As the price of electricity continues to climb, many homeowners are looking for new ways to shave down their energy costs. And, these days, more and more are considering renewable energy sources as an option. Technological advancements and an increase in manufacturing volume have significantly lowered the price of solar energy so it now costs about seven times less than it did twenty years ago. As the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy source available, solar power is definitely worth a closer look to see if it’s right for your home.
Solar Electric Power
A solar electric system harnesses the sun’s energy through photovoltaics (PV), which is the use of solar cells to directly convert light into electricity at the atomic level. The solar cells can be encapsulated in a variety of forms, including panels that are ground or roof mounted in a low-profile or tilt array; thin films that are applied to a building’s structure; or even integrated, architectural roofing tiles. The units serve as semi-conductors, by capturing the sun’s light and causing the electrons in the material to create an electrical current. At this time, most residential solar electric systems are designed to offset 25-50% of the home’s electric needs due to system expense and/or production restrictions imposed by utility companies. Choosing the right solar configuration for your home depends on the local climate and landscape, how much conventional power you’ll want to offset with solar power, your budget, and the amount of space available. There are three main types of electric systems:
- Grid-Connected: Still has utility supplied electricity connected to the property, but it is used only when the solar energy produced isn’t enough to keep up with the home’s demand. A meter reads how much energy has been produced via solar and subtracts that amount from the total bill.
- Grid-Connected with Battery Bank: Works similarly, but collects and stores any excess power produced, and then uses the back-up power on cloudy days and at night. One advantage of this system is you can still have power in the event of an outage.
- Off-Grid (or Stand Alone): This system is not tied to any utility lines. These systems are expensive, but can often be cheaper than establishing conventional electricity in remote areas – something to keep in mind if you own a cabin, sailboat, or RV.
Solar Thermal Energy
In today’s homes, solar thermal systems use the sun’s rays to directly heat water and air for domestic use or for pool and spa heating. Perhaps the most common application, solar pool heating uses the existing pool filtration system to pump water through a solar collector that transfers the heat directly to the pool water. Since solar pool heating does not require an entirely new system, it is often the most cost-effective type of solar energy currently available. In general, solar water heating, whether for a pool or domestic use, offers a relatively quick payback period when you consider electric and fuel savings and available incentives. And, with 35-65% of a home’s electricity bill going towards heating water, a combined solar thermal and solar PV solution may be an excellent way to recognize additional savings over a PV-only system.
Get Paid for your Renewable Energy
While these systems can be costly to install, there are tax credits and other incentives provided by governments and third parties to help you recoup your initial investment faster. At the federal level, the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit allows taxpayers to claim a 30% credit for qualified expenditures on solar-electric systems and solar water heaters, and there are also many programs available at the state and local levels. Additionally, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC are among those states that support a system called net metering. If your PV system is producing more energy than your home is using at that moment, your local utility company can buy the excess energy from you, essentially causing your meter to spin backwards and reducing your overall electric bill. Finally, there are some turnkey ways for homeowners to sell or auction Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) to help offset the cost.
The Future of Solar
There are numerous reasons why more homeowners are considering solar as an option for their homes. Two factors that play a role for many are growing environmental concerns and the rising cost of non-renewable resources such as coal, natural gas and oil. While the initial cost of many solar systems makes them not yet competitive with conventional energy sources, we are seeing that the time between system installation and cost breakeven is shortening. As more technological advancements and improvements are made, the costs of solar materials and installation are expected to continue to decline. And, as non-renewable energy sources become scarcer traditional energy prices are likely to rise even higher. Combined, these factors will help to close the cost gap between solar and conventional energy. So, while solar may not yet be feasible for everyone, it’s certainly becoming a more viable energy option worth considering.