Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Taking Action With Photovoltaic Solar Power

By Matt Cantor
Friday December 08, 2006

The death toll in Iraq this last month was the highest so far in a war that shows no end in sight. There is little doubt that the oil in the region has played a significant role in our willingness to participate in a “War on Terror” some sources now believe has resulted in nearly 700,000 deaths in Iraq, not to mention an outright civil war. 

To make matters worse, Americans appear to be more in love with gas guzzling mega-wagons than ever before and a trip to the Quicky-mart looks more like an overland assault than a mere shopping junket. What IS it about energy consumption that we’re so head-over-heels about and what’s so dorky and last-year about conservation? There’s nothing that gets me hot like seeing my wife shop at the Goodwill. And when we go for a walk, Oh Man, I can barely keep my hands off of her. There just something about a woman who’s into cheapness.  

Oh yea, sorry, got lost there for a minute. Oil, conservation, right. That’s where I was. Well I’m the house guy right, so what does this all have to do with houses?  

There are loads of changes one can make at home to affect global warming, international relations and sustainable human life on this planet and one of them, and it’s really good one, is to install a photovoltaic electrical generating system (solar panels, for short) on your roof. 

We have more than enough sunny days here in California to merit an investment in P.V. (photovoltaic), as it’s often called. The only downside seems to be a rather large initial investment, but if you think long-range, it’s a very good one. Currently, a typical system on a single family dwelling seems to get rung-up at about $30,000. However, current state credits will rebate about 1/3 of this and perhaps a bit more. The state claims that you can get up to half of your money back but my experience is that most folks don’t get that much of a credit. Nonetheless, 10 or 12 thousand dollars back is nothing to shake a dip-stick at. 

There are also Federal tax credits that will defray this expense even further and by the time you get done, it probably will be about 1/2 of the total up-front expense. Experts say that it can take around 10 years to repay the initial expense but after that, you can expect free, or nearly free electricity for another 30 years or so. Like I said, this requires long-range thinking so you have to be willing to pay your electric bill for the next 10 years right up front on the promise that you’ll be able to enjoy free electricity for decades to come. 

Now, all of these numbers are quite rough and it may turn out that future tax credits will further defray the expense. Additionally, energy costs may rise significantly in the coming years as we dig deeper into our limited supplies of coil, oil and natural gas. You may find yourself sitting hella’ pretty if you’ve made an investment in home electrical generation. Another possible windfall for the forward thinker may be in one change that has yet to have taken place and that’s the ability of home electrical generators to be fairly compensated for their contribution to the grid. Today, if you earn more than you use, you get no compensation. Nil, zip, nada. 

The funny and awful part of this story is that the leadership in Sacramento have told us a number of times in the last 10 years that our state’s generating capability isn’t up to the task at hand and when we’re at peak usage, we can end up browning or blacking out. At the same time they tell us that if we generate extra power, they won’t buy it. Go figure.  

I’d suggest calling your state assemblyman or writing to Aaaanold. This is just plain silly. To make matters worse (or better), PV power is at it’s peak when our use is at its peak, during those hot summer afternoons when the A/Cs are cranking away at full bore, so the state would do well to create a small army of generating citizens to meet its needs (unless the actual objective is to bilk the public through perceived shortfalls (Mr. Skilling, are you and your cellmate reading this?)) 

I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of myself in talking about PV and should really back up to explain a little bit about how it works and how it becomes a part of the grid. Most PV systems aren’t isolated. That is, they aren’t designed to provide power that’s used by you and you alone. This may sound stupid or counterintuitive but it’s actually much smarter than the way in which we usually do things in this goofy society. If you have a GRID-TIE system, which is what most people have, the panels on your roof don’t pump power directly into your house. Instead, what they do is add power to the entire local grid, off of which you draw power whenever you turn on the light. It’s is a very collective approach. When you’re not using the power, all the power from the panels flows out through the meter and turns the dials backward, lowering your bill toward $0. When you turn on the A/C during the day, a little less flows out and a little more flows in. Its as though you caught rainwater on your roof and pumped it out into the water piping system whenever you weren’t using it. 

You needn’t concern yourself with whether you’re using the power that’s coming in from the panel or whether you’re buying it from the grid. You just use power and all the excess spins the meter backward. If you’ve sized your system properly, you’ll end up with a bill of roughly zero each month. Unfortunately, if you buy a system that is too large, you’ll get nothing for your additional contribution, so for today, it’s best to size for your actual needs. One day, hopefully, you’ll be able to sell the excess power back at a profit but we’re not there yet. Currently the German government is paying owners of these systems 8 times the utility company rate on excess power that they generate. As you might imagine, panels are flying off the shelves and last year, Germans (in a country less than a third our population) bought 9 times as many panels as we did. Tell that to Mr. Schwarzenegger (who’s Austrian, not German). 

[Another very sweet part of this deal is that you get paid at a higher rate during the sunniest part of the day and then get to buy power at a cheaper rate when you’re at home in the evening.] 

So here’s what a system looks like. While the panels are brilliant physics at work and the inverter (the central component other than the panels) is state of the art electrical engineering, the systems are actually quite simple. 

PV panels are very thin and quite lightweight, being made largely of polycarbonates (plastics) for support and a very thin wafer of silicon which is “doped” with a material that facilitates the photovoltaic effect. In fact, panels are so light that the main responsibility of the support frame is to keep them from blowing off of your roof when its windy. Panels do not need to “track” or follow the sun and are efficient enough when aimed into the pathway the sun will take during the day. This means that you will need to put most of your panels on one side of the roof or support them on slanted frames so that they’ll be able to suck up those juicy little photons. 

The PV panel converts photons (or sunlight if you prefer) into DC current (that’s the same kind of electricity you’ll find in a battery but not in your electrical outlet). The panels are very efficient and will generally be capable of producing power for at least 30-40 years. The panels get wired together in a simple grid and fed down to an INVERTER located near your main electrical panel. The inverter converts this DC power into AC power. The power then flows into the main panel where it either runs to your house (if you’re toasting bread) or out to the neighborhood on the wires overhead (or underground as the case may be). It’s just a matter of demand. 

The cost of Silicon is currently quite high because demand is at a peak. That’s a good thing because it means that people are buying solar panels (and other silly things like computers) but the cost is expected to drop by ’08 bringing down the cost of panels. A new “thin film” solar technology is being developed that will eliminate the need for silicon in solar panels. You’ll even be able to print panels on cars, clothing and roofing tiles. I’ll write more on these as they begin to become available. These “printed” panels hold the promise of greatly decreased cost and could herald in an era of highly affordable solar power. 

For the present, conventional solar panels are still a great deal if you can afford them. Currently, the Energy Return On Investment, or EROI, on a PV system for your home is in the 5-15 range.  

For you non-economists, that means that over the life of the system you can expect your initial investment to give you 5-15 times your money back. Any of your stocks doing that well? 

If you go to http://www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov, you can find out more about the incentive packages that are available in this state (there are some Federal tax advantages as well) . These rebates aren’t guaranteed to hang around indefinitely so it might be wise to bust a move.  

We don’t need to site idly by and watch the coral reefs turn to muck or the glaciers melt into so much Evian. We CAN take action. Here’s a powerful step you can take that will produce real results as well as inducing positive political change and providing you with improved long-range financial security. Now, what’s wrong with that?