Blog #4 – Thoughts on Solar Electricity
Thoughts on Solar Electricity
In this blog, I wanted to spend some time on the subject of Solar Electricity. Over the past decade, there have been so many changes in the solar field and the changes and improvements keep coming. This will in no way be an exhaustive treatment on the subject, but maybe it can serve as a foundation for those who are considering using some kind of solar application for their home.
The technology of solar panels has advanced in several ways. The way the silicone crystals are made, the efficiencies of the crystals, the amount of room the panels take up compared to the amount of watts they produce, and the ability to continue to produce usable electricity even on cloudy days. There are other improvements I’m sure. In fact here is a recent article I came across on the web that demonstrates that perfectly:
Suffice it to say, now is a much better time to be buying solar panels than ever before. First you get a much better quality panel with a much smaller footprint for a much lower cost. The cost is largely affected by China entering the market and now dominating it, but the availability and quality of silicone also has a lot to do with it.
If you have been waiting to buy a system, I believe the time is now. Many panels are selling for as low as $1 per watt right now if you do some shopping so a 3 kilowatt system will cost not much more than $3000 for the panels. Of course there are other components to consider, so the total cost will be more than that, usually about double for purposes of estimating.
Many people ask me about government rebates, but I remind them that since we are talking about placing our systems in an off grid application, that automatically prevents them from receiving a rebate. The rebates are designed only to encourage people to install grid tied systems and help provide more available electricity to the utilities grid system.
Not to worry though, even though we had to pay all the costs of our system with no rebates, we have not had a utility bill for over 12 years now. It’s pretty nice. I mention several other nice things about not being connected to the grid in my book “Off Grid and Underground” as well.
Since you are building an off grid system, you will need to have batteries to store the electricity that is being generated during the day when the sun is shining. There are several options to what kind of batteries to use and you can explore the various options at a solar store or even on-line. I went with the deep cycle storage battery. I started out my system with a couple of cheaper marine batteries with a few panels and over time, those batteries have grown into the L-16 Solar 6 volt batteries that continue to provide good service. It’s not a bad idea to start small and grow your system as you gain experience.
The other piece of equipment you will need is an inverter that converts the 12 volt electricity into usable 120 – 240 Volts, depending on your country and needs. This is another area that has come down in pricing and once again the main driver in pricing is Chinese manufacturing. What you want to look for are consumer reports on the brands you are looking at. Many made in China are under careful quality control checks that provide an excellent quality for the money. The features you want to include is the proper voltage inversions, digital readouts for amperage and voltage, and a battery charge controller option so that when you are running your back-up generator, you can charge the batteries at the same time. I recommend a 3000 watt size to have plenty of power when you need it.
And this brings us to the back-up generator. I recommend finding a good quality EU rated generator from 2,000 to 3,500 watts. I use a Honda 2000EU and it has been perfect. It doesn’t use a lot of gas and is practically bulletproof as well as the fact that it is big enough for the jobs I need to do.
My total panels put out about 2 kilowatts now, and even though that is a small system, it is enough for how we have chosen to live our lives. I talk about adjusting our expectations and attitudes in the book as well, so once you have adjusted your expectations, this level of power production is usually sufficient. Having said that, I do realize different people have different needs and situations so you are the ultimate decision maker. Now is still a good time to buy panels and components no matter how large your system will be.
I recommend buying a good book on solar electricity – there are many available and spending some time reading it and getting familiar with the concepts and a bit of the math involved. You will need to understand the basic equations for figuring out how many amps of battery storage you will need; how many panels you will need, how many batteries you will need, how many amps your appliances will require and more. They are simple calculations, but you will need to do them to understand your system. You are always welcome to write me with questions if you are stuck. Most solar stores are eager to provide information and suggestions.
There was a time when solar was inefficient and expensive, but that is rapidly changing. I believe that solar power is here to stay, especially for those of us who choose to live off the grid as a lifestyle. Have fun learning and growing in this fascinating field. The more you learn, the more advantage you will have in providing a very comfortable homestead, off the beaten path. It really is worth the effort!