determine if going off-grid is feasible for your home, as well as how much it will cost:

  1. Calculate how much electricity you use;
  2. Determine how many solar batteries you will need;
  3. Design a solar panel system to fit your needs;
  4. And add up the costs of the combined solar plus storage system.

How Much Electricity Do You Use?

The first step in going off-grid is understanding how much electricity you use, alternatively known as your consumption or your electricity load. To figure out how many solar panels and solar batteries you need to go off-grid, you need to know how much electricity your home uses each day.

There are two primary ways to calculate your home’s daily electricity needs. The first, and easiest, is to find the monthly consumption number on your electricity bill (expressed in kilowatt-hours, or kWh). To get daily electric consumption, divide your monthly usage by the number of days in the month. Since usage can vary from month to month, it’s a good idea to perform this calculation for multiple months.

The second method for calculating your daily electricity load is a “bottom-up” approach: multiply the wattage of each appliance in your home by the number of hours you use it every day. Though you may not be able to find the specific wattage for all of your appliances, most large household electronics - like TVs or refrigerators - come with a yellow Energy Guide sticker that estimates yearly energy use. Divide that number by 365 to get an estimated average daily electricity load for these appliances.

One of the best tools available for estimating energy use is the Department of Energy’s calculator. Based on that calculator, here are some estimates for the electric load of common appliances:

Appliance

Estimated annual load (kWh)

Estimated daily load (kWh)

Refrigerator

600

1.6

Air conditioning unit

215

0.6

Central air conditioning

1,000

2.7

Space heater

600

1.6

 

The approach listed above is a great way to review your historical energy usage, though may not be as useful to forecast future energy consumption. The second approach, on the other hand, is better at forecasting what you may use in the future. Both of these approaches are estimates, though; if you’re planning to install solar and storage to go off-grid, it may be worth purchasing a home energy monitor to get a more precise estimate of your electricity usageYour electricity consumption directly impacts how large of a solar plus storage system you’ll need to install. By first conducting an energy efficiency audit, or by adjusting your consumption habits (for instance, by air drying clothes and dishes instead of using electric heat), you can decrease the cost of going off-grid substantially.

How Many Batteries Will You Need?

In order to go off grid, you need a way to store the electricity produced by your solar energy system at times when you’re not using it. Importantly, not every solar battery can operate independently of the grid, even if you’re feeding it solar energy. To go off-grid, you specifically need a battery that can “island”, or form its own grid, so that the panels will recharge the battery every day without a grid connection.

To determine the number of these batteries you need to power your house for a single day, you need to know both your daily electricity consumption and the amount of electricity stored in a standard solar battery.

The amount of electricity stored in a battery is called the “Usable Energy”, expressed in kWh. This is the amount of electricity that you can get out of a battery, after accounting for electrical losses and any energy needed to power the battery itself.

With these two data points in hand, calculating the number of batteries you’ll need is straightforward. For instance, the average American household uses about 30 kWh per day. Given the conversion losses associated with storing electricity, you’ll need enough batteries to store slightly more than what you use per day, likely closer to 32 kWh, depending upon the efficiency of the battery you select.

Two of the most common solar batteries are the Tesla Powerwall 2 and the LG Chem RESU 10H, which store 13.5 kWh and 9.3 kWh of usable energy, respectively. So in this example, the average American homeowner would need 3 Powerwalls or 4 RESU 10H batteries to meet a single day’s electricity need.

It’s important to remember that this is just the number of batteries you’ll need to power your house for a single day. In reality, you’ll want to have enough backup storage capacity to power your house for many days, or even an entire week, in order to ensure you still have electricity if you have a period of inclement weather or need to use more than your average daily usage in a single day.

How Many Solar Panels Will You Need?

Next, you’ll want to design the solar energy system that will supply electricity to your property and storage setup to be large enough to fill your battery every day.

The electricity you a solar panel system produces is directly a result of the amount of sunlight your panels receive. The average home in the U.S. receives an average of 5 sun hours per day over the course of the year, which represents not the amount of time panels are in the sun but rather measures the number of hours during which sunlight intensity is 1,000 W/square meter. The amount of electricity your panels produce is also related to the angle they’re placed at and whether they receive direct sunlight all day or spend time in the shade.

To determine how many solar panels you need to fill your batteries every day, divide the amount of electricity needed (in this case, 32 kWh) by the number of expected sun hours (5 in this example):

32 kWh / 5 hours = 6.4 kW

Thus, we need a solar panel array of about 6.4 kilowatts to fill up a battery bank with a capacity of 32 kWh each day.

The number of solar panels you’ll need for a 6.4 kW system depends on the power output (in watts) of the solar panels you use, which generally range in wattage from 250W to 400W:

Solar panel wattage (W)

Number of solar panels for a 6.4 kW system

250

26

300

21

350

18

400

16

Adding up the costs

The average cost of solar in the U.S. is $2.98 per Watt, meaning our 6.4 kW system comes to $19,072 prior to incentives. A single installed Tesla Powerwall battery costs between $9,800 and $15,800, so installing three Powerwalls would likely cost somewhere between $29,400 and $47,400 before incentives. Add that together and you’re looking at a total installed cost between $48,215 and $66,615, before any rebates, tax credits, or other incentives are applied.

However, remember that these are just the costs for a system capable of powering an average American home for a single, average day. In reality, not every day requires the same amount of electricity, nor is every day perfectly sunny. While the average daily usage in American households is 30 kWh, hot summer days with AC on full blast could use as much as 80 kWh.

Once you start considering both seasonal and day-to-day weather variations, the prospect of going off-grid becomes vastly more complicated. What happens if it rains for a week straight, or if you live in a region with snowy winters? Just an hour of cloudy weather during the day could reduce the production of your solar array by up to 20 percent, meaning that if you only size your solar plus storage system to perfectly meet your average daily consumption, there may be many times throughout the year when your system doesn’t produce enough electricity to power your home. As a result, in nearly every case, to go off-grid requires more than a single day’s worth of backup electricity.

The only way to safely go “off the grid” is to make sure you’re ready for the most extreme situations possible, because being left without power and without the electrical grid to pull from can be a potentially dangerous situation to find yourself in. In the Northeast, an off-grid solar installation needs to account for fluctuating electricity loads during the seasons, as well as the possibility of greatly reduced production in winter months due to snow cover or cloudy days. In the Southwest, high AC use in the summer may require a larger-than-usual array and storage system to keep your home comfortable during the hot months.

Why Go Off-grid?

There are homes that function very well off-grid with smaller and less expensive solar and storage systems. But these homes are designed specifically for this purpose, often because they are located in remote areas that don’t have access to an electricity grid. Some of these houses are built to Passive House standards and require very little energy for heating or cooling. Others use wood burning for space heating and limit the extent of electrical systems in the house. Homeowners in these situations may pay a premium for these features, or manage their lifestyle with an expectation of time periods throughout the year without electricity.

In the majority of instances, however, the desire to go off-grid may be less about cutting the cord with your utility and more driven by improving resiliency. By installing one or two solar batteries with islanding capabilities, you can ensure that your house remains powered even in the event of a severe weather event or outage on the rest of the grid. For most solar shoppers, this is a cost-effective way to improve the resiliency of your home without breaking the bank to go off-grid entirely.

Jacob is on the marketing team at EnergySage, the online solar marketplace, focusing on SEO and content. He recently graduated from Tufts University with a degree in Geoscience. When he’s not checking up on the latest Google algorithm update or writing about topics in the solar energy industry, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or rewatching Game of Thrones.


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.

Lights when Living off Grid

 

My name Aur means light or to enlighten in Hebrew and since I grew up without electricity but love to read late into the night I have always looked for ways to lighten up my life. 

Most of our lights were the yellow light of a fire, candle, kerosene lamp or flashlight.Growing up we tended to go to bed at dark and wake up at light although in the winter due to the very short days we ended up spending a decent amount of money on candles or kerosene for our lamps. 

As I got older (9 or 10) I got a job so I was able to start buying batteries for a flashlight or a headlamp  to read. I remember once getting so enthralled with a book as I read under the covers (it was a cold winter night) all night that when my dad got up at daylight at 5 or 5:30 I was still reading. He gave me a little lecture saying I would ruin my eyes. 

I was even able to once buy a hand cranked flashlight which was good for walking the dark paths but not good for reading as I had to continuously squeeze crank it for it to work. 

I really think I got into solar due to wanting light and not having an affordable readily available good source. In an upcoming post I will write about the evolution of my tiny off grid system. I worked all summer doing low paying (poorest county in Tennessee) menial jobs to save up to buy my first solar module to primarily power lights which were 12 volt halogen tail light bulbs run off of an old truck battery. I couldn’t run them very much as they used around 50 watts of power so I bought some 12 volt DC 13 watt CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) so I could run one bulb for around 4 hours to use the same energy as the halogen used in one hour. 

The first LED ( light emitting diode) bulb  I bought was $157 wholesale but it made it so I had plenty of power as this bulb only used 3 watts.  I went from using 50 watts to 3 watts an hour for running a lightbulb. 

We say for every $1 (dollar) spent on energy efficiency you can save $3-$8 on your solar system. Of course now that LEDs are much cheaper there are lots of solar and/or battery operated LED lights for great prices. 

May your life be well lit and may it be solar powered! 

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.

Into the Wood: A Day in the Life of an Off-Grid Entrepreneur

flooded 

Today's Off the Grid job was only 2.7 miles from pavement versus last Friday's off the grid job was over 6 miles from pavement and I had to ford a stream. Also last Friday I had to go the long way because Snake road was closed. Some days my life is an adventure. #GetEnergized #GoSolar

Truly a Couple of Off-Grid Customers

The GPS tells me that it'll take 14 minutes to go 5 miles and I almost make it only to find THE Road was flooded as well as washed out so I had to backtrack about 30 minutes. I made it through a majority of the road even though it was washed out in places due to a big rainstorm yesterday. But I made it through most of it. I knew that snake road was closed for the snake migration so I went to take another road but I didn't know that it was completely flooded. In the end I had to take the longest route around but made it.

One customer we put their system in 2 years ago and I was doing a check up on it.

10 year upgrade

The other customer put their system in at least 10 years ago and is now tripling their solar so they can put in air conditioning and a pool. He did a self install but he was smart enough to have me come to test and make sure the system was wired up, and hooked up correctly which it wasn’t.

ZENN

It turned out to kind of be lucky that I got lost because as I was getting turned around a guy pulled up with a truck pulling a trailer and on the trailer was as an ZENN electric car of which only about 500 of them were ever made. He told me that it cost $66,000 to make each one and they were listing them for under $17,000. This all electric car was made from scratch to be all electric with an all aluminum frame and ABS plastic body. He said it's 72 volts ( 6- 12 volt ) batteries and that it only goes about 25 miles on a charge. So basically a hopped up golf cart. All I know is it was completely unexpected to be deep in the woods and run into a guy who was just driving all the way from Chicago (about 6 hours)  where he had got this car off of Craigslist.

Before I bumped into him I was kind of cranky that I had gotten not really lost but had to completely backtrack almost 30 minutes of traveling.

I did see a wild turkey and some really nice nature as I drove through Trail of Tears State Park. I usually follow the GPS as it tells me the shortest way but it never really tells me the shortest time. Although we probably wouldn't have known that the road was washed out and the creeks were still high.

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.

'Renewable Energy, It’s Not for You': A Critique of Public Utilities' Approach to Renewables

RENEW Wisconsin Conference Plenary

Governor Evers addresses the Summit. Photo by Toby Grotz

The RENEW 2019 Renewable Energy Summit was held at the Monona Terrace conference center in Madison, Wisconsin. The building is on the shores of Lake Monona and was was inspired by the Frank Lloyd Wright 1955 Night Rooftop Rendering and design of a gathering space as shown in the drawing below. This futuristic vision and space was the ideal location for a conference on renewable energy.

At the Summit, a strange and distorted message emanated from some of the invited speakers. It seems that the current approach of the utilities is “Hey! We got this! We’re building solar and wind because — why?"

The so-called “public utilities” — a term in code often meaning not public, but rather investor-owned — want to keep a centralized and controlled energy system without rooftop solar on your house so they can pay, in the case of Xcel Energy, their CEO $12 million a year and the next four men under him $2 million each a year and pay stock dividends to investors on Wall Street. Xcel Energy President for Wisconsin and Michigan announced during the RENEW conference that Xcel will be fossil free by 2050. The promise was light on details, and I walked away with the impression that the utility does not currently have a committed plan to achieve the goal.

Utility Zero Carbon Emissions Graph

The Good, The Bad, and the Hopelessly Dirty

My criticism comes from having heard promises like this from power companies over the years: They’re the good guys now, even though they opposed emission-monitoring on coal plants, the addition of precipitators to remove coal fly ash, the addition of scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, and the addition of carbon injection into flue gas to remove mercury. They fought every suggestion to make their fossil fuel plants safe*.

Not only does burning coal release mercury, lead, and arsenic, but also uranium and radioactive isotopes of other elements measured in a coal ash analysis at 4 to 10 parts million, which means fossil fuel technology is operating using many ways that threaten our communities. Now that the United States has been blanketed with mercury and heavy metals from coal plants, with one externality being that pregnant women are advised against eating freshwater fish in Wisconsin and other states, all of a sudden utilities champion efforts for clean energy and a reduction of carbon emissions.

Currently, the public utilities do not have a safe and cost-effective method of generating energy except for wind and solar. Nuclear, of course, is the most dangerous of all ways to generate power. Coal plants have wreaked havoc on the environment with their toxic emissions and CO2 contributions to greenhouse gasses and natural gas power plants result in methane emissions that are 86 times more potent over 20 years than CO2.

The most egregious logic I heard during the conference, during a time when facts often don’t matter, came from the Chair of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, Ellen Novak (below left) and State Representative Mike Kuglitsch (below right, R- Assembly District 84).

Appointed by Governor Scott Walker, and outspoken climate change denier, Ms. Novak suggested several times that “government needs to get out of the way” on the path to clean, safe, reliable energy generation and distribution.

RENEW Wisconsin Conference Panel

'Science is Back'?

It is striking that the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin has no technical expertise on the board — not an engineer or physicist in sight. One of the eyebrow-raising moments of the RENEW conference came when Governor Evers addressed the gathering. One of the most significant statements made by any candidate post-election was the Governor’s saying that “Science is back.” Let’s hope that the next appointment to the PSC is a scientist or engineer with expertise in energy and infrastructure.

Getting government out of the way was also a message repeated several times by Mr. Kuglitsch. By this time, some members of the audience were squirming and agitated. Although they remained polite, most of us heard the mantra repeated several times during the day that getting government out of the way was an answer to rapid development of renewable energy. The irony here is that government has been out of the way ever since the municipal power companies were buried by the investor-owned utilities and Public Service Commissions and state and federal regulatory agencies were stuffed with fossil-fuel industry staff.

Cities and towns that own, operate and maintain their roads and bridges, water supply, sewer and sanitation systems also used to own, operate, and maintain electric generation and distribution.The companies that buried the municipal utilities and opposed renewable energy now want to profit from renewables and control the market, because the cost has come down to the point that they can maintain their monopolies and make the enormous amounts of money on the backs of their customers that they were able to do in the era of cheap coal.

The utility industry has a talking points list that promotes the concept of a mix of sources. This was promulgated by Ms. Nowak and Mr. Kuglitsch, who both mentioned nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewables. This mix is touted as being safe, reliable, and of reasonable cost. We know that the most dangerous, not so safe source, is nuclear. This is followed by coal which, along with petroleum, has resulted in dumping 200 million years' worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere in only 200 years. We know this has led us lead toward catastrophic climate changes long before the 2050 goal Xcel has set for zero carbon emission.

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require violation of the mantra of no government involvement and requires the government to mandate that industry come up with a way to cut emission to zero by 2030 or lose their charter to do business in the State of Wisconsin.

I’ve worked in coal, gas, and nuclear power plants and for the companies that design and build them. During a breakout session on Utility-Scale Solar and Wind, concern was expressed about the negative comments circulating in social media and on certain networks about renewable energy. I've heard from purveyors of fear over the years stating that there is a "war on coal", and pushing out fiction ("volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans and trees pollute") about renewable energy. From the C-suites on down in the utility and fossil fuel industry comes the negative information that is fed into social media and into the networks.

Demanding a Renewable Energy Future Now

We can’t wait for the government or industry to get it right.  We must demand that plans be made to convert to renewable energy by 2030 or sooner. If renewable energy is for the power companies and not for you, they will maintain their monopoly while dragging their feet to lessen the impact of climate change. You can fight back. Get your own solar system. MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been at the forefront of this effort since it’s inception. Find more information here. You can take a solar energy design classes at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, get involved with community solar efforts, and help build a sustainable future.

Long before there were power companies and coal companies, Sitting Bull described the men who would run them saying, “They make rules the rich may break, and the poor may not. The love of possession is a disease with them.”

Sitting Bull Painting Art

Sitting Bull by artist Elliot Meadows as shown at the Viva Gallery.

References:

The Last Energy War, Harvey Wasserman, Seven Stories Press in association with Open Media, 1999.

 "SHAM? SHAME! Inside the Electric Power Industry", Jack Casazza, American Education Institute, 2001.

 Xcel Executive Compensation PDF, see page 41.

We Only Have One Chance to Get It Right: Transition to Renewable Energy, MOTHER EARTH NEWS

OSHA cites Xcel for electrical explosion at Sherco, Star Tribune.

Toby Grotz is an electrical engineer who has been involved on both sides of the energy equation: exploring for oil and gas and geothermal resources and in the utility industry working in coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. He has been a community garden advocate and organizer ever since. Recent projects include lecturing for the Food Not Lawns classes sponsored by the University of Missouri, Kansas City Communiversity. He is a member of the Sierra Club and past officer of the Kanza Group. Read all of Toby'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.

 

Should You Purchase a Solar-Ready Battery for Your Home? 5 Energy Storage Considerations for Homeowners

home-rooftop-solar-system

Energy storage technology has existed for quite some time, but the use of solar batteries in residential energy systems is a relatively new development. Although home energy storage prices have fallen significantly in recent years, solar batteries still have a decently hefty price tag and do not make economic sense for every homeowner. However, a solar-plus-storage system can be beneficial in some situations.

Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether or not solar battery storage is the right fit for you and your home.

Are you required to pay time-of-use electricity rates?

If your utility company charges time-of-use rates, this means that the amount you pay for electricity will vary depending on the time of day. During hours when electricity demand is high, typically in the evening and at night, you’ll pay more for power than you would when electricity demand is low, typically during the late morning and early afternoon.

If you are subject to time-of-use billing, a solar battery can be a beneficial investment for you because during the daytime, your solar system will be producing enough energy to both power your home and charge up your battery. Then at nighttime, you’ll be able to use the energy stored in the battery to power your home rather than having to pull from the grid at the higher time-of-use rate.

Does your utility require demand charges?

Some utilities charge customers an additional fee that’s dependent upon how much electricity they use. The fee could be determined by the amount of power used when total electricity demand is high, or it may encompass all electricity used during a month.

If you’re required to pay demand charges to your utility, installing home energy storage can be beneficial by helping you to avoid a high demand fee by pulling from the grid less often and utilizing energy stored in your solar battery instead.

Do you live in a state with net metering?

In states where true net metering exists, customers will receive a credit equal to the amount the utility charges for traditional electricity for each kilowatt-hour of energy their solar panels produce and send back to the grid.

If you have access to true net metering, a solar battery may not be worth it for you from a financial standpoint because you’ll be able to freely give and take energy from the grid at no additional cost.

Are you susceptible to frequent power outages?

For safety reasons, all standard grid-tied solar systems have an automatic shut-off switch that will turn off the system during a power outage. This means that those who have a standard solar energy system without battery backup will still lose power when the grid goes down. However, when a battery is added to the setup, the home can still run off of the energy stored up in the event of a blackout.

If you experience regular power outages and would like to continue to have power when the grid is down, or if you’re interested in the peace of mind that comes along with energy backup, a solar battery may be worth the cost.

Do you want solar storage to take you off the grid?

Many homeowners are interested in the idea of going completely off the grid and having the ability to operate totally independent of their electric utility, and some view solar batteries as the means to make it happen. However, on their own, most solar batteries on the market today do not have the capacity to store the energy necessary to keep a home running throughout the entire year.

If going 100 percent off the grid is your goal, solar batteries likely aren’t the best solution unless you have ample space available and are prepared to invest tens of thousands dollars in a large multi-battery storage setup.

Sarah Hancock educates consumers about the workings of the solar industry to help people make decisions that benefit both their own interests and the environment. Connect with her on the Best Company Solar Blog and on Twitter. Read all of Sarah’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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Solar Panels are the New iPhone: Imagining a Distributed Energy Future

Graphic Hand Holding Cell Phone 

In 1994, only 10% of Americans had a cell phone. And yet, in 15 short years, more Americans had cell phones than landlines. While the rapid adoption of mobile phones can’t be attributed to a single factor, there is one major parallel between the transition from landlines to smart phones and what’s actively happening today in the electricity industry: the transition from a centralized system to a distributed (or decentralized) network.

Electricity and Telecommunications: Parallel Industries

The electricity industry operates in much the same way today that the telecommunications industry operated 30 years ago. In the 1990s, your telephone company likely charged you a fixed fee for monthly service plus a variable, per-minute rate for long-distance calls.

Today your electricity company bills you similarly, with a mix of fixed and variable charges based upon how much electricity you use per month and how much it costs to transmit that electricity to your house.

The parallels between the two industries don’t end there. With landlines, your phone service was physically hardwired to a centralized telecommunications system. Similarly, when you flip on a light switch or plug in your toaster oven, you are connecting directly into an electrical grid that is powered by large, centralized power plants that may be many hundreds of miles from where you live.

And just as the telecommunications industry of the 1990s experienced a major disruption from the decentralized technology of cell phones, so too is today’s electricity industry on the verge of a major disruption as the result of the distributed generation of electricity.

Transitioning to Distributed Networks

At present, the electric grid is very centralized: Large power plants are connected to electricity buyers through a web of transmission and distribution lines. These high-powered generation resources are designed to satisfy the electricity needs of hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of households and businesses in a given region. With the benefit of a connected grid of transmission and distribution lines, these large power plants do not need to be located close to customers, but rather can remain part of a centralized market.

At a high level, distributed generation (DG) — also referred to as a distributed energy resource (DER) — is any source of electricity that is on the decentralized distribution grid. Though this definition includes small-scale wind turbines, hydropower, and even fossil-fuel-powered backup generators, the most common form of distributed generation for residential applications is solar energy.

Distributed generation already plays an important role for the electricity grid. Rooftop solar panels can help defer or avoid large investments in infrastructure upgrades on the electrical system, helping all electricity customers save money. What’s more, solar panels provide a suite of environmental co-benefits beyond the monetary savings, including acting as a source of emission-free, local generation that can contribute to improvements in air quality.

However, while the transition to a distributed telecommunications network is effectively complete, the transition to a distributed energy grid is only just beginning. Solar is the most widespread of distributed energy resources, but as of 2018, less than 4% of all residential, single-family stand-alone homes in the country had installed solar.

Hand Holding Smart Phone Outside

Imagining a Distributed Energy Future

In all likelihood, a distributed generation future will still rely upon the centralized power grid. Returning to the telecommunication industry as an example, even though nine out of ten Americans own a cell phone, two-thirds of Americans have still maintained their existing landline connection.

However, the shift from solar on 4% of American rooftops to 20%, and especially up to 80% of rooftops, would require substantial changes to the way that power companies do business today. Here, too, the electricity industry can learn from the experiences of the telecommunications industry.

For instance, in the past, if you wanted to make a long-distance phone call from a friend’s house — say, to tell your family that you had arrived safely — you might have offered to pay for making a long-distance phone call on somebody else’s phone bill.

These days, there’s no need to offer to cover the cost of your long-distance phone call, let alone to even ask to use a landline. It’s easy enough to text or call from the cell phone in your pocket to provide updates at every step along your journey.

Again, the story for electricity is similar, and envisioning how this may change in the future is full of possibilities. At the moment, if you charge your cell phone at a friend’s house, you probably don’t need to ask to use an outlet or offer to pay for the electricity you’ve consumed. But say that you have an electric vehicle that you wanted to charge at your friend’s house. Would you offer to cover the incremental charge of charging your car on their next utility bill?

Community Microgrids

Forecasting what a distributed energy future could look like expands beyond the similarities with a distributed telecommunications network. For instance, as more homes and businesses invest in distributed generation, it will become possible for individual streets, neighborhoods or entire cities and towns to connect all of their resources into their own, sustainable and reliable microgrid.

While these microgrids will continue to need access to the existing electrical grid, they will also be able to place energy back onto the grid to help provide power for other communities running their own microgrids, thus creating a “virtual” power plant out of aggregated distributed resources. Instead of relying exclusively upon centralized, large power plants, the electrical grid could become much more flexible as we begin to install more distributed energy resources.

The possibilities for how distributed generation may disrupt the electricity industry are endless. Thankfully, utilities need look no farther than their telecommunication counterparts for insight into how best to transition from a centralized grid to a distributed network of resources.

Spencer Fields is Content and Research Manager at 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 solar installation quote that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily.


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.

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.







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