An Intro to Rooftop Solar

I remember going to work with my dad one bring-your-daughter-to-work-day when I was about 6. He’s an aerospace engineer (basically a rocket scientist - he designs satellites), and I got to see one of the solar panels about to go on a satellite. It was massive - to my little self it looked as big as a football stadium. It was pretty much the coolest day of my life; after that I wanted to be an engineer like my dad. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I’m doing the next best thing. ;)

The Solar Settlement with the  Sun Ship  in the background (Freiburg, Germany) |  Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

The Solar Settlement with the Sun Ship in the background (Freiburg, Germany) | Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

If you haven't guessed already, today we're talking about solar. Solar as in solar energy, photovoltaics (PV), solar panels. I'm so excited to talk about this because this is a place where technology, efficiency, and environment work together in harmony.

Why solar?

Think about your roof. You barely see it although it takes up a lot of space, and yet it’s only being used to protect you from the weather. Which is a good thing, of course, but what if our roofs could function both as protection and energy generation? We are seeing more and more solar panels popping up in residential settings, although the technology has been around for a while. I’m starting to see them consistently when I visit home in rural northern Utah. Why the shift? What’s the big deal about solar?

  1. The biggest thing about solar is that it has unlimited potential for power generation. Fossil fuels dry up or become expensive, wind dies, and water slows, but the sun shines consistently all day for free. That's huge. Interesting fact: solar panels do actually produce electricity on cloudy days, just not as much as when they're getting direct sunlight.

  2. Although there are emissions involved in the manufacturing process, energy harvested from solar panels is free of emissions and the panels last for many, many years without much maintenance.

  3. After the initial cost of purchasing and installing the equipment, the electricity generated is free, and energy bills are greatly reduced.

  4. Solar works really well in rural areas where connecting to a grid is costly.

  5. For some, the idea of being electrically self-sufficient is reassuring. Not being at the mercy of the grid/power companies for your electricity needs could be very helpful in cases of outages, natural disasters, or climbing energy costs. It could be especially important if you have high electrical needs (such as caring for a family member with medical conditions that require electricity).

How does it work?

If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of how the panels work there are a multitude of articles that can explain it better than I could (like this one). The short story is that the panels convert photons (light particles) to electrons (particles that carry an electric charge) and then converts those into a usable current for your home.

HOW DO I GET SOLAR FOR MY HOME?

It's a big investment to go solar, so there are a few things you need to do to make sure it's right for you.

  1. Figure out your potential for solar energy generation. Not all sites work well for solar; maybe you're in a part of the world that doesn't get much daylight or you have trees or buildings blocking light most of the day. You need to know how much electricity it is physically possible for you to generate. Your installer should be able to help with this as well.

  2. Figure out how much electricity you use. This helps you know the type and size of the system you need. You can review your past electric bills (amount of electricity used is generally shown in kilowatt hours or kWh) to find out your consumption. It's best to look at a whole year at a time since you have different electric needs in different seasons.

  3. Get bids and find an installer. Be sure they are experienced and familiar with local regulations and permitting. They should have proper certifications. Also consider asking about warranties and liability.

  4. Figure out if and how net metering works in your area. If you're connected to the grid, many utility companies allow you to sell any extra energy you produce back to the grid to help offset the cost of the energy you take from it at night. This is net metering and it benefits both parties.

  5. Understand the available incentives and/or financing. Many governments have incentives for installing rooftop solar. Make sure you know what those are and the steps for getting them.

What about the cost?  

Conversations about solar always end up at cost, because installation can be costly. However, costs have dropped 70% over the last 10 years and is continuing to drop as technology has developed and solar is becoming more mainstream. And in some parts of the world, solar is more cost-effective than connecting to a grid.

Across several different sites checked, average installation costs in the U.S. showed between $2.80-$4.40/watt, with average costs in the $3.00-$3.50 range. So for a home that needs a 6 kilowatt system, cost could be around $18,000-$21,000 BEFORE any deductions (keep in mind that this is a very loose estimate; it is best to get quotes from several installers for a more accurate estimate for your needs). Governments often offer a financial incentive for going solar that makes the cost much easier to swallow. And remember that this is the initial investment - you will be saving money in the long run. The length of time it takes to recoup the cost varies widely (I’ve seen estimates between 4-20 years), so this is a good question to discuss with an installer.

Are there other options for me if I can’t get solar on my home?

If want solar but don't have the ability to get it on your home (because you rent or don't have the roof space or any other reason) there are other options.

You can invest in a community or shared solar system. This is when a group of people and/or businesses pool their resources to purchase a solar energy system they all benefit from, which can be on- or offsite.

Buy renewable energy certificates. Most energy companies will allow you to "buy" renewably-generated electricity. When you're connected to a grid, there is really no way to know where the energy that actually goes into your home comes from, so what you're doing is purchasing a certificate that proves 1 MWh of energy produced came from a renewable source. It may not sound like much, but by purchasing REC’s you are showing utility companies that it is worth it for them to invest in renewable energy.

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Solar is great in so many ways. There is no question that solar energy is better for the environment. It generates electricity with zero emissions for many years, and mirrors a natural biological process - photosynthesis. Localized energy generation protects from price climbs and outtages. Although the upfront cost seems high, it’s been shown over and over to be an investment where it’s possible recoup the cost in a matter of years.

What do you think? Would you ever go solar? Do you have any questions about solar I didn’t cover?


Much of my research came from the following sites, which you can go to if you're interested in learning more:

Energy-dot-gov

EnergySage