A number of years ago (almost 20 to be exact), I was reading an article on the increasing popularity of installing solar collector panels as a means of reducing pollution by reducing the individual demand that a household places on our electrical energy resources. The piece extolled the virtues of “clean” and relatively “free” electricity that a solar collection array could yield with minimal cost and effort. The article briefly covered the steps for installing solar collector panels, cited a few resources for obtaining the equipment, and gave a couple of examples of energy cost savings.
As somebody who is concerned with both global ecology and reducing living costs, the idea struck me as being nothing less than ideal. I contacted one of the companies listed in the article, plopped down my $400 and ordered a solar panel kit. While the article contained basic technical information and some potential return-on-investment information, it did not fully inform me of “the big picture.”
The electricity that is put out by photovoltaic cells (solar panels) is of the direct current (DC) variety. House wiring and household appliances run off of alternating current (AC). In order to convert the DC power to AC, a DC to AC invertor will be required. The specs for the invertor required will be dictated by the amount of DC input power as well as the power demands of the household circuitry. As the electrical current that comes out of the solar panels is on the order of milliamperes, large deep-cycle storage batteries are required to collect and store enough usable power.
If the solar power system is going to be tied into the electrical grid, this is going to require the services of a licensed electrician who can secure the necessary permits as well as do the actual tie in. Additionally, the electric utility company will have to swap out the electrical meter to accommodate the ancillary power source and to track its power input as well as the power usage from the grid. The electrical power from the solar system will have to supply power that is in phase with the grid power. The electrical utility company will also probably require that an isolation switch be installed that isolates the solar system from the grid to prevent utility workers from being injured should utility lines/equipment require service work due to inclement weather, accidents, etc.
Regulatory and administrative considerations
Despite that the fact all levels of government (municipal, county, borough, state, and federal) “encourage” investment in alternative forms of energy, the amount of applicable codes and regulations can seem daunting to the point of almost being prohibitive. I had to remove my roof mounted solar panels and move them to a ground location because the panels were visible from the nearest highway and reflected sunlight in that direction. The building permit and electrical permits and their attendant inspections were enough to ward off all but the most ardent fan of solar power. Additionally, while the utility company provided the different meter free of charge, I had to pay for the labor costs as well as their inspection fees after the solar system was installed.
Final analysis and conclusion
When all was said and done, my four hundred dollar solar panels ended up costing close to ten thousand dollars to function as I’d hoped. While I am still a proponent of alternative energy sources, I would share the admonition of Caveat Emptor. Do your due diligence and fully investigate everything involved prior to spending the money on a solar energy system. While the system will eventually pay for itself, this should be viewed as a long term investment.