About Solar Power Generation - Is it a Practical Energy Alternative?

After learning about solar power generation, you may wonder why such a promising technology hasn't become more widely used in our society. This clean energy source does not pollute the air nor release any carbon dioxide (CO2). There are disadvantages such as reliability and high initial costs, but for small scale applications such as residential solar home heating, it may be the right alternative energy source for you.

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Solar power generation has many options that cost from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars. From simple battery rechargers to large, rooftop installations, the sun's energy can be converted to electricity and stored for later use. One of the main reasons people consider turning to the sun for energy is that it reduces the CO2 footprint, encourages reduction in energy consumption and, in some cases, may actually be cheaper than paying for an electrical hookup from the local utility company.

Stand-Alone DC Systems

Boats, RVs and small household applications can use a stand-alone DC system. Typical costs range from $700 - $5,000 and consist of rigid photovoltaic solar panels that can provide more electrical current. The DC energy is stored in deep cycle rechargeable batteries with the use of a charge controller. The typical application is for LED lighting and to power small DC appliances. These are only supplemental power systems and do not replace the primary electrical source.

Stand-Alone AC Systems

When powering an entire house, the energy from the solar panels is stored in the batteries for later use. Cottages and homes that are off-grid - that is, not connected to the electrical grid - may find this installation practical ($5,000 - $50,000). However, conservation is required since overcast days may prevent the batteries from receiving a full charge.

Household Solar Power Systems

The main components of a household solar power system are:

  • Solar panels - These convert the solar energy of the sun directly into electricity. Typical panels for this application range from 60 to 200 W. The higher the Wattage, the more electric current it can supply. Connecting multiple panels together produces more electricity.

  • Charge controller - These are electrical devices that maximize the current generated from solar panels. They have a maximum peak power tracking circuit (MPPT) which increases the efficiency of the panels by regulating the voltage and current. Ensure that the charge controller can handle the maximum amount of current from all the solar panels put together.

  • Batteries - Solar panels produce direct current (DC) which can be stored in batteries for later use. The number of batteries required depends on your energy needs which also dictate how many solar panels you need. Normal car batteries should not be used since they are not designed for the numerous charge and discharge cycles.

  • Inverter - Household appliances run on alternating current (AC). Blenders, stoves, washing machines all use 60 Hz, 120 or 240 V electricity. To convert the DC current from the solar panels and storage batteries, an inverter is needed to convert it to AC. Using AC allows you to use the same household wiring, circuits and appliances without any retrofits.

Large Systems

Large systems cost millions of dollars to design and build and are usually experimental power stations that are subsidized by the government. They are not practical for the average homeowner. These systems maximize the solar power generation by:

  • Locating in a sparely-populated location that has constant exposure to sunlight.

  • Using an expensive orientation alignment system that directs the panels at the sun throughout the day. The more direct the sunlight, the more power is created.

  • Transmits the AC power to the power grid for immediate use by consumers. These are usually supplementary power sources since the energy is not stored in batteries due to capacity limitations.

As you read more about solar power generation, you may be convinced that it is the right energy source for you and your home. Costs have come down in recent years (get a free quote for solar in your area), however many homeowners still feel that the initial cost is a deterrent. If you are patient, though, the years of free energy it provides will more than pay for itself over time.