With fuel prices steadily climbing higher and higher, a great many people have started seeking out cheaper alternative sources of energy, such as solar power. On the surface, solar power seems like the perfect choice. After all, the planet is inundated each year with tens of thousands of times more energy from the sun than it gets from all other energy sources combined, and sunlight is free. This largely untapped bounty has many people wondering if solar power is the right choice for them.
The most common way to get energy from the sun is with a solar panel. Solar panels are made out of layers of glass and specially prepared silicon. When sunlight strikes them they generate electricity. While they can cost a lot, once they are paid for they produce this electricity for free, and they require very little maintenance. However, they do have some limitations. For obvious reasons, they only work during the day, and then only when the sky is not overcast. In order to get around this limitation, many solar power systems also include batteries to store electricity for nights and cloudy days, which raises the cost.
Solar Power by the Numbers
The average American household of three people uses approximately 18,000 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy yearly. While solar panels vary in price, about $30,000 is usually sufficient to purchase enough panels and batteries to supply that much electricity. The same average American household pays just about $0.13 per kilowatt-hour. This means that the average household saves approximately $2,340 per year if they produce all of their electricity with solar panels. At this rate it would take just shy of 13 years to pay off the cost of the system. After the panels and batteries are paid for, the solar system savings are pure profit.
However, the actual cost of installing a solar system is usually lower than this. The government has a number of grants and tax rebates designed to encourage people to switch to solar. Some states also offer their own incentives. These additional savings can lower the effective cost of the average system to $20,000 or so. At this price the system would be paid off in just 8 1/2 years. Some states, such as New York, offer high enough tax rebates and grants to reduce the cost of solar power systems to a mere $5,400. At this rate the average American household would take only 2 years to save enough to make the installation profitable.
Reducing Energy Use to Reduce the Cost of the System
The average American household wastes a lot of electricity. Households that try to reduce this waste will find solar power to be more cost effective still. Replacing air conditioners and furnaces that are ten or more years old can drastically cut energy costs. Lowering the thermostat by just 3 degrees in the winter can reduce winter electricity bills by almost ten percent. Setting a water heater to 120 degrees can also significantly reduce costs while still keeping the water comfortably warm. Turning computers and DVD players off instead of leaving them in standby mode can reduce electricity usage by hundreds of kilowatt-hours each year. A household that applies simple energy-saving steps such as these can cut their energy costs in half. Such a household can get away with smaller and cheaper solar systems, which means initial costs of $2,700 to $15,000, depending on location, and a time of 1 to 6 1/2 years to pay that cost back.
Additional Solar Options
Solar panels are not the only devices that can make use of all that free solar power. Water heaters use an astonishing amount of energy, as much as 25 percent of the average home’s yearly energy bill. A solar water heater, also called a thermosyphon, can heat water for free. These devices are basically miniature greenhouses. A glass or Plexiglas top lets sunlight in to heat up water traveling through pipes. Because heat does not pass through glass or Plexiglas it remains trapped inside, continually building up. These devices use no power, burn no fuel, and can heat water to 140 degrees or more. Commercial thermosyphons can cost from $1,000 to $3,000. They can also easily be built by anyone with a modicum of engineering or construction experience, for as little as $200. Thermosyphons can also be configured to heat up air instead of water, providing free heat in the winter. In some places, depending on the number of sunny days, these devices can provide all the heat and hot water the average household needs. With solar heaters, the average American household uses only 6,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. This can reduce the cost of a solar panel system to a mere $1,800 to $10,000, with a return on investment realized in 4 months to just over 3 years, depending on location.
For people who intend to stay in their house for the long term, a solar energy system will be worth the investment, even without grants, rebates, or energy reducing steps. By taking advantage of available grants and tax rebates, and reducing electricity usage, a solar power system can practically pay for itself overnight. With just a little discipline and work, or a moderate up front investment, there is no need to pay for power generated by expensive fossil fuels.
License: Creative Commons image source
image from www.freedigitalphotos.net
Laura Ginn knows that as with all methods of energy production solar power has its advocates and well as those that object to it. But whether you are for or against the installation of solar PV panels you can still save money on your energy bills by comparing prices on uSwitch.com the UK’s leading price comparison website.