Solar power is one of the most efficient yet clean sources of energy we have access to. There are no increased fuel costs or dependencies, no ties to pollutants, and it’s both reliable and affordable. Of course, in order to harness solar power you need access to specific technology. This tech relies on either small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, large-scale solar photovoltaic systems, or concentrating solar power (CSP) systems to capture solar energy.
Once harnessed, the system can use this solar energy to power anything you could imagine such as appliances, vehicles, consumer electronics, lighting, heat and A/C systems, and much more. When used in combination with a modern power connection (hardwired), it can even help cut your bill in half—if not down to a third of the cost.
Most people believe that solar power and the related technology to harness it is prohibitively expensive, so it remains out of their reach. However, such beliefs couldn’t be any further from the truth, as each year, all around the world, it becomes more and more affordable to make the switch.
How Affordable is Solar Energy?
One of the most common systems used to harness solar energy is a small-scale rooftop-based solar photovoltaic system. Solar capturing panels are placed on top of the roof of a residence, building, or business, and then feeds collected energy to a conversion system. Even just a small system used to be ridiculously expensive, but prices have declined considerably over the past few years. From 2010 to 2013, prices for rooftop-based PV systems have dropped more than 29%, and this includes installation costs.
When you combine falling installation costs with the promise of tax credits and money saved on energy bills, you have no shortage of reasons to get involved. Most states offer tax credits, rebates, grants, and more that could decrease the total cost of a rooftop-based PV system to below $10,000. In addition, customers are able to finance these costs through leasing agreements and power purchase contracts, the latter of which requires them to continue using the system for an extended period of time at fixed rates.
While this is all great news for consumers who are looking to power their homes, it doesn’t offer much for business owners who generally have larger structures with higher demands. The good news is that large-scale PV systems have also dropped in price, more so than household ones. In fact, large-scale systems are an average of 60 percent lower in price than residential solar systems if you take a look at the per-wattage costs.
Concentrated solar power systems (a method that uses mirrors to direct thermal energy) are much more expensive and have not seen the same reduction in prices, but they have one particular advantage over the other two types. CV systems can be used to store the sun’s energy as they collect heat, which means they are still capable of producing electricity when there’s no sunlight.
Where Can Solar Energy Be Used, and Where is it Most Efficient?
Considering solar energy relies on a good supply of sunlight and UV rays, it’s not exactly efficient everywhere. In the United States, southwestern regions are the most reliable as the sun often shines the strongest there. Even so, in areas where sunlight is not as prominent, the amount available for energy generation only varies by less than 30 percent across the entire country. In laymen’s terms, it can be used pretty much anywhere with a small reduction in total energy generation in areas with less sunlight.
For example: a solar panel array installed in Portland, Maine would generate only about 85% of the energy that a similar system would produce out in California, 95% of the total energy it would generate in Miami, and 6% more than it would in Houston, Texas.
The typical efficiency rating for a single solar panel is about 11-15%, depending on where it’s installed. To break it down, this rating measures the percentage of sunlight that hits the panel, which can be turned into usable energy. While that may seem low at the onset, consider that a system generally uses a multitude of panels working in tandem. In this respect, a rooftop-based panel system can generate enough energy to power an entire home from top to bottom throughout the day. Since most consumer based solar systems are photovoltaic, they do not store or produce energy at night when the sunlight is gone.
As for how the system works in tandem with traditional power, it’s set up like this: If your solar energy system produces more power during the day than you consume, the excess energy is sold back to the grid as “store credit.” On days or nights where you use more energy, this store credit is purchased back from the grid. If you produce much more on average and you have lots of extra energy at the end of the month, it carries over to the next, just like roll-over minutes for a cell phone.
How Fast is Solar Energy Use Expanding?
Thanks to the ever-lower barriers to entry, increased reliability in newer solar energy systems, and the rising costs of traditional power consumption, the industry is growing exponentially. Back in 2009, Al Gore had the right of it when he said that solving climate change with renewable energy constitutes the “single biggest business opportunity in history.”
From 2010 to 2013, the amount of solar photovoltaic systems installed in the US jumped more than 485%. By 2014, the United States had more than 480,000 total solar systems installed, which produced up to 13,400 megawatts (MW). To put that into perspective, it’s enough to power nearly 2.4 million US households.
It’s not just consumers looking into solar power, either. Many businesses and companies have installed solar energy systems to improve their efficiency and lower their total operating costs. The installed capacity of photovoltaic systems in the US commercial sector grew from about 2,000 megawatts in 2010 to well over 6,000 megawatts in 2013.
The commercial world is beginning to see the light. So to speak.
What Must Be Done to Continue This Growth?
All that aside, even with recent growth there’s no guarantee that solar energy will continue this upward trend in usage. There are a handful of things that must be done in order to ensure the industry continues to see this same level of innovation and growth.
States that offer solar support should do their best to maintain and better regulate the use of renewable energy. That is, they must ensure that solar powered systems continue to offer the same cost benefits, if not more so. Perhaps more legislation should be put into place to encourage and support the use of these systems in modern homes and businesses. To add to this, more states should consider jumping on the solar support bandwagon.
At the end of 2016, the current tax credit offered to solar energy system owners will decline from 30 percent to 10, resulting in less federal investment in the solar sector. This is one of the most important reasons why consumers and commercial owners decided to have a system installed. Hopefully, this will be remedied by the necessary parties increasing that tax break once again. If there’s anything we know about human behavior, it’s that much of it is influenced by our wallets.
The rise of energy storage technologies will help ensure that solar energy can become even more reliable, and capable of providing electricity when there’s no sunlight, or during periods of increased demand for power. But beyond that, innovation and R&D in every field of renewable energy (geothermal, anyone?), will help reduce total costs of these systems by introducing new technologies into the marketplace. From where we stand, it’s difficult to imagine where our ability to harness the natural world safely will take us in the future. There are so many endless possibilities that nearly anything could come of innovation in the market.
Dare we speak of the Dyson sphere? This long-prophesied, but still largely hypothetical power system would encase an entire star and harness most, if not all, of the power it gives off.
Who knows where we’ll be by the time something like that is produced. But until then, we’ll have to be content with baby steps.