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The Basics of Solar Energy

Jessica PirroSeptember 11, 20193610

Solar Energy Basics

When it comes to getting a solar panel installation, a homeowner is going to have quite a few questions, for instance, what exactly is solar power? How do solar panels work? What are the different parts of a solar-powered system? What are the pros and cons of solar energy? And with the cost of a solar panel installation being so high, how long are the solar panels going to last?

Below we are going to be answering all of those questions:

What is Solar Energy?

Solar energy is the energy that we can generate from the sunlight. The way that we harvest the sun’s energy is through the photovoltaic effect, we can convert energy from the sun’s rays into power that our homes can run on.

To generate solar energy for your home, you will need a solar-powered system. A solar-powered system contains a few basic parts such as a solar power inverter, racking and what it get’s its name from; solar panels.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar panels are made up primarily of photovoltaic cells, which are mostly made up of silicon a chemical element that has conductive properties. When exposed to light, the silicon’s electrical characteristics change, which in turn generates an electric current.

Photovoltaic cells are a small square of silicon (usually about 6 x 6), with electrical contact plates on the face. Solar panels are made by laying out a grid of the photovoltaic cells on a protective back sheet and covering the glass on the front.

Solar panels come in both 60 and 72-cell configurations, there are however a few less common sizes.

For the typical home or office, you are going to need multiple solar panels to provide solar power to run on. The solar panels are wired into the same solar power inverter are known as a string of solar panels. It is important to note that solar power inverters have a maximum string size - which is a limit to the number of solar panels that they can support.

An example, you might have a solar-powered system that has two solar power inverters that are supporting two strings of 10 solar panels, which makes an array of 20 solar panels.

What are the Different Parts of a Solar-Powered System?

When it comes to solar-powered systems there are a few key components to solar panel installation, other than the solar panels themselves. For your solar panel installation to generate solar energy you will need a few key components;

- Solar panels, to capture solar energy from the sun.

- A solar power inverter, to convert solar energy to usable power for our homes.

- Racking, the foundation that your solar-powered system is mounted on.

You will also need a method to store the solar energy that is generated by the solar panels. If you have access to power lines you won’t need any additional equipment. You can simply feed the utility grid any excess power and then use it later. But if you don’t have access to the utility grid, or you simply want to go off-the-grid here’s what you will need;

- Batteries, to store the solar energy that your solar-powered system generates.

- The charge controller, to control the rate at which the batteries will charge from solar power.  

These are all connected by smaller components such as wiring, fuses, and disconnects.

You also will have the option to add equipment to monitor your solar-powered system’s output online, which will help if there are any issues with shading or any defective equipment.

The Pros and Cons of Solar Power

Just like any industry, there are going to be pros and cons when it comes to solar energy.

Here are a few pros when it comes to a getting a solar panel installation:

- Solar energy is a source of renewable energy: sunlight is an infinite resource. The sun’s rays can be harvested for energy over and over again without depleting the source.

- Lower Electric Bills: as a replacement for grid-tied properties, solar energy costs just a small fraction of what you pat the utility company each money. A properly sized solar-powered system can drop your electric bill to $0.

- Remote Power: if you live in a remote location, it may be too expensive or impossible to run power lines to your home. Solar-powered systems can generate solar energy when you can’t hook into the grid.

- Improve Property Value: Homes with have a solar panel installation sell for more than homes lacking a solar panel installation. On average, homes with a solar panel installation sell for $14,329 more.

Here are some cons to going solar:

- High up-front cost: Even small solar-powered systems are going to cost a pretty penny, and full-scale solar panel installations for a family home can reach well into 5-figures. Though the solar-powered system pays for itself in the long run, it can be quite expensive to get started.

- Weather Dependent: shade, snow and other obstacle are going to reduce the output of solar panels. If your solar panels don’t get a lot of suns, they aren’t going to be as efficient as advertised. You can buy solar energy equipment to mitigate this, however, it is going to cost more.

- Storage for solar panels is expensive: Solar energy batteries are by far the most expensive part of a solar-powered system. If you need to store solar energy, it will affect the return on investment. Solar energy batteries should be used out of necessity, or to provide peace of mind in areas with unreliable power.

How Long do Solar Panels Last?

Most manufacturers are going to offer a 25-year warranty on their solar panels will be at least 80% efficient for 25 years.

When the warranty is up, the solar panels don’t just stop working. They simply keep working at a reduced output. Solar panels that are rated at 300 watts, would still produce around 240 watts of output at the 25-year mark.

Solar panels tend to be extremely reliable. A study that was done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed that over 75% of solar panels outperformed their warranty.

But, the other parts that are included in a solar panel installation tend to have a shorter lifespan. You should expect to replace these parts at least once over the life of the ownership, and those replacements should factor into the life of the solar-powered system.

Most solar power inverters typically have a warranty for 10-20 years, therefore you should expect to replace your solar power inverter once or twice in the lifetime of your solar-powered system.

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