I

f some of your friends decided to go solar and you’d like to take a page out of their book, you would naturally want to learn from their experience in choosing PV panels. However, carbon-copying their project would be a bad idea since only a solar system customized specifically for you can work efficiently and meet your energy demand.

That is why you’ll inevitably need to explore all the solar options available on the market to make an informed decision based on your needs. You may start with this brief beginner's guide to solar.

Understand the solar home concept

As a rule of thumb, a solar home means a household with a rooftop or ground-mounted solar system installed to generate electricity by collecting sunlight. In some cases, a solar home could refer specifically to a household with minimal grid reliance or enough energy independence to be entirely off the grid.

Solar options for your home. Types of solar technologies

The most common way to have a solar home is to install traditional photovoltaic (PV) panels. However, there are some other solar options, such as building-integrated photovoltaics, passive solar, and solar hot water systems.

Solar panels

Solar panels can be described as a web that captures sunlight to transform it into sustainable energy. A semiconductor material, usually silicon, is the basis of each individual PV cell. PV cells produce electricity when struck by the sun’s rays thanks to a physical phenomenon called the photovoltaic effect. PV cells can either be monocrystalline or polycrystalline. Monocrystalline panels are more expensive since they are more efficient. Polycrystalline panels are more affordable and can be a good idea for sun-rich areas.

BIPV solar systems (building-integrated photovoltaics)

Building-integrated photovoltaics, or BIPV, refers to solar technologies that are incorporated into the original structure of a building. Technically, BIPV means using materials that can generate electricity from the sun. Such solar energy options include specially constructed roofs, tiles, windows, or facades. Some of these technologies are already available, and others (e.g., solar windows) do not yet belong to solar power options available for an average consumer.

Passive solar technology

Passive solar technology takes advantage of a building's location, climate, and materials to maintain high energy efficiency. In a passive solar house, heat is collected as the sun shines through south-facing windows, and it is retained in “thermal mass,” or materials that best store heat (like concrete, brick, stone, or tile). Such homes are expensive to build and require many certifications, but it is one of the best solar options when you are making your house from scratch.

Solar hot water systems

One more way to turn your home into a solar house is to install a solar hot water system. These systems typically use panels to capture energy from the sun, visually similar to photovoltaic ones. However, such systems do not generate electricity: the panels capture solar thermal energy and use it to heat up the water in your house.

Solar options with regard to the grid. Types of solar energy systems

As we’ve already mentioned, PV panel systems are the most commonly used of the above-mentioned solar options. There are three main types of residential solar energy systems in terms of their connection to the grid: on-grid, off-grid, and hybrid. While planning to install PV panels, it is crucial to decide on your system type first to choose the right solar equipment.

On-grid solar energy system

An on-grid solar energy system, also known as a grid-tie or grid-feed solar energy system, is the most widespread of all solar options. This system is connected to the public grid and does not require battery storage. Any surplus solar power you generate is exported to the grid, and you usually get paid a feed-in-tariff (FiT) or credits for any extra electricity you export. Unfortunately, on-grid solar energy systems cannot function during a blackout because if a solar inverter is still feeding electricity into a damaged grid, it will risk the safety of the people repairing the fault.

Off-grid solar energy system

An off-grid solar energy system, also known as a stand-alone power system (SAPS), is not connected to the grid and therefore requires batteries. The battery capacity should meet the home’s requirements, as enough power needs to be generated even in the winter when there is much less sunshine. Off-grid solar energy systems are much more expensive than their on-grid counterparts because of the high price of batteries, which is why they are usually installed only in remote places far from the grid. However, with battery costs reducing rapidly, there is now a growing market for off-grid solar energy systems not only in rural areas but also in cities and towns.

Hybrid solar energy system

Hybrid solar energy systems generate power in the same way as on-grid systems but use batteries to store energy, as well as special hybrid inverters. Contrary to grid-tie solar solutions, most hybrid systems can function during a blackout. Mainly, they are able to automatically isolate themselves from the grid and continue to supply power during a blackout.

Solar options with regard to financing. Buying, sharing, or leasing solar

It is a common belief that a PV panel system is a large investment, and this is basically true. But what solar options can be offered to you from a financial aspect? Let’s find out.

Purchasing a solar power system

Buying a solar energy system is one of the best solar options when you want to maximize the financial benefits of installing PV panels. When your system produces more power than you require, you are often able to sell surplus electricity to the utility. Also, by purchasing a solar energy system, you can take advantage of solar incentives and increase the market value of your home.

Shared solar programs

If you are unable or do not want to install PV panels at your home, another item from the list of possible solar energy options is to invest in a community or shared solar program. A community project is a large, central solar power installation with more than a single property sharing electricity. Community customers can either buy or lease some of the panels in the PV array, but they cannot benefit from local and state incentives.

Solar energy lease

A solar lease allows householders to avoid the upfront costs of PV system equipment. Instead of paying a significant amount of money right at the beginning during installation, the householder can pay the developer a fixed monthly fee for the electricity that the PV panels generate. However, it may cost more in the long run, mainly because there are no tax breaks or government incentives that come with leasing.

Solar PPA

A PPA is another available solar energy alternative. With a PPA, a householder enters into a contract with a solar developer who will arrange for the design, permitting, financing, and installation of their PV panel system. In return, the householder pays the developer for the energy the PV panels generate at a price lower than the utility’s cost of electricity. Again, householders with solar PPAs cannot take advantage of the federal tax credit or other incentives.

Solarize program

The Solarize Program is a group of community projects that bring neighbors, businesses, and communities together to buy PV panels as a group to receive discounted rates on panels and installation. Solarize campaigns across the country give communities the support to navigate through the PV panel installation process, including gathering information on state and federal incentives - all with the purpose of making solar power more affordable.

Buying a solar system vs. leasing solar panels – what is better for you?

When you want to reap long-term savings, you should opt for buying a PV panel system. Leasing solar energy options, however, can be an adequate alternative. Although you are not entitled to any tax benefits from the state while leasing, you can still enjoy the financial benefits of solar power without high installation costs, the ever-present risk of needing to repair the damage, and so on.

Finding the right solar installer

Research the companies and ask for references, if possible. Look for solar installers who are MCS accredited (MCS certification is an internationally recognized quality assurance scheme for small-scale renewable energy technologies). Obtain at least three quotes for a PV panel system installation and make sure the quotes are based on the same characteristics to compare different solar providers. A solar power system is a considerable investment, and the proper installation process plays a crucial part. Take your time to investigate various solar options.

Posted 
May 26, 2023
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