Photovoltaic Solar Power
The type of solar power you’ve likely heard most about is photovoltaic. Without getting too technical, photovoltaic solar power is the process of converting solar energy directly into electricity using a solar panel.
These panels are made with highly conductive materials like silicon, which can break apart the energy from the sun’s rays into electrons and then direct them into an electric current. That current is transmitted through wiring in your home, converted into usable electricity, and funneled to your outlets and lighting fixtures.
It’s not quite as simple as all that, but nor is it much more complicated. Solar power’s biggest drawback isn’t complexity, but cost.
Because solar panels are notoriously inefficient (the best panels convert between 10–15% of the solar energy that hits them), and because they take up so much space, a system that will fully power your home would be large and rather expensive.
Just because they’re expensive, though, doesn’t mean solar power isn’t feasible. There are in fact many ways to optimize your use of solar panels without having to pay through the nose.
Placement – First, your roof needs to be angled properly – ideally at about 45 degrees facing south. A southern exposure with no overlying shade will guarantee maximum sunshine throughout the year.
Energy Use – You’ll need to cut your energy use to make solar panels viable. Luckily, you’re reading this guide, which provides dozens of tips to cut your bills and energy use down dramatically. Keep in mind that it costs $9 per watt of electricity to install a solar system. Analyze what you use currently and compare it to your total kilowatt use at the moment.
Forecasting – Determine how much sun you can absorb throughout the year. What does the National Weather Service say about your annual sunlight? If you live in Seattle, PV cells probably won’t be of much use, but if you live in Arizona, you’ll be able to go off grid for a reasonable investment.
Power Sharing – If you’re in a state that supports it, remember that you can also resupply power back to the electric company through the power lines. This way, you can stay on the grid and access electricity if it’s extra gray outside for a few weeks.
Installing solar power is expensive to be sure, but if you do it right, you can cut down your electricity use and at least supplement a bit chunk of your power to reduce your monthly bill.
What You’ll Need
There are quite a few parts involved in PV cell installation, but to give you a general idea of what you’re paying for and the scope of installation, here’s a run through of the parts:
Batteries – Without grid electricity, you’ll need batteries to store power when you’re not using it. This will help ensure you have power when the sun isn’t shining.
Charge Controller – To control how fast the battery charges and drains, a charge controller is needed. This will lengthen the battery’s life and efficiency.
Inverter – An inverter converts electricity you gather through your solar cells from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). This is necessary so you can use that electricity in your outlets.
Generator – A generator acts as a backup if you’re off-grid and run out of battery power. A generator can also be wired to a battery to recharge it if it gets too low during peak use.
PV Cells – The actual solar cells you need will be available in many forms and costs. Higher end cells have been getting far better retention numbers, but the price rises drastically with the efficiency.
Additional Parts – There are a number of other important parts including wiring, junction boxes, disconnects, overcurrent protection, grounding equipment and brackets for installation.
Overall, solar panels are a fun, effective way to supplement the electricity you use from the power company – and the source is free and abundant. Remember to thoroughly research local laws and building codes before starting a project. You may also want to contact a licensed contractor for consultation.