Going Solar: look before you leap (then leap!)

According to the 9th United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2015” report, this year saw the rate of investment in renewables increase by 17% worldwide, to USD$270 billion. Most of this investment has been in solar and wind energy. As a result, the cost of solar energy has become cheaper and easier to implement by businesses and individuals alike.

What we are witnessing now, in the second decade of the second millennium, is a veritable global revolution in the development and distribution of solar energy technologies.

So why is solar becoming more affordable for the average homeowner and even for low-income households? And most important, how can you benefit from the development of solar energy technologies, even if you still can't afford to install solar panels on your home (or even if you're not a homeowner)?

While the boom in solar in recent years is nothing short of astonishing, given the apparently lackluster support it received in the first decade of the 2000s, this is not the first time we have seen a surge of interest in solar energy. In fact, solar has a long history of use.

The past century has seen a few milestones in the implementation of solar technologies for industrial and individual applications in the United States, beginning with the development of silicon PV (photovoltaic) cells by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson at Bell Labs in 1954. Two decades later, the oil embargo of the 1970s led to renewed interest in alternative energy sources, including solar. The price of solar cells dropped dramatically, from $100 per watt to $20 per watt. Most of us who lived through those decades can remember solar PV panels being installed on the roof of the White House during the Carter Administration (and later removed under the succeeding Reagan Administration, though Reagan’s successor, Bush, would later give a big push to research on renewables by founding the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Over the course of the past 75 years, countries in Western Europe and Asia have taken major steps to cultivate solar energy technologies. In the 1960s, France and Japan developed large-scale solar technologies for industrial applications. By the 1980s, labs in Australia, Germany, and South Wales made significant strides in advancing solar technologies for smaller-scale use. In the 1990s, more countries hopped on the bandwagon of solar, but it has only been within the last 15 years that the development of solar energies can be called a breakthrough on a global scale. The exceptions to this development, ironically, are the regions that have the best access to solar energy: Africa and the MENA. Most countries in these regions don’t seem to be taking advantage of solar at all, with the exception of a large-scale project in the United Arab Emirates and smaller projects in Algeria, Morocco, Israel, and Jordan that seem promising in the long term.

China, of course, has become the world’s leading manufacturer and distributor of solar panels and related equipment, with the US a close second. The downside of China’s continued dominance in this field is being felt mostly by industry competitors and their employees. As cheap Chinese solar panels flooded the markets (possibly enabled by advantageous subsidies from the Chinese government), other companies around the world struggled to compete, with many of the smaller outfits forced to shut down.

For the average consumer, though, it has been advantageous. When coupled with financial incentives from federal, state, and local governments, solar panels are more affordable than ever for the average homeowner.

If you are interested making the switch, there are some things you can do to take advantage of the boom in solar energy, but there are also some things you should keep in mind:

First, there are major differences in cost and installation between whole-system solar and solar that is used primarily for heating hot water. Basically, whole-system solar replaces all of a home’s energy: sir conditioning and heating, lighting, fans, appliances, and other electronics. These systems require you to have a good grasp of how much energy you consume so that you can purchase enough to meet the demands of your entire household. Solar domestic hot water systems are used only for heating water, but unlike whole-house systems, are not dependent on the weather for their efficiency.

While it is possible to self-install solar panels and related equipment for your whole house or hot water heating needs, there is a big learning curve to do so. Consumers will have to weigh the cost of this effort as well as the cost of hiring a technician to fix any problems they may inadvertently cause because of a lack of experience and/or technical expertise.

 

One other thing to keep in mind is that there are big disparities between off-grid solar systems and grid-connected systems. Again, off-grid systems require a considerable amount of planning, can be affected by the weather, and require efficient capacity for storage of excess energy and its later distribution through the home. Short term storage for peak power loads can work for anywhere from a few hours to a day. For longer storage or areas where access to solar energy is minimal, a Seasonal Thermal Energy Storage System (STES) can be used. STES is one solution being used in Scandanavian countries like Denmark. These technologies use a variety of underground storage (e.g. pits) and mechanisms for distribution of the stored energy. Alternative options include a home battery backup system. Tesla motors began selling one such battery (the “Tesla Powerwall”) that is said to be highly efficient.

While the cost of panels, as mentioned earlier in this post, has come down considerably, their efficiency is something that should not be overlooked. Some of the Chinese manufactured panels are priced under market value, and one reason may be that such panels are not very efficient at capturing solar energy. This is one area that may, in the long run, prove advantageous for non-Chinese manufacturers that have survived the market glut. Notably, some of these manufacturers have slowed production, focusing instead on improving the efficiency of their panels.

Finally, several manufacturers of solar panels, installation companies and distributors offer loans and other financial incentives to homeowners to make the switch to solar. Buyers should be aware that some of the advertisements for free or low-cost solar installation may not be completely free.

Some questions you should consider before signing any contract for solar panel installation (even if it is free or low-cost) include the following:

  1. Is the use of the phrase “free solar panels” really pointing to a solar lease or solar purchase power agreement (PPA)? In either case, the company installs the panels for no up-front charge, but later charges you for the electricity the panels produce. Comparison shop to get the best deal, and consider buying the panels outright or financing them with a zero-down, low-interest loan.
  2. How soon are you planning to move? It may not make sense to purchase solar panels if you are planning to move within the next 10 years, and a new buyer may not want to be locked into a contract that remains tied to the property even if it has been sold.
  3. If you use a grid-connected system and are not home during the daytime, when your system generates the most solar energy, you may find yourself using energy from the grid more often than you’d like, which may translate into a higher-than-expected energy cost. In this case you may try timing your large electric appliances (like washing machines and dishwashers) to run during the daytime.
  4. If you are planning to purchase a system that is tied into a grid, you may be able to recoup some of your financial outlay by reselling energy to the utility company. If you are in the UK, however, keep in mind that the government may slash your “feed-in tariff” at certain times of the year. The “feed-in tariff” is the payment you receive for all the solar energy your system generates (which is generally paid via an energy supplier), whether or not you actually use it. The current buzz is that the new feed-in rates in the UK will be cut by as much as 87%, severely hampering the development of UK solar industries and discouraging many homeowners from making the switch.

What if you are not a homeowner or are wary of purchasing solar panels at this point in time? You can still take advantage of the solar boom in several ways. For example, you can try using solar-powered outlets to power your devices, walkway lights, or a lantern (especially useful for night walkers or kayakers). These devices are easily and cheaply obtained in your local home improvement stores, camping or outdoor activities store, or online.

If you are in the job market, consider working within the solar industry. It is a rapidly growing industry in the US and parts of Europe. Solar job boards and links to training events are easily obtained online. Find out more through the websites of organizations like the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in the US, sign up for job alerts at RenewableEnergyJobs.com/UK, Career Jet in Canada, or get in the know about opportunities opening up in the EU by attending and networking at the Intersolar Europe Conference and Exhibition, to be held from June 21-26, 2016. In the Middle East, the newly launched Green Jobs Arabia is the first green jobs website in the region. Still in its infancy, it will contain the region’s largest database of employment opportunities in the environmental industry, including solar.

Finally, according to Greentech Media, there are all kinds of investment opportunities in renewables currently available, many of which are considered extremely safe for long-term and short-term investors alike.

Let us know what you think of the current boom in renewables, particularly solar energy. We’d love to hear more about opportunities that are opening up!