Here Comes the Sun: Are Solar Panels or Passive Solar Design Right for Your New Home? Part One

A smiling man on grey suit standing beside rows of solar panels installed on the ground.

The sun is setting on conventional energy sources — new technological advances are creating viable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. In this article, the first in a two-part series on solar energy, you’ll learn about photovoltaic (PV) panels.

When James Tozza and his family installed PV panels on their home in April, they were the first in their Saugus, Mass., neighborhood to go the solar route. “Now we have three different neighbors with PV panels — we sort of started a trend in the area,” says James Tozza.

The Tozzas opted for a no-money-down solar leasing program from Vivint Solar and haven’t looked back. The process was quite simple: “Installation only took a few days and we don’t have to do any upkeep ourselves,” Tozza says. “We didn’t pay anything up front and now pay Vivint a monthly fee that is much smaller than our old electric bill.”

The Tozza family is just one example of the growing number of ordinary families choosing to install solar panels on their home. From solar-powered garden lights to sprawling solar farms to innovative solar panel design, there’s a solar energy option for almost everyone.

Photovoltaic Panels 101

What's the magic that allows you to harness the power of the sun? Solar panels are photovoltaic — they convert solar radiation into direct current electricity in order to generate electrical power using photovoltaic semiconductors that absorb the photons in sunlight. Panels are made up of multiple cells that are connected electrically and usually contain a top protective layer, two layers of treated silicon, collecting circuitry and a layer of polymer backing. Panels are combined to form an array, which consists of one (or more) batteries, a controller (for stand-alone systems), an inverter (for grid-connected systems) and wiring and framework.

Scientists first developed PV cells to power orbiting satellites and other spacecraft, but today’s PV converters are widely used for grid-connected power generation. Solar voltaic cells can generate electricity from both direct and indirect sunlight, so your solar panels still function even on cloudy days. Even rain helps, washing away dirt to keep the panels clean.

What Are Your Options?

Installing solar panels on your home doesn’t have to be an enormous undertaking — solar energy systems are gaining popularity as technological advances and leasing programs change a once cost-prohibitive industry.

When designing your new home, consider whether installing solar panels or implementing a passive solar design might be right for your family (see part two of this series, on passive solar design below). Not only can solar energy save up to 50 percent of energy costs, but it can increase the resale value of your home. Luckily, a variety of options exist to help you begin the transition to solar energy. For the commit-a-phobes, options include cheap garden lights (around $3) or solar-powered battery chargers for your laptop and/or cellphone.

If you want to seamlessly integrate solar power in your new home, it’s best to plan for and install during construction. Doing so will allow you to achieve the optimal orientation for your PV panels while incorporating them into your home’s design. “In the past, PV systems were a clunky afterthought added on top of the homes of early PV adopters,” says John Prater, vice president of Operations at HelioVolt in Austin, Texas. “Now, we are working with a number of homebuilders to develop systems which integrate seamlessly into the home design — they add to the aesthetics of the home while enabling the homeowner to independently manage down their electricity expenses.”

If you’re the do-it-yourself type, solar energy kits are available that allow for relatively easy installation. One benefit of newer kits is the use of micro-inverter technology, in which each PV panel has a proprietary inverter mounted right by the panel, making the kit easier to install. Federal tax credits and state rebate programs can help with high initial cost of PV panel installation, but rapidly falling prices may eliminate the need for future incentives.

Companies such as Vivint Solar have come up with alternatives to make solar energy affordable for the average buyer — solar leasing programs allow homeowners to install solar panels for no money down, while incentives and tax breaks are passed on to the installation company. In the program, a solar energy company pays for the up-front installation costs, while the homeowner pays the company a long-term monthly leasing rate that’s about 10 percent lower than their average utility bill.

“Prices for solar panels have dropped dramatically in recent years,” says Danielle Murray, LEED AP and Renewable Energy Program Manager at the San Francisco Department of the Environment. New financing options allow homeowners to install solar with little or no money down, with monthly payments structured to be more than offset by savings on their utility bill.” Banks, large corporations and even crowd funding help finance leasing efforts. “Almost all of the costs of solar are accounted for in ‘initial’ costs; once installed, a PV system is warranted to produce electricity for 25 years,” says Prater. “Such an ability to produce electricity without additional fuel charges is one of the qualities that makes solar so desirable and such a great investment.”

Looking Forward to a Bright Future

An efficient way to store solar energy isn’t available yet — batteries are too expensive and don’t last long enough to pay for themselves, so there will be times when your solar panels are producing more energy than your household needs. “In the near future, I believe you will see even greater innovation that integrates solar energy, energy storage and home automation that will serve to ‘shape’ energy use to lower the overall utility bill, while also providing a secure supply of power during emergency outages,” Prater says.

If your PV panels are connected to the grid, many states offer a net-metering program that allows consumers to receive credit for the solar energy they produce when they’re not using it. For example, when everyone is out of the house during the day at work or school, your solar energy system is working hard from home and receives credit for producing a surplus of energy. This credit is put toward the energy you draw back from the grid at night, on cloudy days or any other time where you use more energy than the panels can produce.

Because solar energy is so dependent on the weather, it’s not the best energy saving option for every climate, says Jeffery P. Tamburro, certified RESENT Energy Rater in Denver, Colo. “I don’t think solar, or any other forms of renewable energy for that matter, will ever eliminate the need for fossil fuels, but it will enable us to stretch those fossil fuel supplies well into the future.”

A home using solar energy in sunny Phoenix, Ariz., will save up to 50 percent on its electricity costs, while a similar home in rainy Seattle will not experience the same savings. Keep in mind that solar energy is usually a supplement — it isn’t designed to offset 100 percent of your regular on-the-grid electricity.

Regardless, solar energy has a bright future. Innovations originally developed for military use, such as moveable/roll-up panels and cells in windows are being adapted for the public. Developers are considering solar roof shingles and other advances to make the technology even more efficient and affordable, as well as increase its curb appeal. HelioVolt’s thin-film Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) panels provide a new look for homeowners who don’t like the “patchwork quilt” design of traditional PV panels — and are better able to create energy using off-angle or low light.

Harvesting solar energy through PV panels is an increasingly popular option for those environmentally conscious homeowners wanting to save on energy bills. While PV panels do not make sense in every home, it’s certainly worth considering your energy needs to see if installing a system might lower your utility costs.

In Part Two of this series, you’ll learn more about passive solar energy design and how you can benefit from implementing it in your new home.

If you would like a similar article on how to conserve water, read more here.

Seve Kale is an award-winning freelance writer for NewHomeSource. You can find her on Google+

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