A Guide to Cutting your Utility Bills with Solar Power
Energy costs are getting higher and higher as oil and other traditional energy sources becomes more scarce. As the price of oil rises, alternative sources of energy, such as solar panels, become increasingly cost-effective. Depending on where you live in the country, a solar energy system can be much less expensive than you might imagine. Let’s consider some of the benefits and challenges of solar power, and what is required to be able to make it cost effective.
A solar panel generates energy when light falls onto it. A stronger light source generates more energy than a weaker one. Consequently, there are many areas in the country where running your home on solar power is not a viable option. The optimum range for solar energy production is between 15 and 35 degrees latitude. For readers in the USA, this roughly matches the line running across the northern borders of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia and extends southward. This region of the world receives the most solar radiation out of any other location, making it ideal to investigate solar power as a viable option for home energy use. The rest of the US does receive a fair amount of solar energy, but it’s unevenly distributed with the seasons. In winter, there’s more of a reliance on batteries necessary, and you’d need to make your home extremely energy efficient.
Location is Important
Assuming you live in the sweet spot, the next thing to consider is your site. For the best results with solar power, your southern line of sight (northern if you’re in the Southern hemisphere) needs to be free of obstructions. The majority of sunlight will fall from a southerly or easterly direction. If you have mountains, trees, or other structures blocking the view, then you’re not going to be able to get the most efficient result from your panels. You’ll need to make the decision on what you want to do with these obstructions. If your obstacle can’t be removed, you can try installing the panel bank onto poles on a different portion of your property. An advantage of poles is that you can install a tracking mechanism to make the panels follow the sun across the sky for maximum efficiency. A roof-top installation is easier for cleaning and for routing the electricity back to your home.
Costs of Solar Systems
Now that the practical considerations are out of the way, we will look at the costs of installing a system. The easiest way to save on solar power is to first make your home as energy efficient as possible. Your utility bill should tell you how many kilowatt hours you’re using per month in your home. This number is going to be the main factor in how much your system will cost. The more kilowatt hours you use, the more panels you’ll need.
Solar power is currently a long-term investment. The systems are expensive. A really good solar panel array can run you upwards of $40,000 to install. If you’re particularly flush with cash, you can contract the installation out to a solar panel company. You can also install it yourself if you’re willing to do the research, but you’ll need to be comfortable working around electricity and heights.
Thankfully, as solar becomes more popular there are ways of offsetting the costs of installation. Federal and state governments are offering tax incentives for installing alternative energy systems into your home. Certain utilities are also offering to lease systems to home owners. This may seem strange on the surface, but we’ve reached a point in solar technology that the electrical grid is able to handle taking the excess energy you generate and put it back into the grid. With enough panels and an energy efficient home, you can actually make your meter run backward. The power company can hold that energy in reserve or sell it to other places, and it lets them save on energy costs themselves. It’s a win for both parties.
Whether or not it’s cost effective will depend on your budget and the amount of energy you use. Going to a completely solar system will require you to carefully monitor your energy usage so you don’t drain the batteries dry. There is a big learning curve involved with living in a solar household. If you’d like to try it out before buying, look into getting just your lighting handled by solar power. Many homes use CFLs these days, which use very little energy, which means you won’t need a very strong panel to make them run. As you get comfortable, you can add more panels and batteries until you reach the right balance of grid power and solar power for your home.
Solar power is a viable method for powering your home, if you live in the right location and you have the money to install the systems. It’s a long-term investment that can take 10 or more years to pay off. If you’re willing to cut down your energy usage, sell your excess power back to the company, and make the necessary changes in your lifestyle to living on solar power, you can make it break even at a rate much faster than you think.
This post is from Ashley Tumson, a freelance writer and guest blogger in topics of sustainability and green technology. She currently represents Rayotec, a UK based provider of solar panels and electric underfloor heating.