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Solar Photovoltaic Panels


Technology Snapshot & Benefits:

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels make use of photovoltaic technology to convert sunlight into usable electrical energy.  Each panel is made of a collection of photovoltaic cells that each produce between 1 and 2 watts of energy.  A typical cell consists of a glass layer on top of an antireflective surface (to prevent the sunlight from reflecting back into the atmosphere) and two semiconductor layers (typically made of silicon) surrounded by metallic grids or electrical contacts.  When the sun's light hits the semiconductor layers of the panel, it knocks electrons loose.  Because of the electrical field on the panel, these free electrons are moved to the top of the grid where the electrical contacts gather them into a direct current.  With the use of an attached inverter, the direct current is converted into alternating current (the form of energy used in electrical outlets).  PV systems are used for "off-the-grid" applications (homes, cabins, and water pumping on farms) as well as federal government applications (traffic warning lights and emergency call boxes near highways).


Solar panels serve an important function by creating an alternative source of electricity and reducing dependence on coal.  Because they generate electricity without any moving parts, require little maintenance, and emit no harmful gases or chemicals, they are becoming one of the best ways to reduce the carbon footprint and help the environment.  Also, the more energy-efficient your home is, the fewer panels are needed to power it.  Consider implementing smaller green renovations (CFLs, better insulation, energy-efficient appliances and windows, etc.) before installing solar panels.  This will minimize your upfront costs by reducing the number of panels you need as well as decreasing your monthly energy expenses.


Estimated Cost Savings:

While solar systems are still relatively expensive, the price has come down significantly since they were first produced.  Currently, a typical solar system can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $100,000 depending on how much energy you wish to produce and how large of a space you are powering.  Starter kits, which usually consist of one panel, a battery, an inverter, and the necessary cables, start as low as $500-$1,000, but only generate a limited amount of energy.  Individual solar panels cost anywhere from $50 to $1000 depending on how much energy they produce and the material they are composed of.  The lower-range models are typically used for recharging electronics batteries (phones, iPods, etc.), but will not produce nearly enough energy to power a house.  In addition to the panel itself, initial expenses include balance-of-system costs such as batteries, charge controllers, inverters, support structures, sensors, installation, and insurance fees.  Solar energy currently costs between $3 and $4 per watt (15-25 cents per kWh), creating a 10-20 year return on investment. 


Solar panels are ideal for remote locations where it is more expensive to connect to the power grid as the monthly monetary savings will be more dramatic. For a truly "off the grid" installation, the avoided cost of bringing in power lines from the utility offsets some or all of the PV installation cost. An off the grid installation uses batteries to store electricity for use at night and whenever sunlight cannot provide enough for the home.


Check for financial incentives offered in your state by consulting the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy.



Because solar panels need sunlight to function properly, their efficiency depends on weather conditions, obstructions, and their position and angle relative to the sun.  To maximize efficiency, remove any branches, trees, or other obstructions that shade the panels.  If possible, place the panels on a south-facing roof at the recommended angle for your latitude. Dynamic mounts are available that alter the angle of the panels throughout the day to follow the sun, allowing for the greatest amount of direct light possible.


Weather conditions may also affect the efficiency of your solar system.  However, even on cloudy days, there is still enough indirect light to generate limited amounts of power.  The panels will continue to generate energy throughout the winter as they rely on light not heat.  However, because the days are shorter during wintertime, they will generate proportionally less energy due to a shortened exposure to sunlight. 


Water damage is one of the biggest problems regarding solar panels as it causes the panels to decrease in efficiency or completely malfunction.  To avoid this problem, do not mount your panels horizontally as this will cause water to collect and may cause serious damage.  Also, make sure there is a sufficient air gap between the panels to allow for drainage and ventilation. 


It is possible to connect your solar system to a battery to ensure your home is powered through the night and any power outages.  Batteries can store the extra electricity generated throughout the day and keep it on reserve for later use.


Installation (Getting It Done):

Some solar panels can be installed yourself, but many manufacturers suggest professional assistance to ensure it is placed in the best possible location.  When installing, remember that solar panels use light to produce energy, so it is important to place them in a location that receives direct sunlight throughout the day.  A south-facing roof is usually the best option, but an east-west roof can work as well.  If you have a large ground area without obstruction, a ground-mounted system may work for you.  Be sure to remove and obstructions when installing to ensure your solar panels are able to work at their maximum capacity. 

Remember that a 1 kW solar panel requires between 80 and 360 sq. ft. of space to install and a typical home system requires between 50 and 1000 sq. ft.

There are a few types of mounts for solar panels including pole mounts, roof/ground mounts, and flush mounts.  These make it possible to mount your system on a pole or roof, as a free-standing system, or even on the top of an RV.  Dynamic mounts can also help provide maximum energy capture by following the position of the sun throughout the day.


If you are installing solar panels on an older roof, it is recommended that you replace your shingles before installation to help provide better support for the mounting equipment.

Videos On This Topic:

From EcoBroker International:

From Other Sources:

Solar Economics (1:17) - Sierra Club Green Homes - If you can't afford solar technology at this point, consider looking towards simpler solutions to help reduce energy use.  In this short video, Chris Prelitz of gives a simple, inexpensive solution that saves the same amount of energy as one solar panel.

Solar Basics for Your Home (1:05) - Rethink Solar Power - Solar panels work through the use of photovoltaic energy.  Find out how this technology works and what it can mean for your energy bills in this short video.

Solar Power (2:39) - National Geographic Green Homes - The sun is the number one source of energy on our planet.  Harnessing its energy for home use is a great way to save money and reduce environmental impact. In this video from National Geographic, find out more about solar technology and what it means to install it in your home.

Explanation of Solar Cells (1:15) - U.S. Department of Energy - Solar electricity centers around solar cell technology.  To understand more about what that means and how it works, watch this short video from the U.S. Department of Energy on solar cells.

More Information On This Topic:

U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy-Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Photovoltaics

U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy-Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Photovoltaic Basics

Energy and Environmental Building Association: Photovoltaics

EPA - Solar Panel Information


Solar Panel Info - About Solar Panels


U.S. Department of Energy - Putting Solar Panels on Your Roof


Solar Panel Incentives By State


How Solar Cells Work



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