olar power has made impressive strides over the past few decades and is expected to play an increasingly significant role in global energy production. More and more countries are turning to solar to secure a stable energy supply as well as to meet their renewable energy targets. But along with governmental efforts, an increasing number of homeowners themselves want to install solar panels to cut their carbon footprint and hedge against the increase in prices for grid electricity.
However, a lot of energy consumers still aren’t sure if solar power is really worth it. They doubt its environmental impact is fundamentally different from grid-based electricity, and certainly don’t believe solar energy can be cheaper. Time to examine these two types of electricity supply and find out whether solar surpasses the electric grid.
How does the electric grid work?
First, electricity is generated at a power plant primarily by burning fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas. Sometimes nuclear power is used, but its share in global electricity generation is quite small and amounts to about 10%.
The generated electricity gets stepped up by energy transformers, that is, converted to a higher voltage. This makes electric lines less vulnerable, minimizes energy loss, and cheapens energy transmission. Then the electricity travels from the power station to a complex system called the power grid, which consists of transmission lines, electricity substations, and distribution lines.
Transmission lines carry the electricity over long distances and bring it to substations, where transformers reduce the voltage back down. After that, the electricity travels through the energy distribution lines and gets stepped down once again before it is brought to homes and businesses.
How is solar energy harnessed?
Unlike electricity from a power distribution network, electricity from solar is generated right on your property. Solar panels installed on your roof or backyard are comprised of solar cells. These devices are made of semiconductor material, most often silicon. When the light hits the surface of a solar cell, it knocks the electrons loose from the atoms within it. The movement of the electrons inside the cell creates an electric current.
Since solar cells generate direct current (DC) electricity, it has to be transformed into alternating current (AC) to be suitable for powering most home appliances. For this purpose, a device called an energy inverter is used. After that, the electricity generated by the solar array is ready to power your home, and its excess can be fed to the electric grid.
Why are solar panels more environmentally friendly?
Over 60% of global electricity comes from fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas, and oil together make up nearly 65% of the US electricity generation, while solar energy accounts for only 1%. This means the electricity you get from the grid is most likely generated by fossil fuel combustion.
Air pollution from fossil fuels is one of the most pressing challenges the energy industry faces today. Fossil fuels emit a large number of hazardous substances such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. They are responsible for both climate change as well as a whole host of health problems. Moreover, fossil fuel extraction causes biodiversity loss, land degradation, and water pollution.
Solar energy, on the other hand, poses no threat to the environment. Solar panels help reduce greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions, mitigate climate change, and lower dependence on finite energy resources. Judge for yourselves: with a single 10 kW solar panel we can avoid about 4 tons of CO2 emissions annually! So, there can be no doubt that solar energy is much greener than conventional grid electricity.
Are solar panels more reliable than traditional grid power?
One of the arguments used by the homeowners unwilling to switch to solar is that solar energy is far less reliable and cannot provide a sustainable power supply. Solar panels do not work at night and generate less power on cloudy days, whereas electricity from the traditional energy network is available 24/7.
But in reality, solar power is quite reliable. Firstly, the problem of powering your home during the nighttime or on overcast days can be easily solved by pairing your solar energy system with solar battery storage. And secondly, solar technologies keep evolving and offer an increasingly wider range of opportunities. For example, scientists have already developed solar panels that are able to generate energy even at night. Although this technology is still in its early stages, it may become widely used in the near future.
Meanwhile, energy from the electric utility is not completely reliable, as power outages can leave your household without electricity for hours or even days.
Grid-based and solar energy cost comparison
It must be admitted that electricity cost is the most important consideration for many when it comes to choosing between solar energy and power from the grid. Some homeowners still believe grid electricity is much cheaper, however, this is not always the case. As a matter of fact, the price ratio between solar and grid-based energy largely depends on the amount of sunlight in your area, local and national solar energy policies, utility company rates and terms, and even some specific features of your property.
In the US, electricity bills keep going up due to the plummet in natural gas prices as well as the solid growth of coal prices. Experts believe electricity costs are likely to rise even further, as the utilities are investing more in the renovation and maintenance of electric lines to make them more resistant to natural disasters. And on top of that, the electric utility sector is pressured by national renewable energy incentives.
Today average US energy consumer pays around 14 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to the electric utility. You may be surprised, but the national average price of electricity generated by solar panels is at the same level now!
It must be kept in mind that the averages may significantly differ from prices in your region. For example, in California, the average price of electricity from the utility is 24 cents per kWh, while the cost of electricity generated by a solar system is about 10 cents per kWh. With a solar system, you can save even more thanks to net metering – an electric billing mechanism that allows you to sell any extra energy generated by your solar system to the electric utility. As you can see, sometimes solar energy turns out to be much cheaper than electricity taken from the grid.
You might argue that the upfront cost of a solar energy system is the real sticking point here. It can be indeed high: solar installation cost averages between $15,000 and $25,000. Fortunately, most states offer generous solar energy incentives and rebates. They help offset initial solar investment costs, shorten the payback period of solar installation and make transitioning to solar energy even more affordable.
Wrap-up: electricity from solar beats the grid
So, as we found out, solar energy can be considered more reliable and environmentally friendly than conventional electricity from your power company. In addition to this, it can be dramatically cheaper in some regions, which makes solar installations a no-brainer for homeowners who would like to cut down their electricity bills.