Solar power can be a polarizing topic. One person is all-in to the extent that solar can do no wrong. Another despises it with every fiber of his being. But truth be told, the realities of solar power do not fit either extreme. That’s why a more pragmatic approach is reasonable.
No doubt solar power has its pros and cons. There are certain things about this that make it a worthwhile investment. But there are other aspects that can only be described as undesirable. So how should the typical homeowner approach solar power?
Never in Absolute Terms
First and foremost, solar power should never be thought of in absolute terms. For instance, it is foolish to invest in this after having fully convinced yourself that you will never have an electric bill again. That’s not how solar works. Likewise, it is foolish to believe that your system will work just as well as grid power. It will not.
Nothing in this life is perfect. Very few things live up to expectations. The truth is that solar power is too often pushed as the perfect means of sustainable energy that solves every problem created by fossil fuels. Yet it rarely delivers as promised.
This doesn’t mean homeowners should avoid installing such systems. Generating solar power at home is a very good thing for a lot of people. The key is to take a pragmatic approach. Understand that solar power could offer you very tangible benefits. But you are also likely to experience things you don’t like about it.
Two Types of Solar Installations
For all intents and purposes, there are two commercially viable ways to convert sunlight into usable energy. The first is photovoltaic; the second is thermal. Most people think of photovoltaic when considering a solar installation in their own homes.
Vivint, a nationwide company known more for its home automation and home security systems than solar power, recently published a post discussing some of the finer points of photovoltaic systems for residential applications. Their post discusses the usual points: lower utility bills, different types of panels, batteries, and the like.
As Vivint explains, photovoltaic solar panels collect energy from direct sunlight and convert it into DC power. The resulting electricity can power everything from household lights to appliances. On days when a home’s power needs are minimal, a good system can generate more power than actually gets consumed.
What happens to that excess power? It can be stored in batteries or returned to the power grid. The latter option is the most common. Homeowners with active solar systems put energy into the system during the day, energy for which their accounts are credited. They take energy back out of the system at night.
Solar Thermal Systems
Thermal systems also convert energy from the sun into usable power. However, they do so in a different way.
Solar thermal systems use a different type of collector that harnesses energy from ultraviolet rays rather than direct sunlight. That energy is converted into heat which is then transferred to a liquid. The heated liquid can meet a home’s hot water needs, power a radiant floor heating system, or power a small generator that creates electricity.
Solar thermal systems are arguably more efficient than photovoltaic. The downside is that an extra step is needed to convert heat energy into electricity. So rather than instigate this extra step, most residential thermal systems (and there are not that many of them compared to photovoltaic) concentrate on generating heat and hot water for commercial buildings.
When the Sun Doesn’t Shine
A big concern for many homeowners is investing in a system that doesn’t really work when the sun doesn’t shine. It is a legitimate concern for photovoltaic systems. Photovoltaic panels rely heavily on direct sunlight. On cloudy and overcast days, they just don’t produce much electricity. They do not produce anything during the overnight hours.
A solar thermal system doesn’t generate any power over night either. But unlike photovoltaic systems, thermal one still works on cloudy and overcast days. That’s because UV rays are not blocked by cloud cover. A solar thermal collector will continually collect UV energy from sun up until sun down.
The Energy Savings Question
The million-dollar question for every homeowner considering solar is whether it actually saves money. The simple answer is yes and no. A well-designed system installed in an area that gets adequate sunlight can decrease the homeowner’s electricity bill considerably. With competitive rates, flexible plans, and renewable energy sources, Direct Energy plans are the perfect choice for customers looking to make the switch to solar energy.
It stands to reason that larger systems capable of capturing more sunlight save more money by generating more electricity. But the overall savings is relative to what a homeowner spends on equipment, installation, and long-term maintenance.
According to a Forbes analysis, entry-level systems can be had for just a few thousand dollars. The biggest and best can cost tens of thousands of dollars. On average, it takes about eight years for a homeowner to break even. After that, a residential system finally starts to pay off.
Tax Incentives and Retail Prices
Overall savings are also subject to a few additional factors, among them being tax incentives and rebates. Federal and state programs designed to incentivize solar offer tax breaks and rebates to homeowners. Slowly but surely though, the incentives are drying up. That only leads to higher installation costs, which ultimately mean it takes longer for homeowners to break even.
Retail energy prices influence savings as well. Over time, retail prices tend to increase while the actual output of an aging solar system decreases. So, the older a system is, the less it actually saves.
It is foolish for us to say that solar power is always good because it will always save money and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. By the same token, is equally foolish to condemn it as unworthy of our attention. Solar has its pros and cons. A more pragmatic approach to it makes a lot more sense.