A Brighter Energy: The Practicalities of Solar Power

Solar powered hostel in Olympos Town, Turkey, heats all of its water using solar panels.

As the price of energy rises and rises, there are still a few constants in the world. One of them is the power of the sun. One day the fossil fuel that we all depend on will run out, but the sun will blaze on for billions of years. Scientists believe that the sun is the key to the future, but it may also be the key to eliminating your monthly power bills today.

Solar Around the World

Last month I was lucky enough to find myself backpacking through Europe. As the weeks and the scenery passed, I began noticing one predominant trend. Most of the houses were sporting shiny new solar panels on their roofs. I wondered how affordable these panels were and why we don't see them as often at home. Luckily, while sightseeing in Pamukkale, Turkey I met a couple from India that owned a solar installation company who explained to me the overwhelming benefits. The solar panels I was seeing, they said, were not full systems (very expensive) but solar water heaters. These small systems were able to use the power of the sun to heat all of the water for a single family home. Some families even used the panels to heat their pools! This would save the average American between $200 and 500 per year. In the past 10 years, interest in solar technology has spiked abroad as people begin to realize the long term cost-effectiveness of this renewable energy source.

There's no two ways about it, installing a solar power system for your home takes considerable time and money. Systems that produce enough electricity to run your entire home can cost upwards of $55,000. One new innovation is solar roof shingles, that can be integrated into your roof, rather than stand alone panels that are installed above it. However, smaller systems are available that would offer partial energy coverage. For example, very popular now in Europe and Asia are the same solar water heaters I saw, which provide enough energy to heat your water all year. Here at home, systems are available at all levels. Also, the federal government (and some states) offer large rebates as solar power incentives. By taking advantage of these, and picking a system appropriate for your family, you can help save the environment at the same time you save money.

Solar power systems are extremely complicated, and can not be considered a true "do it yourself" endeavor. Professionals are indeed required to perform home consultations, system set-up, installation, and maintenance. Providing these services requires extensive training, insurance, certifications, licenses, and permits.

How Does it Work?

There are different types of solar panels, but the ones developed for residential use are photovoltaic (PV) systems that utilize solar cells to produce direct electric current which ebbs and flows with the sunlight's intensity. The direct current must then be converted to the desired voltage which requires the use of an inverter. Larger solar systems will still be connected to your local power grid in case you need to access the grid for extra energy or if you have produced extra energy and want to sell it to your power company - a common occurrence. Solar power systems can only be effective on homes with access to direct sunlight. Homes in wooded or shady spots will not get the full effect of the panels. Homes with roof surfaces that face south are ideal. Solar power systems work best in very sunny climates with mild or short winters. In other climates, a back-up system such as batteries or generators can be invaluable. Systems that contain some type of energy storage allow you to use your pre-harvested energy late at night or on stormy days. This is where staying connected to your residential power grid comes in to play, since they can usually store your energy for you. Solar water heater systems are not connected to your power grid and so may need gas or electric boosters during the winter or on stormy days. And after those storms, you can have a party at your house while your neighbors wait for the power companies to turn their electricity back on!

Price Tag and Profit

The cost of your solar system depends on its size. And the size of the system depends on the size of your home, your energy needs, and your climate. Using this handy calculator you can estimate how much a solar power system would cost for your home. Small systems like the solar water heater I saw cost around $5,000, whereas a partial system for a mid-sized home costs around $25,000.

However, as mentioned above, the government is eager to encourage the use of solar power. Both federal and some state governments offer rebates for solar panel purchases, sometimes in the thousands. In most cases this includes a 30 percent federal tax credit on the gross cost of the system. Take a look at this chart and see what your state and federal government can do for you.

Although installation is very complex, most companies that sell these systems offer free installation. The average cost of solar panel installation in the US is $5.50. If you buy a $25,000 system, that includes full installation, or a seriously low fee. So the installation part of the whole process has a ridiculously low cost. But this rule is typical, even for smaller systems.

The most exciting way you will be saving money though will happen as soon as your new system is fully operational. Your electricity bills will melt away, leaving you wondering why you didn't switch earlier. Within the first month of use you will be saving hundreds of dollars a month, every month. This is especially true in the summer when energy costs are high, and the long sunny days have your system working at its best. Depending on the size and price of your system, in around 10 years you will save as much as you spent on the system in the first place. And, once the system is paid off, you will essentially be earning the price of your electricity bill each month.


Solar power systems not only help you save money, they help you make it. On days when perhaps you have less energy than you need to run your household, your existing connection to the power grid will feed you that energy automatically, so that you are never without it. In this same way, on particularly sunny days when you generate more energy than you need, the power company is obligated to buy this surplus automatically. This usually accumulates as credit to be paid to you at the end of each year in a nice check.

In addition, studies have shown that solar panels are one of the best investments you can make in the way of home improvement. A nine year study showed that a system capable of generating more than 3,100 watts (the average system in the study) added $17,000 in home value.

And, in the course of making your bills disappear, you will be working towards a safer and cleaner environment. The use of fossil fuels is not only a multibillion dollar industry, but is also wreaking havoc on the essential balance of nature. Above us the ozone is thinning, the world around us is heating up, and oil fields across the globe are digging deeper and deeper every year. It is estimated that a 1000-watt solar power system eliminates the burning of approximately 170 pounds of coal, prevents 200 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, and saves up to 105 gallons of water monthly. By converting your household to solar power you will be investing in a healthy future for us all.

Choosing a System and Installation

The first step in choosing a solar power system is contacting companies in your area for information about their services. Instead of Googling, get in touch with your local or state utility agency. They may be able to give you the contact information of installers who already have the proper state certifications. Plan consulting meetings with several different companies so that you can compare prices. Measure how much energy your household expends each month and decide how much it would cost for your optimum system. Discuss with your company of choice the costs and benefits associated with your ideal system as opposed to a smaller and less expensive one. If you don't have the money associated with full solar panels, talk with your company about the feasibility of a solar water heater, which is a great first step in going solar. Have a contractor come out and examine your roof. You do not want to place thousands of dollars worth of equipment on an old or precarious roof! Calculate what government rebates you are eligible for and ask your installation company to submit the paperwork.

A recent Harris interactive poll estimates that 97 percent of Americans overestimate the cost of installing solar. Not only will most companies install your system for a very low fee, they can also offer free system monitoring services as well as extensive warranties and free maintenance and repairs for a varying amount of time.

Solar panel leasing is also an option. In this case, the leasing company will buy and install the system for no upfront cost. They will legally own the system and will lease it to you for a monthly fee. This fee should be less than your monthly electricity bill. The company will incur all maintenance, cleaning, and repair costs (routine or not) during the period of your contact. The contracts are long, usually for 10 or 20 years. The leasing option is very cost effective for large households that consume a lot of power and have very high electricity bills.

Installation could take an afternoon or a few days depending on the size of the system.

Monitoring and Care

Your solar panels need less care than you probably thought. Most are dirt and dust resistant. Keep an eye out for technologically inclined birds and squirrels who may get curious!

Your solar panels are connected to an inverter that measures your direct current and converts it into the proper alternating current for use around the house. This inverter records power production and should be checked frequently for production dips. In newer systems the inverter's records can be accessed online or on your smart phone.

Yearly check-ups by your installation company can help mitigate unexpected problems and keep things running smoothly.

Even with all of the advantages and deals out there, there is no doubt that going completely solar is still pricey. But, developers are creating smaller and more practical systems every day, like the solar water heaters so popular in Europe. These smart home-owners abroad are going solar little by little and saving money along the way. As this new technology becomes widely used, expect prices to drop even further. The price of these systems has already dropped over 20 percent since 2010. Going solar can seem like a big plunge, but as fossil fuel reserves are depleted the world will be looking towards the sun. Get a head start and worry less about costs, to both yourself and to the environment.