For Jeff King: Going Solar

>> Friday, September 11, 2009

Jeff King asked: Are solar panels worth the investment to run electricity for your house?

It's a simple question with not quite so simple answer. I'm a huge advocate for green technologies and certainly think solar power has tremendous promise. It is versatile, reliable (as has been demonstrated by a substantial number of key spacecraft out there), and, after the original investment, free.

But, at the current time, they're expensive. Prices are currently going down and efficiency is going up for photovoltaic cells. That's good, but it means that an investment today won't buy you as much as it will tomorrow. Unfortunately, if no one invests today, of course, prices will stay high so there's some gambling. In order to get the most from a P-V (photovoltaic) system, you also need to change how your house uses power and perhaps put in battery backups. However, there are some tremendous tax advantages that can recoup a substantial portion of the investment.

So, are they or aren't they a good idea today?

Well, there are a number of factors. First, where do you live? Do you live in a climate with a great deal of sun (i.e. rarely overcast, long days, etc)? Higher altitudes can have an advantage as well, though not by much. If you live somewhere where sun isn't a big part of your days, you won't be getting your money's worth out of your solar panels. Do note, however, that Europe (which is largely further north than we are in the US, has managed to get a lot of mileage from solar power).

How long do you think you'll live in your house? If you're there for the duration, an investment that may not really pay off for a decade may still be well worth it. But, if you expect you might be moving in three, five years, it might not make as much sense.

How much space do you have to devote to panels? If you have a small footprint to work with (or one that spends time in shadow), P-V cells might not be the correct option at this particular time.

But, don't despair. Whether or not solar P-V panels are right for you at this time, you aren't necessarily out of options. There are solar water preheaters that can reduce the cost of heating water without necessarily requiring an entiry house switchover. Wind generators may be alternative if the solar panels aren't.

And, whatever you do for greening your house, something that always makes sense is reducing your energy footprint. If you live somewhere hot and sunny, solar screens, radiant heat barriers or ugrading aging AC units can have a drastic impact on your energy usage. Hot or cold climates, switch to low wattage bulbs (LED bulbs are already available, but compact fluorescents can make a big difference), get a programmable thermostat, and seal your house. Consider investing in higher efficiency windows and, when you replace appliances, always go for those that are most efficient. Knowing how to use your windows to the best effect in winter or summer can also go a long way toward a happy energy situation.

The sun is a wonderful thing and I have high hopes for it's effective use. Do your homework and compare it to your particular circumstances. Remember, every watt we don't use or we can generate through clean energy is to the good.

And keep up with advances, whatever you decide in the short term. The situation is radically changing and a bad deal today may be a good deal tomorrow.


  • Jeff King

    thx, i have been looking into it.

    have read a few things about DIY do it youself project, that are supose to be good. but i am not sold by what i have read, further research is needed. maybe even talk a someone that has done it, that would be ideal...

    thx for your time.

  • The Mother

    We did look into solar panels for our house a year or two back.

    Living, as we do, in the south, will all our grand sunshine, it would seem to be a good idea.


    Photovoltaic cells are inefficient to begin with, and when they get HOT, that efficiency decreases even more.

    Bottom line for us was that the technology just isn't there yet. We spent the money putting in double paned windows. And my electric bills went down.

  • Marilynne

    We just put in solar panels for electricity on our house. You can read about it at

    I agree with everything Rocket Scientist says about solar. We live in a sunny climate and we hope to recoup our costs in about 9 years.

    Meanwhile, I enjoy doing the laundry during peak hours and not having to worry about it. Our solar covers almost all of the electricity we use.


  • Phyl

    The Mother is right about ineffiency; the current standard panels manage to capture about 17% of the available energy, and they definitely need circulation room between them and, say, the roof they're mounted on, to prevent overheating.

    I had to write a bunch of articles on this topic just recently, and was very encouraged to find that some new solar panels have just been developed (in Germany, I think, which tends to be the leader in solar work) that have as high as 49% efficiency, with the potential to go higher.

    So I think we're almost at the point where those bigger problems are close to being solved. What's happening now, though, is that with the recession all over the world, not as many people are buying solar panels and many companies' very existence is threatened. So that could set back both research and availability, which I think could be disastrous.

    But I think it's always wise to keep an eye on Germany, because they tend to be great leaps ahead of everyone else.

    I even found, when I was writing articles on portable generators, a generator that was powered by small portable solar panels, and could be used to run things like amplifiers and speakers at a community event. You even had the option of adding a small windmill on top of the tripod, so you got a combination of solar and wind in your portable generator.

    I want one so! bad! :-)

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