Get Started in Solar Power
By SETH MASIA
This special issue of SOLAR TODAY tells you how.
Seth Masia is managing
editor of SOLAR TODA Y
It doesn’t matter where you live in North America. Enough sun falls on your house to provide for all your energy needs, at least for part of the year. Right now,
most of that solar energy is wasted — in fact, you’re prob-
ably paying good money to flush the waste heat out of the
house, or at least out of the attic.
You can convert that wasted heat into power for your
home and slash your bills for electricity, natural gas and
heating oil. Some of your neighbors may have already done
it by putting solar collectors on the roof or in the yard.
Before you climb out on the roof with a measuring tape
and notepad, make your house more energy efficient. Most
American homes were built under codes written to ensure
structural integrity and fire safety rather than energy efficiency. This means the typical American family can cut utility
bills 20 to 40 percent simply by upgrading to thermal-pane
windows; sealing doors, soffits, siding and foundations; and
improving insulation. For the vast majority of homeowners,
these are the most cost-effective projects you can take on. See
page 28 for more ideas about energy-efficiency upgrades.
Look into energy-efficient appliances, too. At today’s
average rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, the typical refrigerator built in 1980 costs about $154 in electricity to run for
a year. A modern Energy Star refrigerator runs for about $55
a year. The average homeowner would save $99 a year —
enough to pay for the new refrigerator in a few years.
Energy efficiency improvements will save more money
when it comes time to install a solar energy system. A house
that uses less energy needs a smaller, less-expensive solar
Photovoltaic Solar Radiation in July (flat plate, facing south, latitude tilt
No matter where you live in North America, if it’s sunny enough to grow crops, it’s sunny
enough to make power.
8 SoLAR TodAy GET STARTED 2010 solartoday.org
array. A dollar spent on energy improvement under the
roof may save $1.50 or more on top of the roof.
Safety first. Solar systems look pretty simple, and in
principle, they are. There are no moving parts and almost
no maintenance. Once up and running, they really do provide free energy. A lot of back-to-the-earth pioneers have
had good luck building their own solar power systems.
For the typical American homeowner, do-it-yourself
solar isn’t a good idea. These systems directly affect the
structural integrity of your roof, especially in any kind
of wind storm. They tie into your electrical or plumbing
systems. They produce high voltages or scalding water.
Installing the system involves moving heavy weights onto
a rooftop — a classic worker-safety problem.
For these reasons, it’s important that the work be done
by someone qualified and certified in roofing, electrical and
plumbing practices. Work with an established local solar
installer who can handle the permit paperwork and build
the system to local codes. See page 40 for more information on finding and working with a local installer.
What can I afford? If you take full advantage of the 30
percent federal tax credit, plus utility company rebates and
state or local incentives, a photovoltaic (PV) system can
cost about $4 per watt to install. If electricity costs you an
average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, the system will pay
for itself in about 14 years. But if you live in the Northeast
or California, where electricity is more expensive, the payback is shorter. If you pay 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, the
payback is eight years — after that, the power from your
system is free. If you live in sunny Hawaii, you pay 25 cents
per kilowatt-hour. Your system pays for itself in fewer than
six years — probably four, considering you’ll get more sun
and make more power than someone in Wisconsin. See
page 42 for more information on calculating the costs and
benefits of a new PV system.
A solar water-heating system may be cheaper still. A
simple warm-weather solar water-heating system may
cost less than $2,500 to install, especially if you replace
your water heater at the same time. Depending on where
you live, it may cut your water-heating costs by 40 to 50
percent. A large family with lots of kids uses plenty of hot
water for bathing, laundry and dishwashing, so a solar
water-heating system can bring significant power savings.
See page 16 for more details.
Is my area sunny enough? In North America, the
answer is certainly yes. If it’s sunny enough to grow crops,
it’s sunny enough to make power. Even the rainy Pacific
Northwest has more solar gain than Germany, where solar
power now provides about 8 percent of the nation’s electricity. And, as the solar resource map shows, if you live
in the Sunshine State, or the Corn Belt, or the sunblasted
Southwest, you’re gold. GS