Use The Sun to Lower Your Utility Bill!
Are your electric bills going through the roof? A solution just may be up there too – on the roof, that is! It’s where you can install solar collectors that convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity.
Solar water heating for home use and as means of heating pool water has been both an affordable and popular technology for many years. Now, harnessing the sun’s power to create energy to power one’s home is growing increasingly popular. Photovoltaic (PV) systems convert sunlight directly to electricity. They work any time the sun is shining, but more electricity is produced when the sunlight is more intense and strikes the photovoltaic panels directly (as when rays of sunlight are perpendicular to the PV panels). Best of all, PV allows you to produce electricity—without noise or air pollution—from a clean, renewable resource.
Beyond the standard ‘vanilla’ PV panels, recent aesthetic innovations include solar tiles that look like ordinary roofing and blend in with most popular styles, but they are also photovoltaic collectors that convert sunlight into electricity. A typical ‘energy roof’ uses 300 square feet and covers approximately a 17×17’ area. In a sunny climate, it produces many thousands of kilowatts of clean energy per year. Any excess power you have can be fed back into the utility company grid for a credit on your bill.
Before you decide to buy a PV system, there are some things to consider: First, PV produces power intermittently because it works only when the sun is shining. This is not a problem for PV systems connected to the utility grid, because any additional electricity required is automatically delivered to you by your utility. In the case of non-grid, or stand-alone, PV systems, batteries can be purchased to store energy for later use. Batteries are also an option for storing excess power even when connected to the utility grid.
Second, if you live near existing power lines, PV-generated electricity is usually more expensive than conventional utility-supplied electricity. Although PV now costs less than 1% of what it did in the 1970s, the amortized price over the life of the system can still be higher than what most people pay for electricity from their utilities. State and Federal tax credits and solar rebate programs help make PV more affordable, but they typically can’t match today’s price for utility electricity in most cases. This condition is rapidly changing as utility prices continue to soar higher, making PV a sensible and cost-effective alternative. Also, PV system reliability and durability are excellent, with a typical PV system lasting up to 30 years with minimal maintenance.
Finally, unlike the electricity you purchase monthly from a utility company, PV power requires a high initial investment. This means that buying a PV system is like paying years of electric bills up front. Your monthly electric bills will go down, but the initial expense of PV may be significant. By financing your PV system, you can spread the cost over many years, and rebates can also lighten your financial load. Many PV installation companies have teamed up with lending institutions that offer creative financing.
The price for a PV system depends on a number of factors, including whether your home is under construction and whether PV is integrated into the roof or mounted on top of an existing roof. The price also depends on the PV system rating, manufacturer, retailer, and installer. The size of your system may be the most significant factor in any measurement of costs versus benefits. For example, a 2-kilowatt system that meets nearly all the needs of a very energy efficient home could cost $16,000 to $20,000 installed, or $8 to $10 per watt. At the high end, a 5-kilowatt system that completely meets the energy needs of many conventional homes can cost $30,000 to $40,000 installed, or $6 to $8 per watt. These prices are rough estimates; your costs depend on your system’s configuration, your equipment options, incentives and other factors.
In some areas, finding a PV provider can be as simple as picking up the telephone directory and looking under “Solar Energy Equipment and Systems—Dealers.” However, many of the listings are solar water-heating companies and many companies might not be experienced in PV system design or installation. Similarly, many electrical contractors, although proficient in typical electrical contracting work, might not have expertise in PV or residential roof-mounting techniques. How do you identify solar electric system providers? Here are several suggestions.
• Contact the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) at 202-682-0556 for a list of solar service providers. SEIA is the national trade association of solar energy manufacturers, dealers, distributors, contractors, installers, architects, consultants, and marketers.
• Contact your utility company to see which vendors it might recommend.
• Conduct a search on the Internet. Reputable, professional contractors
with experience in PV systems are the best choice for the actual installation.
Getting more than one bid for the installation of your PV system is always a good idea. However, make sure that all bids are ‘apples for apples.’ For example, a bid for a system mounted on the ground is usually very different from another bid for a rooftop system. Similarly, some PV modules generate more electricity per square foot than others. Bids should clearly state the maximum generating capacity of the system (measured in watts or kilowatts). If possible, have the bids specify the system capacity in “AC watts” under a standard set of test conditions, or specify the output of the system at the inverter.
Also request an estimate of the amount of energy that the system will produce on an annual basis (measured in kilowatt-hours). Because the amount of energy depends on the amount of sunlight—which varies by location, season, and year to year—it’s unlikely the contractor will quote a specific figure, but rather a range of approximately 20%. Bids also should include the total cost of getting the PV system up and running, including hardware, installation, connection to the grid, permits, sales tax, and warranty.
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