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Going Solar or Going for Broke?

Going Solar or Going for Broke?

Some girls dream of diamonds. I have always dreamt of solar panels. When I was a child in the ’70s, I remember hearing about solar energy and thinking that someday it would be everywhere—a solar energy farm on every roof. What happened?

Last weekend, my husband and I took a field trip to Real Goods in Hopland, an innovator in solar technology, and as we wandered around the grounds checking out all the panels and reading the educational boards (note to self: take nephew there when he gets a little older), I was reminded once again why solar energy is the smartest choice for alternative energies. Why? Because it has no adverse affects on the environment, unlike hydro–which requires water, another precious resource—or wind power (the fickle nature of wind apparently makes it problematic). Feel free to debate me on these points, as I am not an expert on renewable energy and am always looking to learn more, but for now I’m going to be a cheerleader for solar. S-O-L-A-R, go solar!

So why aren’t there panels on top of every house and office building? Because the one problem with solar is that it seems to be out of the average person’s reach financially.

This is not an insignificant problem. I looked it up, and apparently the reason solar panels cost so much is that they are made from silicon crystal, which is grown from pure silicon—an extremely slow and expensive process. Because of gravity and how the crystals are grown it is very hard to grow large flawless (my diamond analogy is seeming more and more relevant, isn’t it) crystals. And the bigger the crystal the harder it is to make it perfectly flawless, a requirement for it to work.

The good news is that EcoGeek reported last summer that price of solar is expected to plummet as these problems are addressed. The article says prices for traditional silicon-based panels should fall from $3.66 per watt (2007 figures) to $2.14 per watt in 2010, and more impressively, thin-film PV should go from $2.96 to $1.81 per watt.

But in the meantime, I decided to do a little research about how much it would cost to outfit my 940-square-foot home with solar panels. I found this handy solar calculator and got to work figuring out what it would take to go solar.

So if I’m using an average of 200 kW of electricity per month and I want to offset 100 percent of that (might as well go all the way), it’s going to cost me about $13,000 to buy and install the solar panels I need. That’s a pretty hefty chunk of change, but I gotta say it’s not as much as I thought it would be. Especially when you take into consideration the 30 percent tax rebate, which is $3,900, plus rebates from PG&E.

Unfortunately, since my house is worth about 20 percent less than what I paid for it four years ago and my husband is one of the millions of people who was downsized last year, it’s still out of reach. Of course my husband’s got all that free time on his hands, maybe I should get him working on these DIY solar panels. Finally, my worst eco-sin—drinking diet soda—could pay off in a way that will help the planet!

But more likely I’ll file away the information and start saving for a sunny day. Who knows, it could even help the resale value of my house. Although, as a wise co-worker who got solar panels put on her house last year said, you donít do it because itís a sound financial investment—you do it because itís the right thing to do.

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Jana Ballinger

Jana Ballinger has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and copy editor for daily newspapers. She lives in a vintage house in Northern California with her husband and an orange cat.

14 comments

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6:30PM PST on Feb 6, 2012

Thanks

9:59AM PST on Nov 16, 2011

Good idea,thanks.

11:37PM PST on Nov 24, 2010

It wouldn't have mattered. Writers are no longer paid. If you had written a novel, some publisher or editor would have ripped it off and gotten all the money - if it was ever printed at all - and you would have gotten nothing. Or they'd have escalated the costs and downgraded your payments so you wouldn't even get paper and toner costs back. solar water heater: http://www.ejaisolar.com/

2:54PM PST on Feb 9, 2010

The economics of solar power and/or wind generators depends heavily on where you live and how much sweat equity you are willing to invest. Buying off the shelf equipment and kits can several times as expensive as making your own solar panels or windmill. With a very modest investment up front you can start implementing solar and wind solutions and expand you generating capacity over time. There are a few very complete instructional packages now available that can show you how to build your own green energy solution on a very tight budget.
Bamboo Jones

7:54AM PDT on Sep 21, 2009

Go Solar! What about the money you will save on your utility bill? If you were to save 80% each month on your utility bill that would quickly add up! And if you didn't use all the power produced by your solar panels, then your meter would actually go backwards which means a credit on your monthly bill!
MakingEnergy.info

7:53AM PDT on Sep 21, 2009

Go Solar! What about the money you will save on your utility bill? If you were to save 80% each month on your utility bill that would quickly add up! And if you didn't use all the power produced by your solar panels, then your meter would actually go backwards which means a credit on your monthly bill!
MakingEnergy.info

9:47PM PST on Jan 22, 2009

I think solar power's fantastic and have solar hot water myself. But it looks like wind could be the one to save the world. A recent Stanford study rates it at the top, followed by concentrated solar power (mirrors heating a tower of water):

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16419-top-7-alternative-energies-listed.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news


"The US could replace all its cars and trucks with electric cars
powered by wind turbines taking up less than 3 square kilometres – in
theory, at least. That's the conclusion of a detailed study ranking 11
types of non-fossil fuels according to their total ecological
footprint and their benefit to human health.

The study, carried out by Mark Jacobson of the atmosphere and energy
programme at Stanford University, found wind power to be by far the
most desirable source of energy. Biofuels from corn and plant waste
came right at the bottom of the list, along with nuclear power and
"clean" coal."

http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2009/january7/videos/407_flash.html
http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/Journals/EE/article.asp?doi=b809990c

8:05PM PST on Jan 22, 2009

I too wanted to go solar and convinced my hubby it was the right thing to do...then the boom was lowered...not only was the expense beyond what we could afford, with housing prices plummeting we couldn't even add the cost to our HELOC because that had been frozen along with the financial institution we went through...bummer! Just when everyone finally "gets" it and wants to do the right thing, our houses aren't worth enough to be able to do it. Here's hoping with our new administration and boom in infrastructure promised, we'll be able to do the responsible thing before too long.

7:42PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

People who are in a position financially that allows them to invest several thousand dollars in something would be wise to consider solar panels for their homes instead of buying bonds. The income from solar power is tax-free, its value does not fluctuate much from year to year, its inflation-adjusted value is really rising, it reliably and effortlessly produces income for decades, and it is something you can see and enjoy every day. It has more energy savings bang for the buck than a Prius. Financial incentives for every state are located at dsireusa.org. A calculator to figure how much electricity you can make at your location is at pvwatts.org. You need a spot on the ground or on your roof that faces somewhere between southeast and southwest with no trees readily visible from that viewpoint. Home solar power systems are tied to the grid so your utility functions as a perfect rechargeable battery. As a solar homeowner I can tell you that making solar power is very satisfying and highly recommended.

2:33PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

The panels will produce DC voltage. Your house uses and the power company sells AC. If you do not have an array of storage batteries, what happens on cloudy days? Do you simply have no choice but pay for the grid? To be off that grid, batteries are vital. Intuitively, I understand that the hot, dry, sunny Southwestern states are the ideal places for solar power systems. What about the northern states? I need to find a book that focuses on the brass tacks and not the ideals. Can anyone recommend such a resource?

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