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Solar Energy 101 and FAQs

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What is solar Energy?
Solar energy takes advantage of the sun's rays to generate heat or electricity for your home or business in a quiet and clean way. A tremendous amount of energy from the sun reaches the Earth every day. And, it doesn’t run out. That is why solar energy is considered to be renewable energy. You can think of it this way…the sun throws free fuel at us every day. All we have to do is collect it. 

Is there enough sunlight in New York?
Yes! New York has plenty of sun. We have as much sun as the national average and more sun than Germany which now gets 20% of its power from solar. Peak production occurs during the summer months because there are more frequent sunny days and more hours of sun in a day. But solar electric, hot water and hot air systems will perform throughout the year. In fact solar electric systems are actually more efficient in colder temperatures.

How can I collect the sun’s energy?
In order to use the sun’s energy we have to collect it. The type of collector we use depends on what we want to do with the energy (i.e., heat a home, generate electricity for appliances, etc).  The collector can be as simple as a south facing window in your house. To convert the energy into electricity, hot water or hot air, however, a more specialized collector and additional equipment is required. As long as your house has enough open roof or ground space and minimal shading, solar power can work at your location.

How does a solar electric system work?
The sun’s energy is converted to electricity by photovoltaic materials (cells or thin film). Multiple connected cells make up a panel and multiple panels make up a solar array. A typical house may need an array of around 20 panels. The array may be installed on the roof or wall of a building, or on a ground mount or poles. The solar array converts the sun’s energy into direct current (DC) power and an inverter changes the DC power to alternating current (AC), the type of power used in a home. The array and inverter are connected to your current electric service. Your electric meter is replaced by a meter called a net-meter. The net-meter “spins” forward when using more power than the solar electric system is generating and backward when the solar electric system is producing more power than the home is using (power surplus). The power surplus is sent back to the grid to produce a credit with your electric company. The credits are then drawn on when the solar system is not making enough power (e.g. night time or cloudy day).

How does a solar hot water system work?
The sun’s energy warms the heating fluid in the collectors. Heat from this fluid is transferred to water in a storage tank. The storage tank is connected into your existing plumbing system and provides hot water for your appliances, baths and faucets or space heating system. There is a backup water heating system (either your existing system or an electric element in the solar hot water storage) for extended cloudy periods. Typically, two to four solar collectors and a 70 to 120-gallon solar hot water storage tank are used for a home.

How long will a solar hot water and solar electric system last?
The life expectancy for a solar hot water system is 30+ years and requires little maintenance. Solar electric system panels are warranted for 25 years but the life expectancy is 30+ years and the system requires little or no maintenance. Inverters are typically warranted for 15 years, but some are warranted for 25 years.

Is solar affordable?
Yes! After tax incentives, rebates, and low-interest financing, payback is fast, making solar affordable for everyone. Solar electric system costs vary based on system size. System sizes vary either on current or projected needs, or allowable usable space. Currently solar electric systems cost about $5/watt installed prior to incentives or about $1.85/watt after incentives. Typical out of pocket costs (after incentives and tax credits) to generate 100% of the electricity for the home for an energy conservative family is approximately $8,000. Solar hot water systems cost on average $3,000 to $5,000 after incentives and tax credits.

Kevin Carpenter, aka Treeguy, has worked as an environmental engineer in the private and public sectors for the past 22 years, focusing on environmental remediation and the cleanup of hazardous waste and brownfield sites. He is an enthusiast of solar energy including PV, SDHW and solar hot air. Outside of work he strives to live simply and sustainably in this ever more complex and disconnected world. He can be reached via Member email or comments to this blog.

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