Solar energy is defined as radiation of various wavelengths emitted by the sun. A solar-powered generator may be defined as a device or group of devices used to generate electricity using the sun’s rays (solar energy).
There are a variety of ways to utilize solar radiation, and they will be explained below.
- Photovoltaic Cells (Common solar panels)
- What is the Problem with Solar Power?
- Backing Up Solar Power Plants
- How do I set up solar panels and what wattage do I need?
- If not the entire house, which appliances should I power?
- Transfer Switch
- How much space do I need for solar panels?
- Relationship between cost and weather: What happens when it becomes overcast?
- Importance of Appliance Efficiency to the Cost of A Solar Setup
- Importance of Battery Efficiency to Solar Setups
- Can Solar Panels Fully Power My House?
- How to Store Solar Energy or Back Up Solar Panels
- Solar Panel and Solar Cell Efficiency
- Total Area and Single Cell Efficiency
- Controllability of Solar-Powered Generators
- Factors Affecting Cost of Solar Power
- Cost of Solar Power (including residential)
- Solar Thermal Energy
- Solar Water Heaters
- Applications of Solar Energy
Photovoltaic Cells (the most common solar panels that most people are familiar with)
Photovoltaic cells are constructed of semiconductor materials (solid state) which convert the sun’s rays directly into electricity. People are most familiar with this type of generator and it is also the most common for residential use. Solar cells are encased inside solar panels for protection.
How solar panels work: NASA Explanation.
Some of the semiconductor materials used in their construction include:
- Monocrystalline Silicon
- Polycrystalline Silicon
- Amorphous Silicon
- Gallium Arsenide (GaAs)
- Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)
- Titanium Dioxide
- Copper Indium Gallium Selenium (CIGS)
- Copper Zinc Tin Sulfur/Selenium (CZTS)
- Carbon Nanotube
Some of the types of photovoltaic cells include:
- Silicon wafer
- Thin Film
- Dye Sensitized Thin Film
Advantages of Solar Panels
- Solar panels (PV) are completely solid state and require no maintenance.
- Long lifespan (20-30 years).
- They emit no pollutants nor radioactive waste so they can safely be used indoors.
- They require no fuels which are susceptible to price fluctuations.
- They produce no noise nor vibration.
- They can be manufactured for use on almost everything, because thin film solar panels can be printed onto plastic, glass and other substrate.
- They are a convenient way to keep portable electronics’ batteries charged if solar cells are attached to the back of them.
- They generate more electricity when electricity demand is higher due to increased solar radiation. Electricity demand is the highest when solar radiation is greatest. One reason for this is because of increased air conditioner power consumption due to both increased use and inverters turning air conditioners up to meet cooling demand which automatically increases with environmental temperature.
- The cost of electricity from a solar panel remains the same over its entire 30 year life because it requires no fuel.
- More light can be reflected on them during low light periods using mirrors, this is more economical than purchasing additional solar panels to compensate for cloudy weather, but is more complex to setup and I do not know of any organization which offers that.
- They can be used to help power the electricity grid during peak hours when electricity demand is highest, making it possible to decrease the amount of blackouts and brownouts caused by shortfalls in generating capacity.
- Use of solar-powered generators as an alternative to fossil fuels means that less fossil fuels will be used to generate electricity, causing fossil fuels to last longer and helping to mitigate increases in demand which normally result in an increase in their cost. Greater fuel demand = higher fuel prices.
Disadvantages of Solar Panels
- The manufacturing cost is high.
- They are expensive to install.
- The cost of electricity from central solar power plants is high.
- Efficiency is usually low, therefore the power production per square meter is low. An average of 110 to 200 watts per square meter. This means that solar power plants (not rooftop setups) occupy a large amount of land.
What Is The Problem With Solar Power?
People often ask me about the status of solar technology and it’s cost, and what the problem is with it. My answer is that it is still expensive, but the cost is following a downward trend. About the technology: This changes significantly very frequently, it is constantly evolving and this is why it is such a promising source of electricity.
About the fact that solar power still accounts for a very small fraction of electricity generated: The capital cost of solar power plants is still very high, and it takes long to recuperate the investment. In the United States, solar setups take longer to pay for themselves due to the fact that conventional sources of electricity there (coal and natural gas) are currently cheaper.
A common misconception is that a marginal percentage of electricity can come from renewable sources because it is not possible for solar panels to generate enough electricity. The truth is that for many years, the problem with solar power has been the cost of it, and the cost to store the energy they generate, which is even more important that the cost of solar electricity in this day and age.
Solar panels are capable of generating far more electricity than is required, but it needs to be converted into a stable, consistent supply of power. Energy storage is one way to do this.
Studies from years ago showed that renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind can only provide 20% of electricity in the U.S. That was without energy storage.
The percentage of electricity that can come from solar panels is limited without energy storage due to the fact that solar panels generate less electricity when clouds pass over them, and none at night.
If, for example you used a solar panel to generate all of your electricity without energy storage, (which is possible, by the way) and the weather became too cloudy, you would end up with a blackout due to a lack of electricity.
This same problem applies to the electricity grid, the main difference between that and the residential setup mentioned is that the electricity is generated by a wind farm and supplied to the grid which distributes electricity to everyone’s homes via power cables.
Solar and wind both need energy storage. There are many different types of energy storage mediums which you can view along with their problems here.
Wind power has a different problem from solar. Wind generates electricity intermittently throughout the day because the wind can stop blowing completely, and solar panels generate electricity all day until nightfall, even when it is cloudy. Read more about wind power.
How Do I Set Up Solar Panels and What Wattage Do I Need?
There is much to learn before you set up solar panels.
First of all, you will need to decide whether you want to stay connected to the electricity grid and simply offset your electricity usage to lower your electric bill (grid-tied without batteries), or if you want to disconnect from the grid and completely solar power your house (off-grid with batteries).
Another option is to solar power only some items in the house without plugging them into standard power outlets. You cannot match solar panel wattage with appliance wattage due to not only their varying power output but also the fact that you use solar panels to charge the batteries.
What you need is batteries that can supply the amount of energy required by appliances and solar panels that can keep them charged. This is why you need a transfer switch. Please click “transfer switch” in the table of contents at the top of this page.
The long term cost of a fully directly solar-powered off-grid house is higher than that of a grid-tied house because of the cost of battery replacement. The inverter required for a grid-tied setup lasts much longer than batteries.
Please do not use estimates provided by others of the average cost of a solar setup, because the cost varies too much due to the fact that power requirements vary partially due to the fact that some only want to partially lower their electric bills, and some want to eliminate them completely. Another reason is that some people use more electricity than some, and sometimes the estimates mentioned are often old, solar setup costs change.
Weather is sometimes cloudy, and sometimes sunny. This complicates the process of estimating how much electricity solar panels will generate per month and per year, because when clouds cover the sun, they block some of the sunlight, therefore the panels will receive less light, and generate less electricity. The climate that you live in is another very important factor.
Some climates are cloudy, and solar setups are most expensive in these areas (sometimes), because more solar panels are needed to compensate for the lack of sunlight due to cloud cover unless the cost of installation is particularly low.
You must use an electricity usage meter (such as the Kill-A-Watt for example) to determine the power consumption of individual appliances which often varies. If you are using a grid-tie setup, then you don’t need to worry about metering your appliances yourself.
For example: German residents need more solar panels to generate the same amount of electricity as fewer solar panels would in some parts of the United States.
Please go down to the financial section to learn more about other issues you need to know about such as solar panel efficiency. Visit the residential section first]
If not the entire house, which appliances should I power?
Some appliances are easier to power than others due to the fact that it is easier to gauge their power consumption. A refrigerator, for example, is not the most straightforward appliance to solar power because of it’s intermittent operation which varies with weather, provided that the kitchen is not climate controlled (heated or air conditioned).
In most cases, whichever appliance you choose to solar power, the ratio of the amount of money spent on the solar setup to the amount of money saved by the solar panels is the same, so it does not help you any more to power ceiling lamps for example, and solar powering those requires an electrician which has to be paid, so that actually costs more than solar powering standing fans.
It is important to note, that solar panels are cheaper in large quantities, so if you want to solar power your house, then buy all the panels at once. You can obtain them for less than $3 per watt in such quantities.
A transfer switch is a device that enables you to directly solar power your items with a minimal amount of batteries in such a way that you would be backed up by the electricity grid, but without a grid-tie inverter/net metering setup. You could also enjoy a limited amount of power during power outages from the electricity grid.
Basically, the solar panels would charge very few batteries, even a couple depending on your setup, their size, and your power consumption, and those batteries would buffer that power to your appliances. If the weather becomes cloudy for an extended period of time, the transfer switch can switch you over to the electricity grid so that you will not have to purchase extra panels to compensate for the reduced power production during that weather.
The capital cost of such a setup can be significantly lower than that of a traditional setup which consists of extra panels, because extra panels cost plenty of extra money. In other words, the cost per watt to install this is far less than a typical setup, so it pays for itself much faster. The drawback is that it only saves energy during the day so it cannot completely eliminate your electric bill, but it can reduce it very economically.
If you know how to set up a regular 120 volt inverter, batteries, solar panels, etc, you can avoid the electrician’s fee and do the in-home part of this type of job yourself.
How much space do I need for solar panels?
To determine how much space you would need to place your solar panels flat on a surface such as your roof, you would first determine how much power a square metre of them would generate. You would do this by multiplying the decimal efficiency rating of the panels by the amount of sunlight received by the earth per square meter when it is sunny (this is just a guideline) which is 1,000 Watts/sq metre.
So, using an example panel which is 17% efficient, you would multiply 0.17 by 1000 and the result is the number of watts per square metre that specific model of panel generates which is 170 watts/square metre. You would purchase many of that same panel to achieve your desired electricity generation capacity.
Second: To finally determine how much space you would need in square metres on the surface you are putting the panels flat on top of, you would divide the number of watts that you intend to purchase by the watts/square metre figure which is 170.
So if you are purchasing 340 watts of those panels, you would divide 340 by 170 and the result is that you would require two square metres of them to generate a maximum of 340 watts of power.
For smaller projects, it is easier to use small units such as square centimetres. Simply divide the watts per square metre figure by 10,000 to determine the wattage per square centimeter. If you prefer square inches, then divide the watts per square metre figure by 1550.0031.
Example: 120 watts/square metre (12% efficient) in square centimetres is 120 / 10,000 = 0.012 watts per square centimeter, or 12 mW, or milliwatts/square centimeter. Visit the power consumption page for more information on energy units.
Solar-Powered Blackberry Example: If a Blackberry 8320 has 54 square metres of space available on the back of it for solar cells, then if you were to attach 12% efficient solar cells which cover that area, they could generate 648 mW or 0.648 watts total, if the back of the blackberry is exposed to direct sunlight.
Calculating area of a rectangle or square in square centimetres: measure the length and width of the flat object that you want to determine the area of, and then multiply the two together because area = length x width. The laptop area I measured was 24 x 30 cm = 720 square cm.
Solar-Powered Laptop Example: If you wanted to cover the back of a laptop monitor with 30 cm x 24 cm (720 square cm) of 12% efficient solar cells, they could generate 8.64 watts, which is not ideal for a laptop. A 20% efficient solar cell would be much more useful because it could generate 14.4 watts. All of this only applies if the solar cells are exposed to direct sunlight
Relationship between cost and weather, and what happens when it becomes overcast?
If the solar panels are exposed to half as much sunlight, they generate half the power. They always work even in low light conditions, but they generate less electricity, and the ability of solar panels to operate efficiently in cloudy weather varies with model and type.
If a solar panel generates 1,000 watts on a normal sunny day but there is half as much sunlight, it generates half as much power (this isn’t entirely true, but you can use this as a guideline). This means that if the total amount of sunlight available per month is half as much as average, then the solar panels would have to be twice the normal rated wattage to compensate for that, doubling the cost of the solar setup.
Effect of Winter on Solar Panels
Many people want to know how exactly winter will affect their solar panels’ power output, I will try my best to assist you with that. When the power output of solar panels drops during the winter, people probably blame the lack of sunlight, but there is actually a significant amount available during the winter, but much less than there is during the summer. Snow (not clear ice) can cover individual cells on the panel, causing a significant reduction in power output even if it is one cell.
Please try to keep as much snow off of them as you can. Solar panels are made of many cells connected to each other in series, so current flows from one, through the next until it reaches the last cell.
Please never rely on the voltage of a solar setup to give you an idea of how much your solar panels are affected by weather, voltage can actually increase as temperature decreases during the winter, and current (denoted using A, or Amperes) will decrease, please check voltage and current, and always multiply them by each other. Volts * Amps = Wattage (Power).
Importance of Apparatus/Appliance Efficiency To the Cost of A Solar Setup
In some cases, you can lower the overall up front cost of a solar setup significantly by slashing your power consumption significantly. Here are some examples which definitely pay for themselves where lowering the cost of solar panels is concerned:
Lighting: Switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs. Solar panels cost $2-$4 per watt excluding installation, this is extremely expensive compared to fluorescent bulbs which cost $0.26 per watt and sometimes less.
If you had to choose a 75 watt incandescent over a 15 watt fluorescent, both of which are a similar brightness, you would have to spend an additional $120 to $240 on solar panels to produce enough power for the incandescent light bulb. So the return on the fluorescent investment in such a case would be very sound and prompt.
Importance of Battery Efficiency to Solar Setups
Another factor which can significantly affect the wattage of the solar panels needed (this applies to off-grid setups) is the efficiency of the batteries you will charge the solar panels with. Remember that batteries don’t only back up the solar panels at night, but they also act as a buffer for solar energy, the amount of energy supplied by the batteries is always less than the energy supplied to them by solar panels or whatever else charges them.
Example: If a battery is 80% efficient then you get back 80% if the energy that you supplied to it, the other 20% is lost as heat.
For the sake of simplicity: If you were originally contemplating a 100% efficient lithium-ion battery (which is not realistic),and decided to use a 50% efficient lead-acid battery because it is “cheaper”, you would need to purchase twice as many solar panels.
The lead-acid batteries waste 50% of the energy produced by the solar panels, so if you purchased your solar setup with the hope of getting 1,000 watts from it, you would only get 500 watts, so this is why you would need to buy twice as many panels.
Lead-acid batteries are 50% to 80% efficient, and lithium-ion batteries are 80% to 99% efficient.
So, by doing this, you would actually incur a huge up front cost, which is the cost of the extra panels.
Visit this section to learn more about the different types of batteries and their efficiency.
Tip: Right click the links that I tell you to visit and click open in new tab so that you won’t lose this page. You will need to return to it.
Can Solar Panels Fully Power My House?
Yes, they can. Any type of generator can be used to power your house completely, but solar panels are costly, so people usually buy them to supply only a portion of their electricity, or to partially offset electricity consumption.
How Do I Store Solar Energy Or Back Up My Solar Panels?
Electricity generated by solar panels at home can be stored or supplemented using a variety of methods, some common methods include:
- Deep-cycle Lead-Acid Batteries.
- Natural Gas/Propane (LPG) Fueled Generator.
- A combination of the above.
One can either use a large bank of batteries which are kept charged by the solar panels during the day to supply the house with electricity all day, so the solar panels would not directly power the house.
One can also use a smaller and much cheaper bank of batteries which would be charged by the solar panels during the day, and the batteries would supply the house with electricity all day, but, the natural gas or LPG powered generator would backup the solar panels and turn on to help charge the batteries if they are not charged enough (for instance, if it is cloudy for a very long time or at night).
It is possible to use grid electricity (power from the utility company) to help the solar panels to charge a small bank of batteries during the day if it is cloudy, and at night, your electricity could come directly from the utility company when electricity rates are cheaper. A DC (direct current) battery charger is required for this.
Converting Battery Power To 120 Volts AC for Appliances
If you want to use batteries to supply electricity to appliances, you cannot directly do this, you have to purchase an inverter, which is a device that converts 12 or 24 volts DC to 120 Volts AC which appliances use. You would then plug the appliances into the inverter.
Net Metering (Connecting solar panels to the electricity grid)
There is an alternative to storing energy produced my solar panels, which does not involve directly powering the household appliances. You can contact your power company and ask them for more information about net metering and their policies. You would purchase a grid-tie inverter which the solar panels would supply DC (direct current) electricity to, and the inverter would convert that DC current into AC current and supply it to the electricity grid through a power meter.
In this case, the solar panels would be used to offset your power consumption by turning your power consumption meter backwards. When it is turned backwards, you are charged less for electricity.
For example. If you consumed 600 kWh (kilowatt-hours) after a month, and the solar panels generated 200 kWh during that month, then they turn the meter back from 600 kWh to 400 kWh. Depending on the power company, you may or may not be paid a fair rate for the electricity generated by your solar panels, this is another reason why you need to contact them and learn more about their policies.
Solar Panel and Solar Cell Efficiency
Difference Between Total Area Efficiency and Single Cell Efficiency
Total Area Efficiency is defined as the performance of an entire (normal) solar panel that consists of multiple solar cells and single cell efficiency is the performance of a single solar cell without a protective panel. Solar panels reflect some light away from solar cells, and they can even trap some heat, which worsens solar cell efficiency.
Another reason why an entire solar panel is not as efficient as a single solar cell is because of electrical resistance encountered when electricity is trying to pass through the cells sequentially.
Total area efficiency is the most realistic efficiency rating.
How to build your own solar panels
Controllability and Electricity Demand
Solar panels are not controllable, but, they do generate more electricity during times of increased solar radiation intensity which is good because electricity demand also increases at that time.
Factors Affecting Cost
The cost of a solar power plant or a residential setup is affected by a variety of factors, some of which include:
Importance of Solar Panel Efficiency
The lower the efficiency of a solar panel, the less electricity it will generate per square meter. Therefore, this means that less efficient solar panels are larger, per watt, than higher efficiency panels.
If a one square meter solar panel is 100% efficient, then it would have a peak power output of 1,000 watts. If it is 50% efficient, then the peak power output is 500 watts. Since the second panel is 50% efficient, it generates half as much electricity as the panel which is 100% efficient.
If you wanted to use panels which are 50% efficient to generate 2000 watts of electricity, then you would need 4 square metres of them, but they would only generate 2000 watts when it is sunny. Power output decreases with solar radiation.
There is the possibility that contractors may charge you more money to install larger solar panels, since they are more difficult to install, and take longer to install as well, in such cases, it would cost more to install lower efficiency panels, because they are larger. Please weigh the total cost of buying and installing low efficiency panels with the cost of high efficiency panels to determine which suits you best. Get a quote from contractor organizations.
Other Financial Information
Cost of Solar Power
In order to understand the following, you need to read this.
- The cost of photovoltaic solar electricity from a power plant on this page needs to be updated. I must add, however that there is no single cost of solar electricity because the amount of solar radiation varies significantly with location. More radiation normally translates to a lower cost per kWh.
- The cost of solar thermal (steam) electricity is coming soon.
Cost of solar power in comparison to conventional sources of electricity: Solar electricity from solar power plants (not rooftop solar setups) is more expensive than electricity from coal power plants at the moment, but, the future is what is to come, therefore, it is important to consider the price trend that both sources of electricity have been following most consistently.
The trend is that the cost of coal goes up, and the cost of solar goes down.
The extent to which the cost of coal inflates is also very important, and is more than significant enough to justify extensive R&D (Research and Development) of alternative sources of energy. The cost of coal electricity will inevitably exceed the cost of solar electricity due to the laws of demand and supply as well as dwindling coal reserves, because coal is not renewable.
Residential solar setups are cheaper than utility supplied solar electricity for multiple reasons even though power plants can purchase solar panels at a much lower price than most consumers due to quantity discounts), some of which include:
- No step-up and step-down transformers or transmission equipment has to be purchased by the resident.
- No wages nor salaries to pay.
How much do solar panels cost?: This is dependent on your power consumption. Solar panels themselves cost $2.50 to $5.50 USD per watt (so a 1000 watt panel costs $3,500 to $5,500 USD. You have to factor in both the dollars and cents/kWh. Do not practice approximation when comparing solar panel prices. A price difference of $0.50 per watt for a 1,000 watt panel is $500.
Please read the “Importance of Solar Panel Efficiency” section before continuing.
To determine the cost per watt of a solar panel using the price tag: price tag divided by wattage.
How much does it cost to install solar panels?: This varies, but it is common for solar setups to cost $7 to $9 per watt. You would then multiply that by the desired panel wattage, which is also difficult to determine, scroll up to learn more about that.
Residential Cost Per kWh (April 2011)
Read this first, then the following section for more details.
No Government Rebates.
Year: 365 Days.
Hours per year if half of each day was completely dark (during the day of course) with absolutely no sunlight like night time (very conservative assumption): 2,190 hours. This would mean that during the day there would only be 6 hours of daylight instead of 11 to 13.
Cost of solar panel: $3 per watt of electricity generating capacity. The price of it would be $3,000 excluding installation because $3 per watt * 1,000 watts = $3,000.
Wattage of Entire Solar Setup: 1,000 watts.
Such a solar setup could generate 2,190 kWh of electricity per year (1,000 watts is 1,000 Wh for every sunny hour). Multiply that by the 30 year lifespan of the panels and the result is 65,700 kWh or 65.7 MWh.
To determine the cost per kWh of electricity generated by the panels over the 30 year period, divide the cost of the panels by the amount of electricity that they would generate after 30 years. So divide $3,000 by 65,700 kWh and the result is $0.045/kWh or 4.5 cents per kWh. Remember that is unrealistic because the amount of sunlight is underestimated.
Solar panels still generate electricity when it is cloudy but it can be used as an example to help you to understand what you need to take into consideration to calculate the cost. My power consumption page will explain how I calculated what I did above.
The average number of hours of sunshine per year for your geographic location can help you to make your calculations. Remember that the average number of hours of sunshine does not include cloudy daytime hours in this example.
Full Cost Including Installation, No Rebates and Everything Else
Assuming the same weather that I described above, and using the same calculation method:
$7 per watt is a common cost of a grid-tie (connected to electricity grid to turn meter backwards without batteries) solar setup in the United States. $7 per watt total for a 1,000 watt solar panel array is a total cost of $7,000. Therefore, the unsubsidized cost per kWh is 10.6 cents or $0.106 (this is equivalent to 6.6 pence, ₤0.066, which is 7.52 eurocents or €0.0752/kWh). If it was a 3 kW system that you wanted, the cost per kWh would still be 10.6 cents.
This is comparable to the cheapest conventional sources of electricity in the U.S such as coal. People pay $0.09 to $0.11/kWh on average for electricity in the United States for example [source], and much more in some other locations, especially those that utilize gasoline and diesel generators.
This cost includes everything.
Cost If Government Paid 30% of It
$4,900 or $4.90 per watt which is $0.074/kWh or 7.4 cents/kWh.
Solar thermal power plants convert the thermal energy radiated by the sun into electricity or use it to provide heat using the following methods:
- Steam: The heat provided by the sun’s rays can be used to heat a boiler, which produces steam by boiling a fluid such as water or mineral oil (at a temperature of 400 °C), and the steam enters the steam admission section, and is passed over steam turbine blades by a high pressure nozzle, causing them to turn. They then turn an alternator which converts mechanical energy into electrical energy. Concentrated sunlight may be used as a heat source for this type of generator by using motorized mirrors (heliostats) to focus a sunlight onto the boiler.
- Stirling: A stirling engine is a hot air engine which utilizes a temperature difference between both sides (cylinders) to convert heat energy into mechanical energy, which is then converted into electrical energy by an alternator. Concentrated sunlight may be used as a heat source for this type of generator by using motorized mirrors (heliostats) to focus a sunlight onto the stirling engine.
- Thermoelectric: A thermoelectric device is a very compact, solid-state (non-mechanical), flat device which can generate electricity when heat is applied to one side of it. As heat flows from that side to the other side, where heat is dissipated with a radiator or a large heat sink, some of the heat is converted into electricity.
Concentrated sunlight may be used as a heat source for this type of generator by using motorized mirrors (heliostats) to focus a sunlight onto the hot side of the thermoelectric module. The greater the temperature difference between the sides of the modules, the greater the power output.
Applications of Solar Power
Refrigeration and Air Conditioning: Heat from the sun’s rays can be used to power heat powered refrigerators, such as absorption refrigerators. Photovoltaic panels (commonly known as solar panels) can be used to power the common type of air conditioner, which uses the Vapour Compression Cycle to cool.
Water Heating: Solar water heaters normally heat water by using dull black copper tubing to absorb sunlight which then heats water as it passes through the tubing. Solar panels can also be used to generate electricity to power conventional electric water heaters.
Portable Electronics: Portable electronics such as cellphones and notebook computers are battery powered, and it is common for their batteries to die at the worst times, these devices can be manufactured with solar cells printed on them to keep their batteries charged.
Combined Heat and Power (CHP)