I live in Kansas. When I needed a new roof on my house in 2009, I researched putting roofing in that could produce electricity from photovoltaic solar tiles. Part of my drive to put solar panels on my house was sparked by worry about my carbon footprint, along with climate change. Another part was learning about the technology available that is similar to what I use at work. I am a professor of physics, and my research area is particle physics. We use detectors made of silicon to track where particles go after they collide. These silicon detectors use the same principles as solar photovoltaic panels. For the silicon sensors in particle physics detectors, you need to have very pure silicon to observe very small electronic signals. The solar panel photovoltaic panels can be produced much more cheaply than the solar sensors for particle physics detectors, but this is still the limiting factor in the price of solar panels. The prices I found for photovoltaic roof tiles were way over the top, so instead, I looked into installing panels on top of the roof.
It must be noted that before you invest in solar energy, you should fully exploit the low cost and most effective method of reducing your carbon footprint — this is conservation. I had already made sure my house had good insulation, bought an energy-efficient air conditioner/furnace unit, used compact fluorescent lights (now you should use LEDs), and had installed an on-demand water heater that paid itself off in energy costs in three years. So my daily average electricity use was less than 20 kilowatt hours for my three bedroom house.
It is instructive for you to track your use to see where it is. A lot of my electricity use now includes my refrigerator. I stopped using an electric clothes dryer, except on rare occasions, as that really uses a lot of electricity.
With a yearly average of five sunlight hours per day on my south-facing garage roof, I decided to shoot for a 1.75 kilowatt capacity of solar panels. This would then provide 1.75kW*5 hours, which equals 8.75 kilowatt hours per day of electricity, or almost half of my use. At the time, the price I paid for the full installation after federal tax incentives (there are no Kansas tax incentives) was six dollars per installed watt. Now, for an installation of this size, you would pay about four dollars per installed watt. For larger installations, the price has come down to less than three dollars per installed watt.
Part of the cost was for the inverter. This translates the DC voltage to the AC voltage that your house, and the rest of the electrical grid, uses. I could have built one of these on my own for less than 100 dollars to do the job, but because the licensing costs, this was $1,500 instead. I decided to put my electricity directly on the grid, and not have a battery backup (this would have cost another one to $2,000). Then the fun began.
I didn’t realize at the time that I would be the first person to draw up an agreement with my electric company to “sell” back my electricity to them. I had to have the city come and figure out what they needed, in conference with engineers from the electric company. Three months later, I finally was up and running. At the time, Kansas didn’t have net metering, so I only received about two cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity I sold back compared to the about 11 cents per hour I paid to receive electricity. Now I get paid the same amount I pay. I’m extremely happy with my solar panels.
While for me, the time for payback is long, that isn’t the case for someone installing now. Last year, I made more electricity than I bought for six months, and only paid the mandatory nine-dollars-per-month fee to the electric company. I hope that more people will consider making their own solar energy.
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