Solar technology takes the uniquely abundant energy produced by the sun and converts it into usable electricity. The energy produced by solar technology is clean and limitless. Currently, we count on fossil fuels - coal, oil, and gas - to produce most of the energy for electricity. Climate change is a big topic right now, and it’s worth noting that fossil fuels are responsible for a significant portion of the world’s pollution. They’re also non-renewable - once we’ve exhausted the planet’s reserves of these fuels, they won’t come back.
How is Solar Energy Harvested?
Photovoltaic (PV) panels - better known as solar panels - convert the sun's energy into electricity. These panels use photons from the sun’s light to excite electrons in the panel’s silicon cells. If we look back at fifth-grade science - we learned that dark-colored surfaces absorb heat from the sun’s rays and light-colored surfaces reflect it - so you’ll feel much warmer wearing a black t-shirt on a sunny day than you’ll feel wearing a white one. The silicon cells in the PV panels work almost the same way - except instead of converting the sun’s energy into heat, they convert that energy into electricity.
The energy produced by the PV panels isn’t usable in its initial form, though. The second part of the system, the inverter, transforms the direct current (DC) energy into usable 120-volt alternating current (AC) energy. The inverter can be connected directly to a breaker in the electrical panel, just like lights, outlets, and heaters.
If you want to store the energy, instead of just using it in the daylight when the sun’s energy can be actively harvested, you’ll need to invest in specialized batteries to store the energy.
Pros of Solar Technology
- Solar energy is renewable. It’ll never run out. As long as there’s a sun in the sky, solar energy is available.
- The process of producing solar electricity is cleaner. It doesn’t require the burning of any fossil fuels, which are very harmful to the environment.
- Solar technology systems are easy and inexpensive to maintain. Most panel manufacturers offer a warranty (20-25 years), and the inverter (which costs significantly less than the panels) will need replacement every 5-10 years.
- It can offset up to 100% of your electricity bill.
Cons of Solar Technology
- Solar systems have a high upfront cost. You’ll make up for the loss over time, but solar technology is a long-term investment.
- It’s weather dependent. A few cloudy days or a long, dreary winter can have a significant effect on energy production.
- Batteries to store solar energy are especially expensive. They’re necessary if you want to offset 100% of your bill, as you’ll need stored energy to power your home in the nighttime and on cloudy days.
- Solar panels take up a lot of space, and some roofs are too small to fit the number of panels necessary to see a real benefit.
Can Solar Technology Be Inexpensive or Free?
The government’s solar energy investment tax credit (ITC) program allows homeowners to deduct 26% of their solar technology costs from their taxes. State benefits vary.
Some states offer performance-based incentives (PBIs) for solar technology owners in the form of a kilowatt-hour credit toward their electricity bill. Put simply, if you live in a participating state and you produce more electricity than you need, you can sell it to your utilities provider.
If upfront cost is a problem, some companies offer new customers the opportunity to finance their system on a solar lease. A solar lease is a rent-to-own program where you pay a set amount per month for a set period of time until you've paid the full cost. The amount is usually less than what you’ll save on your electricity bill.
Making the Switch
The sooner you install your new solar technology system, the sooner you’ll start reaping the benefits. With solar lease options and incentives available, there’s no reason to wait. The government expects Electricity rates to rise, overall, across the next few years. If you’re considering making the switch to solar electricity, there’s no better time than the present.
You can use Solar Estimate to get cost and savings estimates based on your location.
Use DSIRE to find incentives for renewable energy by state.