How to Choose a Solar Power System

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How to Choose a Solar Power System. Why for the love of earth, would we burn dirty fossil fuel to power our homes, when we today have a viable, clean shortcut that captures the sun's energy directly? For residents of the American Sun Belt, solar power is a no brainer. Solar energy is clean, free and abundant. Yet most of us get our electricity the old fashioned way. We buy it.


Ironically, the world's biggest user of solar power is Germany, despite its cold, gloom and northern latitude. The reason for this is the government incentives put in place to combat global warming. The German government program inspired the 2007 California Solar Initiative, shepherded through the legislature by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Its aim is to build a million solar powered roofs in the state of California. Solar does take an upfront investment, but within a few years you could be powering your home with free electricity.

  • Learn the basics. Solar works because when the light hits a doped semiconductor like silicon, it knocks some electrons free. When electrons move you've got electricity. By putting wires into the silicon to draw off the current, you've created a photo voltaic cell. PV cells can be made into a single large sheet or combined into a large array of hundreds to make the familiar panels. The power created is direct current or DC, the kind you get from a battery. In fact, back-up batteries are a great way to store electricity if your solar power is off the grid.

  • Check with your utility before installing. There are a range of federal and local incentives. Your utility company will know the ins and outs. In California, after rebates, a system that will power the average home will run about $20,000 to install. It will pay for itself in ten years. Most solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years with inverters warranted for 10. They are extremely reliable with no moving parts, so for 15 years you can expect to have no electric bill. In California, to qualify for state incentives, you need to be able to feed your power back to your utility company. Your power company is required to buy back any excess electricity that you generate at full retail rate. To do that your system has to convert the generated DC to alternating current, AC, the sort of power we use in our homes. The box that does this is called an inverter, which is essential to hook you up to the power grid. On a bright sunny day when your family is away, your meter will actually run backwards as you get paid for the power that your system is generating.

    In California, one political concession to the utilities is that although homeowners can have a bill of zero, utilities will not have to pay you for any excess power they get. You can of course always siphon the excess off to store in batteries.

  • Hire a reputable contractor. Your utility can provide a list. Bring in your electric bills over the past year and discuss any changes in your consumption that you foresee. Get an estimate and begin the rebate and incentive paperwork. When choosing your equipment, make sure that it qualifies for the incentives. You want a system that is big enough to cover your projected electric needs for the life of the system. Some homes simply won't get enough light or have enough roof area to do that. In those cases, you should consider the more efficient panels offered by Sanyo that cost more but generate 20 percent more power per square foot than the panels by industry leader Sharp.

  • Get an estimate and arrange financing. Most systems can be installed in a single day. If you finance your system with a home equity loan, the interest is tax deductible.

  • Know that you've saved money while helping to save the planet. Solar power's peak generating hours coincide with peak demand in the Southwest, so wider system installation can help eliminate rolling blackouts. The cleanest greenest way to power our homes and businesses today is with the sun's energy. Most people think that the biggest green house gas emitter they own is their car. It isn't. It's their home, which puts enough carbon dioxide into the air each year to equal the weight of a good sized Sports Utility Vehicle. Adopting solar power is a major step that all of us can take to combat global warming.

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