When oil prices hit $150 a barrel, it forced North Americans to change their lifestyles to incorporate energy conservation into their everyday routines. People didn't drive as much or heat their homes quite so high. We realized that the amount of money we were willing to spend on energy did have an upper limit. However, to offset future energy prices, investing in solar power may be one way to become more energy-independent. This clean, non-polluting energy alternative helps to save the planet while also easing the burden on your wallet.
Passive solar heating is one of the easiest ways to save on heating costs. Just as a car's interior collects heat on a hot summer day, sunlight streaming through a window can heat a room in a similar manner. Simply opening the curtains and letting the sunshine in can save up to 15% of heating costs in winter. The natural convection current of air causes warm air to rise and cold air to sink. However, sunlight can also fade fabrics and dyes.
With the use of a ceiling fan, passive solar heating can be made more efficient at heating an interior space and becomes active solar heating. By increasing the movement of air, warm air can be distributed further throughout the house. This can save another estimated 5-10% of heating costs. Solar heating works well regardless of the outside air temperature.
Small solar panels can be used to power lawn and garden ornaments and rechargeable NiCd batteries. These self-contained rechargers provide clean, safe power and allows for large savings instead of purchasing one-time alkaline batteries. Investing in rechargeable batteries allows the same unit to be used multiple times while reducing the amount of harmful chemicals being sent to the dump.
For those who are serious about becoming energy independent, consider investing in a household solar power system. First, calculate your energy needs and determine if the amount of sun in your location will be able to supply the necessary amount of energy. Remember that the quantity of sunlight and the solar intensity is determined by location on the earth, length of the day, time of year and weather conditions.
If your location is ideal, consider starting with small system consisting of solar panels, a charge controller, batteries and an inverter. The system is modular and can be expanded as your energy conservation efforts grow. A starter system will help offset your energy usage from the power grid and will be a good test to see if your lifestyle can adapt to solar power. As you become more comfortable living with solar power, you can expand your system by installing more solar panels and building a larger battery bank.
There is a way to contribute to alternative energy instead of building your own backyard solar power system. Most local utilities have alternative energy projects to which customers can subscribe. These alternative-power systems are larger in size to increase efficiency and cost more to run than conventional power plants. They usually power a few hundred or thousands of homes instead of just one household.
The actual electrons coming from your sockets may not originate at these alternative energy plants but your fees help offset the increase in development and operational costs. Touted as "green power", the electricity is produced from non-emission power sources such as solar, wind or biomass. Using this avenue to invest in alternative power may not necessarily save you money, but it will help to save the planet from air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The most bold, and risky, way to invest in solar power is to become a shareholder in companies that produce solar technology. For example, companies could focus on the following.
Photovoltaic cells are made out of silicon-doped semiconductor material and are expensive to fabricate. Look for companies that are reducing the cost of producing this crystalline material and who are spending the capital building the production facilities. For the average homeowner, the upfront cost of these panels is the largest cost (and one of the big reasons for a lack of support for solar power amongst consumers), and companies working to reducing this outlay will become cost leaders in the future.
Current solar panel technology averages somewhere around 20% to 22% efficient (although efficiency is always improving). This means that about 20% of the sunlight that strikes the panel is converted into electricity while the remaining 80% is converted to heat. Look for companies that are increasing the efficiency of the panels by using more available wavelengths in the sunlight or packing more solar cells into a smaller space.
Solar cell fabrication factories are expensive to build and maintain. Solar panel manufacturers purchase the basic solar cell from these fabs and then assemble them into larger panels (typically 36 cells per panel). Solar panel companies may try to reduce assembly costs and increase output.
Not every homeowner has the skills to retrofit solar panels into an existing home. Skilled trades workers and electrical installers are needed for complete system installation.
There are a number of ways of investing in solar power energy, technology and companies. Consider which method is most convenient for you help promote clean, renewable energy.