Originally published on Home Solar PV.
By Jeff McIntire-Strasburg
You can be forgiven for not wanting to live next door to a traditional power plant. They’re big, noisy, and smelly, and even with the most modern of pollution controls, you probably still don’t want your family breathing whatever’s coming out of them. When it comes to coal or natural gas-powered electricity generation, it easy to understand a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) position.
But what about the neighbor putting solar panels on his roof next door? Isn’t that essentially a power plant? Yes, it is… but the very best kind: no noise, no air pollution, and no carbon emissions. And while some neighborhoods do take a NIMBY position on solar panels, or insist that you keep your solar array out of sight, there’s no real reason to believe that this kind of power plant will negatively impact your quality of life, or your property value.
Home Solar Arrays: Clean, Quiet Power Plants
Solar panel arrays, the most obvious parts of home solar power systems, collect energy from sunlight through the photovoltaic effect: photons in sunlight strike electrons in a silicon panel that’s been “doped” with phosphorus, and that sub-atomic level movement forms an electrical current. While that’s a very simple description of the chemical activity occurring in a solar panel, it’s enough to show already that this is a much cleaner process: no burning, no emissions, no wastes requiring disposal.
That power does require conversion, though: solar panels produce direct current (DC), and all of our electrically-powered appliances, gadgets, etc., require alternating current (AC). So, that current heads down a wire to an inverter, which converts DC into AC, which can then be used in our homes.
But what if we don’t need that power? This has been the point at which many renewable energy advocates get stumped: what do we do with power that’s been generated, but isn’t currently needed? For most of us considering a home solar power system, that’s a pretty easy question: the power will go onto the electrical grid. Assuming you live in a state with net metering – a requirement that utilities buy power that consumers produce through renewable energy systems – your electric meter will actually run backwards if you’re producing more power than you’re consuming.
If you’re not connected to the electrical grid, then you’ll need to install a bank of batteries to store the energy you produce. You can do this with a grid-connected system, also, to avoid power outages that still come with grid connections; these complex systems, however, get really expensive.
Regardless of your grid connection, you’re now ready to plug in and enjoy that electricity produced by the sun.
Can My Solar Power Plant Take Care of All of My Electricity Needs?
That depends on a number of factors. First, how efficiently does your family use electricity? Do you have updated, very efficient heating and air conditioning (which are the biggest energy users in most homes)? If you have an electric water heater, is it running at maximum efficiency? Are your refrigerator, washer and dryer, dishwasher, and stove/oven all high-efficiency models? Are your insulation levels at recommended levels, and are your windows and doors properly weatherized? If you’re installing a grid-tied solar system, it’s good to take a page from the off-grid crowd and make sure that you’re making the most efficient use practical and possible of the electricity from your solar power system.
Another off-grid practice you may want to emulate: do your most electricity-intensive tasks at times when your photovoltaic system is producing the most energy. Generally, that means when the sun is high in the sky, and the sun’s rays are hitting your system’s panels at a right angle. Depending on your location, and the time of year, the amount of peak time that you’ll have on any given day will vary.
Solar Power Systems are Clean and Green: No Noise, Smell, or Pollution
Regardless of what percentage of power your solar system provides for your home, it will do it in a manner that’s the total opposite of a coal-burning or gas-burning power plant: no noise, no smell, no pollution. Your neighbors shouldn’t even notice it.
Traditional power plants represent the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, the main greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. Globally, power plants create three-quarters of our CO2 emissions; in the United States, the account for 82%. The Obama administration has instituted the Clean Power Plan to cut the CO2 emissions from power plants run on fossil fuels, and to speed our momentum towards a clean energy economy. That solar power plant on your roof, however, creates no emissions: once it offsets the energy needed to build and install it, your solar system will reduce your family’s climate impact with every use of electricity.
If your power comes from a nuclear power plant, you may think you’re covered on the environmental front: nuclear reactors also don’t emit greenhouse gases in the production of electricity. Nuclear plants have other downsides, though. Like coal and gas-burning plants, they’re still huge and noisy. They produce radioactive wastes that will last for thousands of years. They take many years to build, and are very expensive. Finally, while nuclear reactors are generally very safe, they do present a very small risk of catastrophic, long-term destruction. As with other traditional power plants, a NIMBY response to nuclear reactors makes some sense.
Before solar power became readily available and affordable, only the most die-hard off-gridders considered installing their own power plant. As the prices have dropped on home solar arrays, and as governments and utilities have offered various financial incentives, the notion of generating your own electricity become much more mainstream. And the sun is the source of all energy on the Earth: coal, oil, and natural gas are essentially solar power with lots of other less desirable components. Why not go directly to the source?
If you’re thinking about investing in your own home solar power plant, take a look at the tools we’ve created to give you an idea about the costs involved. If you already generate part or all of your own electricity with solar panels, share your experience with us in the comments…
Reprinted with permission.