Solar Power Basics – Should I Add Solar Power to My Home?

The solar power basics, simply put, are that every hour of the day, enough power in the form of solar radiation falls onto the surface of the earth to provide all of our energy needs for a full year.

Solar truly is an enormous, largely untapped, energy source. The problem is that technology capable of transforming that glorious sunlight into energy that we can use to heat and cool our homes, power indoor lights, warm our water, and charge our electrodoodads has historically been prohibitively expensive.

A mixture of falling prices, increasing efficiency of some solar technologies, and financial incentive programs are working together to make solar power practical like never before.

Solar Power Basics – More than Just Green Bling for the Home

There is nothing that says green home like a nice big high tech alternative energy system on the roof, but it is certainly not the be all or end-all in efficient or green housing. It may make sense for your home. Then again, an alternative energy project may be completely wrong for your situation.

Whether or not a solar energy system makes sense for you and your home can be challenging question requiring careful evaluation of a number of factors.

Solar Power Basics – Efficiency Must Come First

I've said it many times on these pages, but I'll say it again... You must address the efficiency of your home before considering any form of alternative energy, including solar photovoltaics or solar thermal.

Insulation, Energy Star appliances, or efficient light bulbs may not be all that flashy or sexy, but how much sense does it make to spend tens of thousands on an alternative energy system when a couple of thousand worth of insulation and caulking would save far more energy and money?

Addressing the efficiency of your home first will also mean that your simple payback period for the project will be shorter and it may also mean that the size of the system you will need to buy may be smaller and cheaper.

Simply put, efficiency is the cheapest and most effective form of alternative energy. Don't make the mistake of putting the energy cart before the horse.

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Solar Power Basics – Solar Power Explained

When we speak of solar power in the current context we are usually talking about one of a small handful of technologies or building techniques that allow us to transform solar radiation into a useful form of energy to heat, cool and power buildings. The most common three solar technologies to consider are photovoltaics (PV), solar thermal, and passive solar.

Here are some of the solar power basics and alternative energy issues to consider:

Photovoltaics (PV)

Most of us think of PV when we hear the term 'solar power.' As you probably know, PV panels absorb photons from sunlight and release electrons.

These systems can be tied to the electrical grid, in which surplus power is fed back into the electrical grid when your system is producing more energy than your home is using. When your demand for energy outstrips the supply from your solar energy system, the house runs on grid power.

Off-grid systems usually involve battery banks for electricity storage so that power is available when the sun is not shining and to absorb short-term spikes in demand that surpass the immediate output of your solar panels.

New thin film solar techniques are creating solar power systems that integrate into roofing and siding products. Though the efficiency of thin-film solar is lower compared to cells in standard panels, the price is attractive and the material can be applied over larger areas.

PV prices are falling quickly, though they still represent a significant investment.

Solar Thermal
Solar thermal systems directly harvest the heat produced by the sun and transfer that thermal energy to a medium such as water or a coolant fluid.

Most commonly, solar thermal systems are used to heat domestic hot water, though entire heating systems have been created using solar thermal.

Typically, solar thermal domestic hot water systems are one of the most accessible alternative energy projects available in terms of initial cost. They are also some of the most efficient alternative energy projects.

Passive Solar
Passive solar techniques (differentiated from active solar methods such as PV or solar thermal) also directly harvest heat from sunlight, but use the architectural features of the building to do so. A large mass such as stone or concrete or sometimes water is used to absorb heat from sunlight that shines into the structure, then that heat is radiated back to the building over the course of non-light hours.

Building design features such as incorporated thermal mass, window size and specs, careful site selection, and building orientation (south and west exposures in the northern hemisphere) are integral to passive solar techniques.

Passive solar can be a cost-effective alternative energy method when a building is being designed and constructed. Passive solar retrofits of existing buildings are often impractical.

Do It Yourself Solar (PV) Projects
Much Internet discussion has resulted in products promising cheap do-it-yourself photovoltaic kits or instructions on how to do-it-yourself. Solar power systems, especially grid-tied photovoltaic systems, do through rigorous testing before being approved. There is significant engineering involved in designing the hardware involved in these systems.

An e-book is unlikely to give you the background to design such a unit and you certainly won't be able to construct anything with the needed approvals to grid-tie. Don't waste your money. Read more about the reality of build-it-yourself solar projects.

US Department of Energy Solar Power Basics Video
– Solar Power Explained

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