For decades, residential solar has been available but has been too expensive for most people with fossil fuel powered energy so easily available. Now that the world is facing climate change and fossil fuel depletion, the equation has changed. Solar photovoltaic systems have tumbled in price since the 1970s when they were so expensive, becoming a realistic option for many more people today.
The costs of a solar photovoltaic system are front-loaded. Once you have bought and installed the system, all you have to do is maintain it to have a free source of electricity. While the world around you grapples with energy prices that oscillate wildly, you’ll be laughing. Even better, that energy is renewable and far better for the environment than electricity from coal or natural gas. Natural gas may be cleaner than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel and is therefore nonrenewable and gives off carbon dioxide when burned.
Residential photovoltaic systems are usually under warranty for 20 years and should last 25-30 years. Some last much longer. The first photovoltaic system in the USA is still operating – it was installed in 1954.
If you want a system that includes batteries, the batteries will not last as long as the photovoltaic panels or other parts of the system and must be replaced. Battery lifespan varies dramatically depending on how often the batteries are used, how deeply the batteries are discharged, and if they are ill-treated by overcharging or being subjected to unsuitable temperatures. Some types of batteries also require maintenance which consists mainly of adding distilled water at appropriate intervals.
The USA compared to other countries
Solar power is growing in popularity in the USA, as is true in many places around the globe including such disparate locations as Germany and China. With the increasing popularity has come a drastic fall in prices. Some retailers sell solar photovoltaic modules for well under $2.00 per watt. There have also been changes in the way that solar installations are funded. There are a few companies such as SolarCity in California that will install a system on your house for no money down and then charge you a lower rate for a combination of lease on the system and the electricity you use.
The fall in price and increased diversity in payment options mean that if you took a look at solar energy earlier and dismissed it because it was too expensive, it is time to take another look.
Many places in the USA are very sunny and need air conditioning in the summer, which makes solar energy an excellent option. An example would be Southern California. You get more electricity from a solar panel in a sunny place than you do from one that is in a cloudy area, or that is shaded some of the time. Given this, you have to wonder why solar electricity is more used in Germany when the USA is far better suited to it.
The answer lies in government policy. Germany got into the renewable energy game early, supporting solar power with feed-in tariffs. The USA has done far less to encourage people to buy solar systems, and what they have done they have only started recently. It is now time for the USA to play catch up, and it’s having some problems scaling up its industry ie. Solyndra.
The USA and China – solar industry interactions
There is a gap between the interests of solar installers and the interests of solar manufacturers. Solar installers like the fact that they can get cheap solar modules from China, as lower prices mean more people are installing solar systems. American solar manufacturers are having trouble dealing with the low prices of the competition. There is some currently some antidumping litigation going on between the U.S. and China. There is some basis to it, as one of the reasons the Chinese panels are so cheap is because they are not recycling things that would have to be recycled by law in the USA. The pollution has been bad enough there has actually been protests against some of the factories. To protest in China is not a minor decision.
What this means for the home owner looking for a solar system is that you should be aware that while Chinese solar photovoltaic modules are cheap, they are also less environmentally friendly than US or German manufactured panels.
Recent solar photovoltaic developments
Solar photovoltaics are still improving. Thin film solar collectors are a relatively recent development that increases the range of things solar photovoltaics can be used for as it bends without breaking. For example, it is possible to buy solar photovoltaic shingles. Thin film is also generally the cheapest solar photovoltaic material per watt, making it a very practical choice.
There are also experimental solar photovoltaic cells including multi-junction cells, and cells based on other materials than silicon. If you can get hold of these at all, they’re much more expensive than silicon-based solar cells. You could wait for these to come out and drop in price, but experimentation and commercialization take time, and the amount of time is highly unpredictable. It could be many years until they are actually available at a price you are willing to pay.
Given the current situation with lowered prices and improved technology, if you can afford to go solar, I’d say do it!