He said, “Solar panels are only 40 percent efficient.”
I thought, “Are you kidding, it’s free.”
The sun shines and “Zap”, you have electricity, isn’t that 100 percent efficient? Well, not so fast smarty pants. The 40 percent rating is true if one thinks about how “they” measure efficiency – the actual amount of photons hitting a photovoltaic cell and being converted to electricity. Scientists have only been able to convert 40 percent of the sunlight into electricity in a lab. We purchased high-efficiency photovoltaic panels that are only 16 percent efficient.
But That’s Far From The Whole Story on Solar
There are so many other factors that should enter into that woefully simplistic expression of efficiency. There are extraction, transportation, waste disposal, accidental damages, and resource protection costs not figured into this equations nor are there any inputs about the health care costs or environmental damages associated with energy sources.
- Think how much it costs to mine coal, drill for oil, frack for gas or mine uranium. There are no extraction costs with solar rays.
- Then there are transportation costs. Train cars filled with coal, tankers filled with crude, pipelines with gas – not so with solar; the rays hitting our photovoltaic cells require no transportation costs.
- The cost of waste disposal with fossil fuels and nuclear is significant, requiring space and oversight to protect us and the environment from faulty engineering, sloppy construction or corruption.
- Accidents abound with coal, natural gas, and oil. The Upper Big Branch Coal Mine explosion in West Virginia, the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, the BP oil spill, and the Dan River coal ash spill quickly come to mind.
- What are the costs to protect and defend our foreign interests in oil or it’s transport? I think about the pirates off the Somalian coast, the Gulf War and protecting the Suez Canal. We don’t need special forces or a Department of Defense to protect our interests in solar power.
- Health care costs related to fossil fuel energy are far reaching; from Black Lung Disease to asthma. One Harvard study states that “the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. “
If energy efficiency factored in all these aforementioned associated costs, solar would be at or near the most cost-efficient.
Solar rays are free and unlimited. There are no moving parts and there are no greenhouse gasses emitted from photovoltaic cells.
What’s the Downside to Solar?
Okay, the upfront cost is expensive but dropping fast. From 2010 to 2013 it dropped 29 percent. Just like hand-held calculators and computers, the start-up costs were high and then plummeted as markets and advancements in the industry adjust.
Solar panels take up space if they are not mounted on a roof. And of course, if the sun isn’t shining there is little or no power, so to be completely independent batteries are required. Lack of storage capacity is a drawback but here also, technology is improving and prices are falling.
Certainly, there is some pollution and waste generated from the manufacture of photovoltaic cells and the disposal of spent panels but the industry is so young there is little data to reflect true costs.
These downside aspects pale in comparison to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
4 Reasons We Went Solar
- The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and gigantic transmission towers were our tipping points. The arrogance and disrespectful manner Dominion Power and Duke Energy are carrying out their plan to construct a 550 mile, 42 inch, high-pressure, natural gas pipeline through America’s legendary Shenandoah Valley, the place where we live, drove us to seek energy independence from energy utility corporate greed.
- The “solarize ‘your county’ movement” in Virginia woke us up to the growing number of people going solar. There were fifty people signed up in Augusta County when we looked into it and we thought if we wanted to go solar and have it up and running before the 30% federal tax credit expired next year we had better get going.
- We found the right place. The roof on our home would not work because it’s not facing south so a ground array would have to be built. Altenergy Staunton Branch Manager Joe Moore came out to our home and helped us find the right place and it fit.
- Finally, we want to do everything we can to reduce our personal carbon footprint.
What’s in Our Solar System?
Altenergy built us a 7.56 kW ground array with 24 SolarWorld panels which is calculated to generate 1.2 times our energy needs. We will be “net metering” for now which means our utility company will be giving us credit for any electricity we contribute to the grid. We are planning to completely go off the grid eventually.
Our solar system and the folks at Altenergy exceeded our expectations. We were informed of every detail, they were courteous, cleaned up everyday and delivered what they promised.
The solar energy sector is exploding. In 2014 it grew 34% over 2013. There is a new solar home or business every 2.5 minutes in the United States. As the solar industry continues to grow, prices will come down. Maybe it’s time for you look into it.
Are solar panels worth it for you? Find out more at understandsolar.com
A more updated article by Sunpower.
Bobby, I aplaud what you are doing…it is fascinationg and so very important. Great links. Thank you!
Marie & Milan
You are so welcome Marie. Thanks for taking the time to read this and post a comment.
In addition, as your photos attest, you are surrounded by Nature’s photosynthetic solar array. And your battery of hay bales will discharge their stored energy this winter.
You are so right Leo!
Way to go Bobby! This is the wave of NOW energy, and the batteries are already out there, and the price will fall, just as the solar panels have. Your comments on the price of traditional energy includes much that is easy to overlook when we look at our electric bills. And all those who get “off the grid” are finally free of dominion by Dominion and the entire, fragile web of poles and wires that are at risk with every storm.
Thanks Anne, you are so right!
This is terrific and love the additional information. I just put PV (going live next week) and solar hot water in on my roof. I can’t wait to track our efforts to conserve my energy, use clean energy and maybe send some back to the grid!
Thanks Bobby for leading the way! Mary Tod
And you also Mary Tod. Thanks for posting your comment.
Bobby and Jeanne,
I cannot wait to see this in person and learn more about the experience. Please keep us posted along the way in this journey (30 days, 60 days, six months, one year, . . .).
I do have a question about possible damage to the array. Would hail damage it?
Shane we will keep you posted. Good question about the hail. The panels are rated to withstand 178 pounds per square foot. I will check into it further.
Shane I copied this off of SolarWorld’s website. These are the panels we purchased. This is what they have to say about hail:
“In fact, SolarWorld’s new glass-glass protective casing can take on hail stones shot at velocities of 260+ mph. Just to put that into perspective:
Solar panels designed around international standards can withstand hail stones traveling at 50 mph
The terminal velocity of a 1-centimeter hail stone is 20 mph (this is the fastest speed that hail of this size can travel when falling from the sky)
The terminal velocity of an 8-centimeter hail stone is 110 mph — more than 50% less than what the highest quality solar panels can tolerate
In other words, damage from hail is exceedingly rare. What’s more, solar panels don’t usually take direct hits from falling debris. Due to the tilted angles of standard roof- and ground-mounted solar PV installations, most impacts are glancing blows.”
Congrats on your solar, Bobby! I’m very jealous. And the efficiency issue is interesting…I think I read somewhere that plants are less than 20% efficient in converting solar rays into energy. If that’s true, then PV panels are certainly comparable to what mother nature has been able to do with millions of years of R&D. And of course you’re right about fossil and nuclear power sources. Most of them are just stored ancient sunlight, anyway, which makes burning them much less efficient per btu than solar PV.
Good comments Erik. Thanks for posting!
Bobby you are so off the grid in so many ways…..
Great news, Bobby and Jeannie – The solution really does come up every day! I know Altenergy did a wonderful job at an excellent value!
The Augusta County Solar Coop is open for new members until September 21st, if anyone is inspired to join and save on solar. Learn more and sign up at http://www.vasun.org/augusta-county-solar-coop.
If folks are still thinking and saving, don’t wait past June of 2016 to get a plan underway, as your project has to be installed before the end of 2016 to qualify for the 30% federal tax credit.
Bobby – thanks for leading us all in good directions!
David, you are welcome. Thanks for posting and for all that you do as well.
This is wonderful and very tempting, Bobby. About when do you think you will actually hit a cost savings point? I was very interested in doing this for our home/farm, but the calculations looked like it would be 15 years before we actually saved money. I appreciate all the environmental benefits, but I think there needs to be more/some state subsidies to make this a realistic proposition for those who need it to be cost effective. If I were starting out with more than 15 years in sight for our current location, I would do this in a heartbeat. I just hope the costs keep going down rapidly, the storage issue is fixed (Elon Musk/Tesla is trying!), and the state wakes up to the need to promote this, despite VA utility opposition to conservation.
Lori, thanks for stopping by. According the calculations our system will pay for itself in 11 years. I agree that there needs to be more incentives. If the solar contractors had the same tax breaks that the coal and oil industries have there would be no need for the 30% federal tax credit. Dominion owns our legislature and they do not want us to be independent from them.
This is an excellent discussion of residential solar. And what could feel better than not contributing to Dominion’s profits?
Adding to the nuances and complexities of energy efficiency is the “Rebound Effect”—when great efficiency, plus affordability, have the unintended consequence of increased consumption (this has proven to be the case with implementation of the cheapest LED lighting without a fundamental shift in lighting policy & practice).
So I see solar as an ideal of efficiency AND conservation, or “mindful use”.
And it’s fantastic to hear that so many in Augusta County are going solar—sending another strong message to “the powers that be”!
Thanks for your great comments Laura.
Well done Bobby! And thanks for the reminder on the tax credits expiring. We’re right behind you on adding solar to our barn. And we’re lucky to have Joe Moore living right down the street. 🙂
Congratulations on your recent purchase,we installed a 28 kw system on our new bed pack barn last fall and have been really happy with the results. In April we actually had a $32 credit on our bill. The folks from Shenandoah Valley Electric were really helpful with the setup and installation of our metering system. I find it quite interesting that our socialist, progressive governor is supporting Dominion and the pipeline. Looks like conservatives are not the only ones who are for dirty air and dirty water. The sooner we all realize that government is not and never will be the answer to all our problems the sooner we can set down together and logically begin to solve them in reasonable and meaningful ways. Lets all do the right thing in our own backyard and stop trying to turn the greatest nation on earth into a third world country! My rant for the week.
Keep up the good work.
Thanks Buff, good rant!
Good to read, Your article is very nice and more informative, thanks for sharing
This article is very informative for those who do not understand or are not well versed in solar energy – all principles (including pros and cons) are discussed. I believe that solar energy is such an important renewable source of energy that is becoming more popular, specifically in the residential sector. The technology is efficient and the cost is decreasing as more solar panels are installed. It’s so nice to hear that residents in Augusta Country are installing solar panels. Hopefully, those residents can influence others to go solar as well!
I really appreciated how you presented both sides of the solar energy argument. When looking at both sides without bias, it baffles me that more people are not following in your footsteps and installing solar panels or other forms of natural energy sources. I had never thought of how solar could be implemented on farms and more rural areas, I had only considered how they could be used in cities and more populated areas. It was very interesting and I was happy to see how solar can have such a positive impact no matter the location it is installed!
This is incredible! I feel like more people need to follow this example and think about more of the environmental costs when thinking about switch from general utilities to solar production. Although the technology is slow now, advancements are being made and the efficiency of solar cells is increasing as time progresses. Between the savings of not only the environmental costs but also the potential dollar savings with the payback period as well as the federal tax credit it seems that there are less and less reasons not to move to solar energy production. Congratulations on making the move to solar energy!
Patrick, thank you for your kind words.
It is honestly really exciting to see that solar energy harvesting is becoming more and more prevalent. Bringing the price down is crucial in order to get less environmentally-dedicated people to see benefits in harvesting solar energy. I truly think the U.S. needs to move from fossil fuels to a perfect combination of so many different sources of alternate energy – biofuels, wind energy, water energy, solar energy and more. Thinking about this, I have this idea of putting much of the non-populated areas in the midwest to use by installing a very large number of wind turbines to aid in powering the entire country. This idea may not be entirely feasible for reasons such as having maintenance workers nearby etc, but I think the government needs to act on a large scale in some way to prevent such prevalent uses of fossil fuels.
The benefits of switching to solar energy are overwhelming and with each new person who switches, solar will become more and more cost competitive with fossil fuels. In my opinion, cost competitiveness is key for the success of solar because the high overhead cost is what scares most people off. I believe that in the next few years we will see residential solar become much more prominent.
Solar is going to be a huge part of the future! This is why I love studying energy with environment. It’s so important to understand why we’ve made the resource choices we have (oil, coal, natural gas) and why there is hesitation surrounding renewables. Just like large-scale farming, energy corporations tied up in gas, oil and coal lobby and fight to preserve the dependency we have on their commodities as well as limited regulation of the way we supply it (hence the many pipeline disasters). They’ve developed long-term corporate infrastructure dependent on the availability of these fossil resources despite their limited supply. If we as a country want to move towards an energy-secure future, we need a mixed bag of renewables as well as combustible, energy dense fossil fuels (which will be necessary for high efficiency industrial operations). We can’t survive off of one energy source as much as we want a simple solution to our nations energy problems. All things in moderation. Our resources must be balanced, which currently demands mass development of renewables like solar and wind.
The fact that you can capture more energy than your household needs is awesome. I believe the state needs to work on informing the public better about opportunities to build solar and informing them about tax breaks and incentives. If more people transitioned to solar then maybe the demand for a pipeline would subside enough to scrap the project. One day I plan to make my own household 100% solar or some combination of solar and wind so that days when the sun isn’t shining or at night I am still generating electricity. Wind energy might be a good resource for you to look at in accomplishing your goal of going off-grid without spending the large amount of money for batteries which have a short lifespan.
Alex, thanks. We indeed hope to delay the pipeline long enough for the pipeline to be useless.
This is a great article that discusses the importance and benefit of solar power. This past weekend I attended a solar, where I visited multiple houses that got all or most of their energy needs from solar power. This included the home of Dr. Wayne Teel. His home has generated so much energy from the solar panels he has installed on his roof, that he has to pay no money for his monthly electric bill. Hopefully events such as the solar tour will encourage more people to invest the upfront cost in solar power to reap the benefit of both saving money and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. I plan on using solar power to power my home one day!
There are so many external costs associated with the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. The energy costs and exhaustion of resources that goes into obtaining fossil fuels is something that I think is often overlooked by society. Forests are torn down and ecosystems are put at risk. Human well-being is also another factor to look at, especially when it comes to health repercussions that follow mining for coal and fracking for natural gas. As far as nuclear energy goes, there is such a great risk associated with the storage of its waste. There are currently nuclear waste facilities that are storing waste underground, posing great threats to neighboring towns and ecosystems. Some people seem to be very turned away by the idea of installing solar panels on there property. I think this is greatly associated to initial installation cost, as well as lack of education on how much the benefits outweigh the costs you described. Just curious, do you know the payback period of your solar panels?
Maja, thanks for your comment. the payback period for our panels is 11 years.
No matter what other people say I would still prefer solar panels than fossil fuels